There was the Essex-born sandwich maker working on the first ‘Space Sandwich’ … as well as the introduction to Ooho package-free water wrapped in an algae membrane … and the revelation that Quantas serves four million Lindt milk chocolate balls each year in economy class alone.
It’s no surprise that ‘Food to Go’ (FTG) has become so much more than a pack of crisps and a chocolate bar – after all, it has a market worth of £29 billion in the UK. Topics at the Food and Drink Innovation Network (FDIN) demonstrated the breadth of opportunity across the sector, from the rapidly changing breakfast-on-the-go market to the future of in-flight dining and even candyfloss flavoured grapes.
The first speaker – Simon Quirk, Head of Out of Home at Kantar Worldpanel – began with a sobering reminder that FTG products still need to fight for growth. He pointed out how business rates are rising, while customer confidence is falling: “also, consumers are cutting back on daytime treats,” he said, highlighting how ‘Out of Home’ (OOH) dining experienced 4% growth last year – double the 2% of FTG.
“During the recession, people spoke about ‘The Lipstick Effect’ where consumers bought spontaneous little treats to feel better, but now shoppers are ready to spend; to make the most of their consumption occasions,” Quirk said. These shifting priorities have seen growth in restaurants and other outlets associated with social OOH experiences – while FTG solo snacking outlets like forecourts, newsagents and vending machines have struggled.
“The way to fight harder is always to think of the consumer,” Quirk advised, explaining that ‘practicality’, ‘convenience’ and ‘enjoyment’ were the key to successful product development in the FTG market. It was a useful reminder ahead of the second speaker – Debbie Davies, founder of Contigo Management – who reiterated how 97% of consumers prioritise convenience and 84% look to the FTG market for time-saving solutions.
Davies gave examples of chains which were playing with the traditional FTG format: Marks & Spencer’s sushi wrap, Abokado’s tailored breakfast experience (“scrambled egg toppings 59p extra”), and increasingly elaborate protein pots – “who would have thought that the humble hard-boiled egg would make it into the supermarket?”
Despite this, she stressed that the traditional sandwich wasn’t dead. Five years ago 95% of her survey respondents claimed to buy a sandwich, with the new number at 91% hardly correlating to the explosion of non-sandwich options over the past five years. The statistics must have appealed to speaker, Matthew Raynor. The managing director of Raynor Foods, who gave an animated presentation: ‘Tales from the son of a simple sandwich maker’ – demonstrating how the artistry of sandwich making is alive and well.
When his father founded the company in 1988, Raynor explained that it took 9.5 hours to make 300 sandwiches, but since scaling-up operations the company is now capable of making 55,000 in a single shift – with sandwiches going to NHS cafes, sandwich shops, train station cafes and in house caterers.
Raynor’s presentation wasn’t about the impressive quantities – but instead the quality which is key. First, he spoke about the ‘Intense Tomatoes’: “Most of our complaints were about soggy sandwiches,” he says. They came across Intense Tomatoes which were used in the pizza industry, to prevent margarita dough from getting weighted down by a soggy tomato. “They have a harder cell wall and fewer seeds.” Raynor explained. “We started using them, and the complaints halved overnight.”
Buoyed by his success, Raynor took on the lettuce next – contacting the same Dutch producer of ‘Intense Tomatoes’ and commissioning the cross-breeding of a new lettuce. The result had a lasting crunch, consistent colour and just 5% wastage – a big reduction from the 25% wastage they had experienced with iceberg lettuce’s large core.
The waste crusts go to the farm which Raynor buys his ham from, where it’s turned into a porridge for pigs which creates a ‘closed loop circular recycling scheme’. One person who was applauding particularly loudly at the end was Natalia Agathou, who had come from London Waste and Recycling Board (LWARB) to give a presentation on what the food and service industry can do to optimise resource circularity.
Agathou began by outlining some of the resources were available to business owners attending, for example, Advance London – a programme providing free advisory support to SMEs in London to transition to circular business models.
Next, she offered a glimpse into the not-so-distant future, by listing some of the disruptive companies she was working with in the UK: GrowUp hydroponic farms and Entocycle, who are farming insects as a sustainable protein. She referenced bio-bean, who are converting coffee grounds into biofuels, Toast Ale who make beer from surplus bread and Snact who turn waste fruit into jerky.
Following-on from Agathou’s talk was Hazel MacTavish-West – scientist and self-styled VegDoctor. She also highlighted some sustainable innovations: Naturipe and Old Pure Flavour who both use packaging made from plant fibres, as well as Tesco’s star-shaped cut-out butternut squash: “It got some stick,” she says of the recent addition to the children’s range. “It’s actually a very clever way of using non-A-Grade vegetables – so if a butternut squash is too big, then it can be turned into stars, and then the waste around the star shapes could go into couscous salads.”
MacTavish-West explained how she’d recently been inspired by a visit to the County Down farm behind Mash Direct, which sells mashed carrots, parsnips, turnips, champ and colcannon: “It’s about trying to get people to value vegetables more than seeing them as a commodity.” With wide-ranging examples – from Dempsters garden vegetable bread to freeze-dried Forager fruits, we were left in no doubt that thinking of vegetables only as a Sunday lunch side is a long-outdated mindset.
Adrian Massey, founder of C’go Drinks, was also challenging the status quo with a presentation about his breakfast drink, which combines multi-wholegrain cereals, milk and vitamins. “The breakfast cereal category lost £78 million in the last year alone, and 90% of big breakfast brands have lost the market share,” he said, clicking onto a slide featuring Coco Vita, Innocence, Brew Dog on it. “If you get it right, you can get it really right and challenge the big guys who don’t have the agility.”
Airline food proved to be another industry in flux. Stacey Howe, head of food at En Route, explained that next year marks 100 years since the first meal was served on-board a flight: three shillings for a sandwich, a piece of fruit and a chocolate bar. It shows how in-flight dining has come in a full circle – after periods of linen table cloths and fine dining in the sky. Howe’s predictions for the future were bento-box style portioned trays, complementary drinks being edged out, quiet zones and convenience stores in the sky.
An image from ‘The Golden Age’ of inflight dining showed a Serrano Ham on the bone being wheeled down the aeroplane aisle. The fuss and frills seemed instantly dated. Instead, Howe depicted the future through an image of a pared-back picnic boxes with neatly-fitting items in each compartment. Fitting, that Food on the Go isn’t about being the swishiest – often the simplest ideas succeed.