Food consultant Nellie Nichols held a ‘Sandwich Surgery’ at the recent lunch! show, dispensing practical advice in response to audience questions.
Q. How important is it to include innovative recipes in the offer, particularly given that most consumers tend to be fairly conservative in buying sandwiches?
A. Innovation is hugely important. If you put a new twist on a product it has an instant effect – people will buy it because it’s new. Stick a ‘New’ sticker on it. It will fly.
Use a classic sandwich and give it a twist: you don’t have to go crazy and use ingredients that will put off the consumer, but get it right and you will keep them coming back.
Yes, you have to develop products to suit your own market and you need to understand the local demographic. There is also a school of thought that says that everyone looks to sensible choices at the start of the week, feeling guilty after the weekend, and towards the end of the week they go a bit mad and want something far more interesting – that’s absolutely true, but by and large, innovation really drives the market every time.
Q. How do you judge a sandwich bar as being successful – do the queues out of the door say it all?
A. Queues mean you are doing something very wrong. I have a real thing about queuing – you’re definitely not looking after your customers and normally it means you’re not making food for your customers fast enough.
The main issue is hot food, which has to be heated to order and taken to a certain temperature, and I’m forever going to businesses where this is the problem.
The Holy Grail at Pret A Manger, where I worked years ago, was to try to ‘do hot food in 90 seconds’ and their culture remains one of being super efficient. They’ve achieved this now with their toasted sandwiches.
But I don’t agree with holding hot food. No one, not even Pret, can maintain the discipline of monitoring a heated product within a quality time frame.
They get forgotten and go dry. Increasingly the British consumer buying a quick lunch now expects to be served super quick, so unless you go somewhere where you know you are going to have to wait for a long time, the culture is “I want my lunch fast.”
Q. With ingredients and other costs rising, it’s very difficult to keep prices down to compete with the big chains. What advice do you give independents on pricing in the current market?
A. You have to be competitive, but the consumer is quite forgiving if they think they are getting something special, so providing you don’t go mad and add another quid, you can stretch that price. This is happening all the time: a lot of big companies have a stalking horse and the stalking horse is having a very expensive sandwich which makes all the other sandwiches look much more reasonable.
You have to have a wide range of products, ranged from low to high. Everyone has this big thing about ‘you have to have an egg mayonnaise sandwich because it’s the most successful sandwich’ – but you don’t, it’s just invariably the cheapest one, which sets the bottom end.
Q. How much should we believe the reports that consumers want healthy food? Most of my customers seem to be after bacon sandwiches…
A. I talked to a health club this week, who told me that the most popular product they sell is chips. That’s as unacceptable as the new figures just announced, that 20% of the world population are obese and only 15% are starving. Yes, we have got to be very careful about what we eat but to me healthy food has got a long way to go to be more delicious than it currently is.
The driver in retail is ‘cut out the fat, salt, sugar, calories’ and you end up with something that’s completely lacklustre and that to me is a very, bad sign. I frequently buy sandwiches that I can’t eat because they’ve had so much taken out that I have to go home and add salt and pepper. So then I don’t bother.
I don’t think healthy food should be tasteless – and it’s something that needs to be worked on. There’s a lot more to making healthy food than just taking out the mayonnaise.
There’s a huge under-use of ingredients such as herbs, which have no calories at all, but a great taste. So things like a little bit of coriander will take you a long way.
There’s also such an under-use of spices, micro-herbs – they will all add an extra dimension to a product; by thinking laterally you can achieve some wonderful results without being in the least bit bland.
Q. What lessons can independents learn from the big coffee chains?
A. They’ve done some things really well, but they also need to learn some lessons because some things have been done really badly. A lot of coffee chains make great coffee, but they make great coffee very slowly. A lot of them sell really shockingly dreadful cake and old P+2 and 3 sandwiches. There are lessons to be learned.
Q. What can I do to motivate my staff that isn’t monetary?
A. I think it’s very important to train, develop and look after staff. It’s about listening to staff as well, because they can come up with fantastic solutions – not enough businesses either talk or listen to staff.
Q. How can I source local produce without breaking the bank? Is it really worth it?
A. It is worth it and it doesn’t break the bank. If you use seasonality you can use a resource very effectively in the sandwich business – buy stuff in season and you can do some great things with it.
Q. How can I cut wastage?
A. Cut wastage by having the right menu. Wastage is often caused by businesses having a tremendously extensive menu – we must do this and we must do that: soup, coffee, cake, the list gets longer and longer, and the whole business gets more and more complex. It’s very important to keep the menu simple and interesting, particularly using multi-use ingredients.
Q. Is it worth getting involved with social media?
A. Absolutely, I’m a huge fan – I use Twitter all the time. But I use it to comment on food, not to talk drivel. Who cares about Jamie Oliver’s bath plug? I’m about to go to Australia and I will use Twitter probably five or six times a day.
Q. Who would you say are the best operators around in London today and why?
A. I would say Mooli, a business I admire tremendously. Their business is very simple, they use world class ingredients, they have first class production and they do wonderful food very quickly. I also admire Kaffeine – he does the most incredible coffee – some of the best in London. He also uses a chef from New Zealand and makes incredible sandwiches and cakes. It’s tiny but brilliant.
Q. Should I use a third party for sandwiches or make them in-house?
A. Absolutely, make them in-house. When you make sandwiches in-house you’re making them fresh. Use someone else and you’ll end up with a product that’s distributed and has got a shelf-life.
It was the key to Pret’s success that their products were completely fresh – anyone would rather have fresh than P+1 or P+2. Even if it’s a small range, it’s so powerful to have a fresh product. I try and avoid products with a shelf life – the longer the shelf life the more issues start happening between the slices: you can see that water migrates, acids are reacting – it’s second best.
Q. Where are the main sources of inspiration now for food developers?
A. I’m just going to Australia, as I said – they have got very high quality ingredients and they do keep things very simple. They don’t mass manufacture. Mexican food is extremely popular, with some big chains opening in London now like Chipotle and they have the money to do it. The Far East remains a big inspiration to me and the boom of street food here in the UK has been really interesting.
Q. What concept would you set up if you were starting out now?
A. I would start a new sandwich concept that was similar to Pret. I really think there’s room for another freshly made on site copy right now, because there’s no-one really doing it, that’s got to be a huge opportunity.
I don’t think juices, soups, pizza or sushi are being done particularly well either and there is a lot of opportunity there as well. Everything is being done to suit the manufacturing process – sushi rice is often hard as nails to eat because it’s chilled, which it shouldn’t be, for instance. Juices are pasteurised within an inch of their life. Cakes are often long-life or frozen.
We are in a rut where food is being made to suit the food distribution chain and a manufacturing price point. Quality is coming second and it’s seriously beginning to show.
Q. Are the Olympics going to give the food-to-go business a big boost?
A. Whatever you are making, make more of it – it’s going to be insane. There are going to be millions of people coming here for the events and we should be eternally grateful for them.