The Taste Experience

What makes a good 21st century sandwich: how important is innovation in a maturing marketplace?

‘Me too’ sandwiches have become endemic to the industry, resulting in increasing consumer menu fatigue, said Nellie Nichols in the keynote presentation at the BSA’s Taste Experience event.

The way forward is for sandwich producers to strive for individuality in the way they develop THE new 2006 TNS Sandwich Report has announced some staggering figures in the growth of the UK sandwich market, impressively now worth £4.5 billion. Why is there such phenomenal growth – currently 8% per year? Our step change in lifestyles – not enough time and too much to do – the shrinking lunch hour, the extra workload, the rise in affluence, and more adventurous tastes have all generated a greater need for convenience, but can this figure continue to rise in what is a very mature market? Of the 11.5 billion sandwiches consumed last year, 52% of those were made in the home and therefore don’t have a value put on them.

Of this total 2.7 billion were carried out of the home in lunchboxes. This is a very real opportunity for the industry as a target market and one that requires real focus if we are to sustain continuing growth. The high street has become a war zone – make no mistake. The competition has become intense and fierce. Good properties are becoming rare and fought over, rents extortionate.

Last year more independents than ever before closed, and, whilst new kids on the block are springing up all the time, many will be one hit wonders and only those with the strongest USP’s will have an outside chance to survive. That is if they’ve opened in the right location with a high enough footfall and the right mixture of office, retail, tourism and residential, or a healthy majority of one of these. Fast, slick till transactions, value for money, a delicious product, humour, comfort, fantastic customer service….. no longer just a sandwich and a bag of crisps, the sophisticated customer now wants a whole experience, and all in the space of a few minutes.

If you don’t give it to them they’ll soon go and find it somewhere else. Repeat custom and brand loyalty is the life blood in the fast food world. Starting from scratch in this environment takes buckets of bravery. With no established brand and small start up volumes there are massive restrictions but also opportunities. The flexibility to suck it and see lets the new venture make the changes larger operations find it more difficult to achieve, but minimum order quantities limit menus and stretch competitive pricing. Waste is difficult to control when trying to offer a varied, interesting and competitive range. But everyone has to start sometime and, as many of you know I was around at Pret’s beginning in the late 80’s. They roasted their own chickens in the early days and every shop poached its own salmon in the bake-off ovens to a different recipe.

Some added peppercorns, some squeezed over halves of lemons, some bunches of herbs. Continuity came later. Fish was the prerequisite smell to greet you when you bought your morning Cappuccino. With success came sanity, thank goodness. Pret has spilled onto most street corners, high streets, airports and stations. A huge success story I’m proud to have been a part of. One of everybody’s benchmarks, but success and massive growth brings other issues.

Caffe Nero, Greggs and Subway, and all the supermarket branded sandwiches, quality and innovation are far more difficult to keep in your grasp when numbers are enormous. Scaled up volumes of ingredients often encounter quality issues and in turn alter recipes. Shelf life testing and taste panels are often not as challenging as they are intended to be and sadly can often result in just a tick in a box. And in manufacture a bigger volume often means a faster line speed, again resulting in loss of quality. Yet, an increase in number should dictate more care, but this is big business and the number of products produced per hour is yet another bottom line.

Time and again I see “me toos”. The slightest whiff of a good idea and it’s copied immediately. What one does, another follows: new concepts, recipes, packaging, ingredients and suppliers. Everyone is so busy tasting and washing out their competitors’ products it’s a wonder they have time to get their own out on the shelves.

Look at crayfish or the cardboard skillet or the single sandwich. Of course the leading favourites need to be on shelf, and everyone should have the staples but blatant plagiarism is only going to eventually kill a good idea. There’s no doubt about it, the stakes in such a competitive industry are high but the question is this – do you lead or do you follow ? There has to be more to this game than copying what’s out there, undercutting everyone else’s fat content or adding a label that states “now with more prawns”.

Here I believe is the bedrock of a growing menu fatigue and why if each and every one of us doesn’t start to concentrate on genuine innovation and leading with new ideas the market growth will peter out. No one wants to eat the same sandwich day in day out. Menus need to keep changing to reflect the changing seasons, the seasonality of ingredients, and to celebrate events throughout the year that can be executed with a sense of fun.

