Sunny Queen lays down its future

IT'S a busy Tuesday morning in the Sunny Queen Farms factory on Brisbane's south with a new automated omelette production line going through its paces.

Batches of egg, herb, capsicum and cheese are squirted into round trays before going down a conveyor belt into an oven.

After cooking, the finished omelettes are delicately picked up by a robotic arm and folded before being packed and distributed to a range of customers that includes aged-care homes, cafes and hotels.

Sunny Queen Eggs managing director John O'Hara. Picture AAPImage/ David Clark
Sunny Queen Eggs managing director John O'Hara. Picture AAPImage/ David Clark

Founded as the Queensland Egg Board, Sunny Queen is celebrating its 50th year in 2019 and betting on a future that encompasses more than its traditional carton egg business.

In another part of the Carole Park factory, eggs are being poached in a special oven before being snap frozen while on other production lines French toast and fritters are being made. Approximately 200,000 eggs pass through the Sunny Queen factory each week.

Sunny Queen managing director John O'Hara says manufactured egg products are becoming a bigger part of the company's annual $350 million in sales. Demand is being driven by the increasing focus on food safety at hospitals and aged-care facilities.

"This part of the business makes up 15-20 per cent of the company's business and is growing at double digit rates," says O'Hara. "We want to get that to 30-35 per cent of turnover in the future. To pardon the pun, we took the attitude that we should not put all our eggs in one basket. When I joined the company in 2002, we were a business that just sold eggs."

Sunny Queen Eggs meal suggestions. Picture AAPImage/ David Clark
Sunny Queen Eggs meal suggestions. Picture AAPImage/ David Clark

He says the new custom-made robotic production line for omelettes was an example of the company's focus on innovation in food manufacturing.

"Like other businesses in the food business we value add but we do it with eggs," he says. "We had a look around the world and a lot of other countries were starting to value add to the humble egg with more 'ready to eat' options."

He said the folding of the omelettes used to be done by hand but workers had to be rotated regularly because of concerns about repetitive strain injuries. "Robotics have been around for a while but because eggs are so fragile it has been difficult to apply them to the production process."

O'Hara says the company's food manufacturing business began in humble surrounds in a small factory at Coolangatta in 2006. "It was a bit like the field of dreams," he says. "There was a lot of trial and error at first but we managed to pick up a few customers in the quick service restaurant sector before moving into aged-care and airlines."

Sunny Queen Eggs meal suggestions. Picture AAPImage/ David Clark
Sunny Queen Eggs meal suggestions. Picture AAPImage/ David Clark

In 2017, the company moved into a $40 million factory at Carole Park as it prepared to move into new markets. O'Hara eventually aims to get the range into supermarkets, targeting the breakfast food category that is currently dominated by cereals.

"We are targeting the healthy part of the meal in the $7.4 billion breakfast market," he says. "We are not in the supermarkets yet but we have a range that would be suitable. There are not many quick breakfast options out there that tick all the boxes for a grab and go meal."

He notes that eggs are becoming more popular as a source of protein because they represent good value in increasingly straitened economic times.

Following the deregulation of the egg market in the 1990s, the former egg marketing board became a farmer-owned company called Sunny Queen Farms.

Over the past quarter of a century smaller farmers sold their interests to the Hall and McLean families who now control the company that operates two large farms on the Darling Downs and is supplied by regional farms.

O'Hara says that one of the biggest changes in the industry has been demand for free range and organic eggs. Free range eggs now account for 40 per cent of the company's sales, from 20 per cent a few years ago. That demand, driven by consumer concerns about animal welfare, has meant a big investment by Sunny Queen Farms into larger free range sheds.