Plain crazy

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Related tags: Potato chip, Potato

Boring old 'ready salted' still dominates savoury snack sales, but spicy flavours are starting to heat up, as Mick Whitworth reports

When country folk head off into the December chill for a day's huntin' they like to fortify themselves against the cold with a mug of steaming Bullshot.

This sturdy blend of oxtail consommé and vodka is not often served in City cocktail bars. But it's jolly popular in rural parts -- like south Devon, for instance, where artisan snack maker Burts has just added a Bullshot variety to its modest but quirky selection of hand-fried potato chips. The all-natural ingredients include spices, natural flavours and roast beef powder but, oddly enough, no vodka.

Although a 'hand-made' chip producer, frying in small batches, Burts shows a flair for the unconventional. Previous launches include the likes of Bloody Mary! chips, in which Tabasco and Worcester sauce added punch to a rounded tomato flavour, and Firecracker Lobster, which boasted a seasoning based on Norway lobster and Tientsin chillies from northern China.

The latest, solidly British, Bullshot variety is, according to Burts' co-founder Jonty White, "a bit of fun", and joins a current stock list that includes Hot Chilli Lemon as well as Sea Salt & Sherry Vinegar varieties. But White is under no illusions about which of the Kingsbridge-based company's lines is likely to be around the longest. "Our core audience have an appreciation of good food, and they go for Lightly Sea Salted," he says. "It's a natural product, the sea salt brings out the flavour of the potato -- and it's half of our production."

That's a slightly depressing thought in a market sector where product development -- and particularly flavour development -- has gone crazy over the past two or three years. But the continuing popularity of good old ready salted is backed up by market data. According to IRI (52 weeks ending August 9 2004) 'plain' products accounted for 31.4% of the salty snacks sales in all outlets, followed by cheese at 22.9%, salt and vinegar at 9.1% and beefy at 7.4%. Prawn, bacon, chicken, sour cream, and onion (without the cheese) each took less than 3% of the market.

So where does that leave all those exotic flavours that the snack makers have been churning out over the past few years, like Salsa with Mesquite (Kettle Chips), Cantonese Black Bean and Spring Onion (Walkers) or even Patak's Bombay Crackers (Red Mill)?

The answer is that when you lump them all together they're doing pretty well. According to Nicky Seal, trade marketing manager for Pepsico-owned snacks behemoth Walkers, exposure to foreign foods through travel and dining out has made consumers more adventurous in their snacking as well as in their cooking. "The past year has seen phenomenal growth for the 'hot and spicy' flavour segment," says Seal. These flavours are growing faster than any other group, and now have a 5.2% share of the market.

Not huge, but given the overall value of savoury snacks in the UK, that adds up to £81m on IRI's figures. So, as Seal says, new spicy varieties are bringing "both scale and growth" to the salty snack market.

Another highly visible change on the snacks fixture is the rise of the sharing-size pack, and Seal says this is another area where new flavours have proved hugely successful for Walkers' sub-brand Sensations. Key words in this segment are 'premium', 'authentic' and 'grown up'.

"It's increasingly common to see snacks that are positioned on a more premium platform by virtue of the ingredients they use," says researcher Mintel in its most recent category review. "Potato crisps, for example, are more likely to be flavoured with 'sea salt and cracked black pepper' rather than just salt and pepper."

According to Walkers' Seal, flavour innovation is a proven driver of growth in snacks, creating opportunities both to expand the consumer base and to increase distribution. And the level of experimentation in savoury snacks must now be higher than in any other food category -- thanks, in part, to the relatively low cost of switching to a new seasoning.

Led by Walkers, the whole sector -- from small-batch producer to household name -- has now latched on to 'limited editions': flavours that either last a few months and then disappear forever or return to the shelves on a seasonal basis.

September saw United Biscuits roll out a Honey Roast Ham and Mustard limited edition of its McCoy's potato crisp -- the best-selling ridge-cut crisp -- in a co-branding exercise with Unilever Bestfoods' Colman's mustard brand (Food Manufacture October 2004, p15). This followed a limited edition John Smith's Steak & Ale variant of McCoy's, in conjunction with Scottish Courage, which returned for a second run after an initial 12-week appearance in May last year.

