New product development (NPD) is important across the food industry, but when it comes to maintaining a buoyant market in sandwiches and other portable foods it's essential. "If consumers only see on the shelf what they can get at home then they'll get it at home. We need to keep innovating and offering them something different," says Tom Hollands, technical manager at Raynor Foods.
Of course, innovation doesn't necessarily mean starting from scratch every time. In the case of Raynor's premium DeliCreations range, for example, it has meant swapping standard ingredients for more unusual, like-for-like alternatives, such as caramelised onion chutney in place of pickle. "However you go about it, it's important that innovation continues," says Hollands.
Manufacturers must have been doing something right because the industry has continued to put in a decent performance in spite of economic pressures, according to the British Sandwich Association (BSA). A BSA report released earlier this year showed that the market grew by 3.5% to reach over £6bn and achieve 4% volume growth in the year to May 2010. The outlook is not entirely rosy however, with the average prices being charged by some retailers little more in 2010 than they were in 2007, despite food cost inflation of around 10% over the same period.
In fact, the BSA report suggests that some retailers may have jumped the gun last year by introducing recession-busting value ranges that pre-empted any downshifting by consumers, making it difficult to untangle how much of the downward pressure on prices was driven by consumers and how much was a result of changes in the range of products that were actually in the shops. In any case, the consensus among manufacturers seems to be that any strong pressure towards low-budget options is over for now.
"There was a short time when the recession hit that people were going for budget ranges but that's cleared now," says Hollands.
Better still for the UK economy, it looks like tough times may be making people more inclined to support British farmers and growers. "Perhaps consumers are questioning the premium in organic food, but we've not noticed any less demand for other features such as food miles and local sourcing," says John Want, senior brand manager for Food To Go at Ginsters. "We only ever use fresh British ingredients and our products have always had a slight premium, so we know we have to be a bit cleverer about how we promote them."
Tom Allen is executive chef at Buckingham Foods, which is part of Adelie Food Group. He also provides NPD support for sister companies within the group, including Food Partners, so he's been busy trendspotting. He agrees that the trend towards local sourcing is gathering pace and predicts that by next summer we'll be seeing recipes that feature an ever-wider range of seasonal British produce: "In the past, summer briefs were typically all about reminding people about their summer holidays, but we're now being asked to think about seasonal British food. Asparagus has been a hero summer ingredient in previous years, for instance, but it's going to be joined by things like broad beans and runner beans."
While British consumers may enjoy knowing that their food originates close to home, their tastes are getting more exotic in terms of flavours. "There's a drive for spicier flavours, especially among younger consumers," says Want. "We call them the curry generation."
It's a similar story in both the pastries and sandwiches that Ginsters makes. "In the past we've tended to produce very Cornish-influenced combinations for our special edition pasties, which change every few months, but the chicken balti pasty is the best-performing special edition we've ever done. We also do a 'sandwich of the month' and chicken jalfrezi is the best-performing sandwich of the month we've had in two and a half years," he says. So it's not surprising that one of the first in a new range of pies that Ginsters is distributing to convenience stores via the van sales route is a chicken balti pie. "The new range offers better quality ingredients and more authentic flavours than many of the competing products in these outlets," adds Want.
Allen agrees that the UK is ready for a more adventurous snacking experience. "I think street foods are going to be the biggest trend in our marketplace over the next 18 months or two years. The concept is that you take what you'd buy from street carts around the world and transfer those experiences to the supermarket offers," he says. "We'll be seeing a range of cuisines, such as Thai, Mexican, Vietnamese and South American.
"Street carts are a massive trend in New York, where they're clean and selling great food. People follow them on Twitter so they can locate them as they move around during the day. We're typically about two years behind the States in food trends and these carts are already starting to spring up in London. The supermarkets are seeing this as a potential threat so they're looking to incorporate street food into their ranges." The resulting customer briefs go beyond sandwiches and wraps to include anything portable, but Allen recognises that major retailers must constantly balance the desire to innovate with the risk of trying to second guess how far consumers are prepared to embrace new flavours and formats: "That's why we invest so heavily in consumer research. We want our customers' food to go to be relevant to consumers who take their inspirations from the plethora of dedicated independent sandwich shops."
Developers and retailers are also faced with technical and legislative issues when they try to introduce exotic ingredients from around the world. For example, the fish sauce that street traders in countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia pour raw onto their products can only be used cooked in the more safety-conscious UK.
Away from unusual cuisines, new ingredients that improve the performance of traditional favourites have been playing a big role in NPD for years now and that continues to be the case. Tomatoes are a great example. Intense tomatoes were originally bred by Bayer to serve pizza manufacturers, but sandwich makers have embraced them for their ability to retain moisture and avoid leaking into the surrounding sandwich. More robust tomatoes offer processing advantages as well as quality improvements, as Hollands explains: "Whereas one in four tomatoes were previously wasted, Intense tomatoes reduce that to one in 16."
Similarly, Raynor Foods uses specially bred lettuces that combine the taste and texture of a typical iceberg lettuce with the shape of a cos, which makes them much easier to cut and process. "They're also a good, bright green that looks great in a sandwich," Hollands says. He is also keen to stress that none of the specially-bred produce is genetically modified.
"We're always looking out for novel ingredients and the latest find we're introducing is a small, sweet, thin-skinned orange pepper that's only available from a single supplier in the Netherlands. We're taking them, stuffing them with things like fig and honey, five-bean salad and houmous and incorporating them into our salads. The products are fully designed and ready to launch."
While lunch remains the biggest occasion for sandwiches and other substantial snacks, savoury options are becoming increasingly popular for snacking between meals. This is leading Bakehouse which has focused on sweet, patisserie-style continental pastries to offer a wider range of savoury alternatives.
According to development director Karen Clayton, the number of retail outlets with hot cabinet facilities is continuing to grow and this is driving the trend: "We're seeing growing demand for warm, savoury pastries, even in the summer. We're working on savoury pastries with larger inclusions of cheese, vegetables or meat that aren't fully enclosed. They're aimed at the premium end of the market."
Nevertheless, Bakehouse believes there's still plenty more mileage to be gained on the sweeter side of snacking, and its latest launch in October looks towards the US for inspiration. The company's range of seven US-style doughnuts includes Bakehouse's signature maple and pecan combination, as well as products such as lemon cream, strawberry cream and chocolate crunch. "The US-style doughnut category is showing massive growth, especially among younger people," says Clayton. FM
- Adelie 01908 611906
- Bakehouse 01276 850500
- British Sandwich Association 01291 636333
- Buckingham Foods 01908 838900
- Ginsters 01579 386200
- Raynor Foods 01245 353249