Peter Bartlett’s idea years ago of adding a single Rolo and a red rose to a St Valentine’s Day chocolate and mascarpone sandwich was simple, powerful and is still talked about today. I’m convinced that every sandwich producer has strong innovative talent. Each with your own identity, style and unique branding. Everyone should strive for individuality in the way they develop. The temptation of someone else’s good idea should be your inspiration but not your solution. This would lead to the emergence of a far more vibrant market and innovation would be as it should be, prolific. Let’s look at the grass roots of innovation and what is the template of a good idea. For me there are six boxes to tick

1. QUALITY Consumers have shifted away from processed food. They have become label readers. As we see everyday on our TV screens and in the press, the supermarkets are stripping out additives, preservatives and hydrogenated fats as fast as their technical teams can make it happen. Quality is no longer the prisoner of price.

2. TASTE Should always bring enjoyment. Focus on that moment you taste something and are completely struck by how delicious it is. ‘Quite Nice’ won’t make your top ten. Ingredients must deliver. Flavours must shine through, not just be something to read about on the label and make the consumer feel they’ve been short changed.

3. SIMPLICITY Too many ingredients create chaos. The more you put in the more it costs in recipe complexity and labour to make it and without doubt, the less you taste.

4. PROVENANCE Creates trust. Now more than ever in this world of mass production, consumers want to believe some craft and care and emotion has gone into a product

5. MARKETING Never underestimate the power of the language of food – hand picked, vine ripened, drizzled with olive oil… Avoid weird names or words that aren’t recognisable. The consumer won’t buy into the unknown

6. NICHE Won’t sell – one unpopular ingredient can undermine the whole sandwich – somehow Liver, Lettuce and Tomato doesn’t have the same appeal…..

If we look at the top 10 commercially purchased sandwiches will they tell us anything new?

  1. Chicken Salad
  2. Egg & Cress
  3. Chicken & Bacon
  4. BLT
  5. Mixed Selection
  6. Cheese & Onion
  7. Prawn Mayo
  8. Ploughman’s
  9. Tuna & Sweetcorn
  10. Chicken

No headlines there. But if we look between the lines and concentrate on the thread of popularity, here is the basis of our future innovation and the most important part is how we interpret it into our day to day development. It’s certainly difficult when under the pressure of several different briefs to come up with innovative ideas. I think though you get the best results in sandwich development if you research and focus your thoughts laterally.

Think sideways. Concentrate on the little twist that will give your product the edge and uniqueness that irritatingly Pret seem to come up with all the time. Part of its marketing sure, but it’s also an ability to keep recipes simple with that vital magical twist. Let’s look at the most popular sandwich ingredient chicken, now representing over 30% of sandwich varieties out of the home.

Last year we consumed over 33,000 tonnes of chicken meat in sandwiches alone. Hugely popular, hugely versatile, yet chicken sandwiches are, let’s face it, predictable and dull. Let’s stop covering the poor bird in different powders and coatings in the name of development and start thinking about truly dynamic recipes. Take a different angle. Think about chicken eating occasions, different cooking methods and influences from all over the world.

Take barbequing – this currently only means one of two things in the industry: Chargrilled or bbq flavour. Yet, if you take a couple of bbq staples that you probably use every time you light up in the back yard – lemon and rosemary, and create a strong background flavour for the chicken to absorb, in either a marinade or good mayo you will have a powerful flavour that will deliver an outstanding chicken sandwich. Use a good quality rustic seeded brown bread and thick slices of beef tomatoes, some black pepper and a generous handful of rocket.

Give it a name to be proud of. Let’s call it Lemon Rosemary Summer Chicken Salad. A simple idea that would be popular and sell. Let’s look for another lateral type of chicken inspiration – how about adapting classic chicken recipes – we’ve done Caesar to death (so to speak!) but what about ideas like Chicken Florentine, Chicken Cordon Bleu, Chicken Tarragon, Chicken Maryland, Veronique – simplify them all and they will make great products.

Or think of your favourite takeaway – translate it – Chinese Chicken with Ginger, Sweet and Sour…. Spend some time researching spices and herbs you’re not familiar with, look at how they are used in different countries all over the world. I’m going out to Morocco soon for a couple of days to do exactly that, because I want to see how those spices are used in the correct way, by the locals who have been cooking with them for centuries.

Set up workshops around single ingredients to really understand the versatility of their uses, and brainstorms to energise your teams, and market visits to meet producers and taste products. Keep learning about food and translating your new ideas into products. Innovation should be the result of the interpretation of your ideas.

And if you need some help I’m just about to start Innovation Health Checks which will look at current NPD practices and provide an overview with suggestions and ideas of how you can make your processes more creatively productive.

We are, without doubt, part of a very dynamic market but one that is totally reliant and dependant on the excitement of your ideas. But I do think that market will plateau out incredibly soon if we don’t ensure that innovation develops and grows with it. We must do whatever it takes and do it now to safeguard and secure the continuing success of this very vibrant sandwich industry.

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