Not to be outdone, Walkers has just reintroduced its Turkey and Paxo limited edition crisps together with a new Christmas Pan-Fried Sausage and Sage flavour. In 2002, Walkers' series of Great British Flavours grew the brand's sales by 8% in impulse outlets, and last year's Great British Takeaways, which included flavours such as Chicken Tikka Masala, increased sales by 9%.

Of course, it does help that Walkers, as the UK's biggest food brand, can afford to chuck money at promoting its range. Which also explains why its new product development (NPD) is five times more successful than any other firms.

The sheer pace of snack product development means most 'new' products are actually range extensions based on flavour tweaks and repackaging. There are honourable exceptions, of course. Red Mill broke new ground this autumn with its range of Patak's-branded chapatti-style chips, made with Indian chapatti flour and flavoured with 'authentic' herbs and spices. And Sharwoods, the market leader in ethnic foods overall, has also hinted it might edge into the snacks market.

Rice has proved a valuable ingredient, especially in combination with corn, as demonstrated by near-vertical take-off of Quaker's Snack-a-Jacks -- currently worth £50m-plus in the UK and being rolled out across Europe. A scaled-down Mini Bites version of this 10% fat product has just been launched in impulse and sharing packs. Like Jacob's Thai Bites, another rice-based success story, Snack-a-Jacks straddles the snack, crispbread, rice cake, and savoury biscuit sectors.

But it was notable that Jacob's brought out a rice-and-potato version of Thai Bites earlier this year -- making them more interesting to men who might see rice as a bit wussy.

The fact is, potato, and to a lesser extent maize, continue to dominate UK snack fixtures. But interest is also steadily growing on chips based on other vegetables, such as parsnip and beetroot.

This niche was pioneered in the 1990s by Better Tasting Snacks foods (BTSF), as contract manufacturer of the Stamp Collection vegetable chips marketed by Buxton Foods. And others have followed its lead. They include craft producers such as Tyrrells Potato Chips and Burts Chips as well as the biggest of the premium producers, Kettle Chips, which now lists sweet potato (yam) and golden parsnip in its range alongside chips made with two specialist potato varieties: Jersey Royals and Red Duke of York.

There are signs that vegetable crisps are edging closer to the mainstream with the appearance of more supermarket own-label versions. For example, Sainsbury's Taste the Difference range now includes an Exotic Vegetable pack containing plantain, eddoes, yam and butternut squash.

Tyrrells is selling about £2.5m-worth of parsnip chips a year, and the variety is the farm-based snack maker's biggest export product. The company is also producing carrot, beetroot and celeriac chips, and founder Will Chase says "you've just got to keep reinventing yourself". But he tries to base the bulk of production around vegetables he has grown on his Herefordshire farm. And raw materials supply is certainly a major obstacle to the mainstreaming of vegetable chips -- or at least, the more exotic varieties.

Burts, for example, treats its parsnip chips as seasonal, because it refuses to import root vegetables. "Other people, to have 12 months supply, get them from Portugal," says Burts' Jonty White, "and we don't believe in that. We've got quite a strong ethical stance on 'food miles'. So for us, supply is the big one -- and always will be."

At Better Tasting Snack Foods, the ethics of importing may not be an issue -- the business depends on vegetable crisps for 70% of sales -- but sourcing has certainly become a key function. The Wiltshire farmer who produces most of BTSF's home-grown raw material now manages imports from countries including Spain, Portugal and Brazil on its behalf. The list has lengthened as BTSF's range has broadened to include exotics such as yams and butternut squash.

But with all vegetables, including parsnips, quality parameters such as sugar content are critical -- and can vary enormously throughout the year. "We're looking for a combination of size, flavour, colour and the ability to crisp," says BTSF technical manager Andy Baldwin. "So at different times we need to pull stocks in from different countries. We spent years going through varieties, trying to find the ones that will crisp. That knowledge was very well established in potatoes, but not in other vegetables."

It's probably just as well, then, that deep-fried slices of plantain and yam remain an acquired taste.FM

Related topics: NPD

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