In the retail world, the big four are vying for their share of the Polish pound - or zloty - having spied the irresistible opportunity created by the 1.1M Poles living and working in the UK.
Tesco started selling Polish food in 10 stores last September, and demand was so high that in July the retailer doubled its range to include 150 lines and rolled it out into 370 stories. In August, Asda introduced 350 Polish lines into 85 stores. Sainsbury now stocks 36 ambient lines, from stuffed cabbage and hunters' stew zurek soup to cassis sauce, chocolate covered marshmallows and carrot-based juices. Morrison is also keen to establish itself as one of the UK's largest retailers of Polish fare, with a range now boasting 55 products available in 283 stores.
Heading for pole position
The category is too new and too niche to be the subject of any concrete market data or forecasts, but the eagerness with which the supermarkets have jumped on to the Polish bandwagon speaks volumes about its potential.
"If you look at what the retailers are saying and doing, Polish food is clearly a fast growing, if small, market," says Chris Brockman, research and consultancy manager with government-owned market development consultancy Food from Britain (FFB).
It might be one of the fastest growing ethnic food categories at the moment, but how much growth potential does it hold for the future? Will demand dry up when Polish workers return to their homeland, or will Polish foods become irreversibly engrained in British food culture?
When Polish foods first appeared on UK supermarket shelves, they were mainly intended to attract homesick Poles, but it seems British consumers, who are increasingly eager to experiment with foods from different cultures, present a lucrative target market.
Rebecca Martyn, ethnic buyer at Sainsbury, says: "The increase in demand is not solely from the Polish community, Britain as a nation is remarkably keen to try something new whether it be Thai curry or Mexican fajita."
It's a view that is echoed by Jon Corderoy, trading manager with Musgrave Retail Partners GB, who says: "Eastern European products have a fairly universal appeal, they're not just being bought by Eastern Europeans. The juices, biscuits and pickles we have in our ranges are the most popular products. We have a multi-vitamin drink from Polish brand Tymbark that sells particularly well, mainly because it is seen as a good value alternative to some of the other options available in Great Britain."
With a growing consumer base that includes Eastern Europeans and Britons, retailers are on to a winner. It's also a situation that works to the benefit of Polish companies exporting authentic Silesian sausage, hunting-style goulash and pickled cabbage. But is there an opportunity for British food producers to get in on the act?
Multi-national manufacturers that already have regional lines know what appeals to Poles, because they have products on-shelf in Poland's retail outlets, so it's a no-brainer.
Heinz, for example, has launched its Polish brand Pudliszki in the UK. The range, which leads the market for ready meals in Poland, includes traditional dishes like Pork and Beef Goulash, Beef Tripe in Broth and Stuffed Cabbage in Tomato Sauce. Similarly, the Winiary range, which generates £100M in sales a year in its home country for brand owner Nestlé, is on supermarket shelves in the UK now.
For UK food manufacturers, the logical move would be to develop Polish-influenced foods to tempt adventurous Brits, but this represents much more of a gamble.
As yet, the only sector of the British food industry to embrace Polish new product development is the bakery industry, according to Krzysztof Kaminski, director, business-to-business and own-label, of Polish ingredient supplier Kamis.
"There are a number of British bakeries who have decided to include in their offer a range of Polish breads, cakes and bread rolls," he says. "There are also some butchers based in the UK preparing traditional Polish sausage such as kabanosy, krakowska sucha etc. However the British food market is still a relatively new field for Polish flavours."
He predicts that, with time, more UK manufacturers will expand their Polish offerings, which will create an opportunity for Polish food processors that are willing to coach UK companies in preparing traditional Polish dishes.
Besides seasonings, spices, mustards and other condiments, Kamis says it can offer British manufacturers extensive knowledge of Polish cuisine. "Kamis can supply private label products using its own recipes or prepare products according to the customer's recipe. The Kamis team can even work in-house supporting any food manufacturers who want to produce authentic Polish tastes, allowing producers to eliminate transport costs, which increase the prices of Polish products." The company believes that working closely with British food manufacturers is likely to be the solution for meeting the future market demand.
FFB's Brockman agrees that British manufactured Polish foods are yet to take off, but doesn't rule it out as a future possibility.
"I haven't seen any evidence of anyone making Polish influenced products in the UK," he says. "But if it continues to grow at the rate it is starting to now, you would expect a knock-on effect or influence on manufacturers within the UK.
"You have to bear in mind it's only three and a half years since Poland's EU accession. If you look at Indian foods, they took several decades to become mainstream and are still developing now."
A recent report commissioned by Leatherhead Food International (LFI) and FFB values retail sales of Indian foods at euro 915M - that's 38% of the euro 2.4bn UK ethnic foods market.
"It's reached a plateau in terms of growth and some elements are actually in decline," says Brockman. "Yet there are still only a few dishes the consumer knows. There is scope for authentic products from other regions of India to extend the category further."
The Authentic Food Company (TAFC) has recognised this gap in the market. Sanjay Sighat, senior development chef, says: "There are still a number of opportunities in the UK ethnic foods market, in particular in regional Indian cuisine and vegetarian dishes, which are almost untouched. Slow-cooked Indian cuisine such as Raan has not been explored at all. This is similar to old English-style cooking, eg a marinated roast leg of lamb slow-cooked in Indian spices so the flavours are infused, often served with yoghurt. This style of cooking opens up a number of opportunities by using different proteins such as mutton."
TAFC's Indian range includes dishes like Chicken Jalfrezi, Mushroom Dopiaza, Kashmiri Lamb and Vegetable & Paneer Tarkari. Besides Indian, the company produces oriental, Tex-Mex, Mediterranean and British cuisines, and has just launched a five-strong range of oriental dishes.
The second largest ethnic category, according to the LFI/FFB report, is Chinese food, worth euro 880M in retail sales. A TNS report in 2005 predicted that Mexican foods would usurp Chinese foods from their number two spot by 2007. Although this hasn't exactly materialised, Mexican foods are growing rapidly (Discovery Foods estimates annual growth at 12.2%).
James Bennett, head of marketing at Discovery, gives his explanation for this double digit growth. "Consumers are looking for healthier and tastier convenience meals. People are as busy as ever and don't want to spend too long preparing evening meals," he claims.
However, he believes that there is a shift away from ready meals to easily prepared meals. "Mexican fits the bill because it is based on healthy, fresh ingredients (chicken, peppers, onions, etc) cooked with flavoursome spices and store-cupboard tortillas and accompaniments."
Moving Mexican forward
Now that consumers are getting to grips with Mexican food, the challenge for players in the category, according to Brockman, is to move on from the basic products that kick-started the category a few years ago.
"It's one of those categories that is quite limited in its range at present, but it's still achieving strong growth, which indicates that, if manufacturers can extend their ranges, there's further growth to be had."
There's no disputing that fajitas are and will remain a staple; meal kits account for 42.1% of category sales and continue to grow fast. However, recent innovation from Discovery has gone some way to moving consumers of Mexican food out of their comfort zone of prescriptive Mexican dishes like fajitas and nachos.
Chipotle Paste, made from smoke-dried jalapeno peppers, is said to give Mexican dishes a 'lively, chilli flavour with a smoky, barbecued hint', while Nopalitos - sliced prickly pear - is touted as being 'perfect for jazzing up salads, cooling down spicy dishes and enlivening dinner party conversation'.
"It is believed to heighten sexual desire and, if you enjoy the odd glass or two of tequila or marguerite, it may even help relieve your hangover. The perfect dinner party guest all round really," says Bennett. FM