Free digital copy
Get Speciality Food magazine delivered to your inbox FREEGet your free copy
Fine food stores are exciting. That, fundamentally, is what sets them apart from larger multiples, which simply cannot offer breadth of speciality foods, or expertise, that independents deliver on a daily basis.
The thrill of being able to pop into a deli, where you can chat artisan cheese, sample the latest charcuterie, and stock your basket with everything from charcoal crackers and single estate olive oil, to tins of squid preserved in its own oil, is immeasurable.
Every good retailer in this field knows, though, that beyond the ‘bright’ and ‘shiny’, ‘shouty’ hero products that entice from the window, there has to be a backbone of essentials, so customers truly can use their stores as a one-stop-shop. To not deliver on the basics, such as flour, eggs, sugar, yeast, pulses, tinned vegetables, gravies, stocks, sauces and soups, is to miss a trick – especially as some people, in light of price rises in supermarkets, are turning to delis and farm shops for their groceries.
Tom Newey, CEO of Cobbs Farms Shops says across the group they’ve noticed a growth in footfall of 6%, though that has been tempered by a reduced basket spend of 2.5%. “Like many in the sector, we benefitted from a significant boost through the pandemic on the back of strong retail sales and growth in average spend. What is apparent now is we’ve managed to not only retain those customers, but also grow the base. Let’s be honest, we are always going to be at the premium end of the market, but I’ve always felt that a key part of our ongoing mission is to help customers put a real value on quality products.”
Michelle Steele of Earsham Street Deli says people are more and more using her store for their everyday shopping. “Some come in three or four times a week, to get their eggs, or buy a slice of ham. But then they might also come in at the weekend to treat themselves to a bit of truffle Gouda. I’m finding we’re becoming almost like a grocers from the ‘good old days’.
“What’s really interesting for us, is that we have a shop that is 16 years old, and one that is a year old. We are building loyal customers at both, who want to use us regularly. At the original deli, the fact we have a fishmonger and greengrocer here means people come into our town as a destination for food shopping. But at the other location, we’re seeing customers are making a choice that, if they’re paying more anyway, they’d rather go somewhere for service and quality, and have a good experience.”
Michelle says it’s important for fine food retailers to be accessible, recognising that the public don’t live on luxury all the time. “We need to be their go-to for every part of their cooking, not just occasions, and we cannot just be stocking exquisite flavours, we need to have the herbs and spices and bags of pasta, but knowing these are of a certain quality.”
The majority of Tom’s sales, he says, come from fresh products, which is where the margins are. He adds it would be easy to focus on these, but that he’s always believed in providing customers with a rounded shopping experience, where they can also find the other things they need to complement the meat, dairy, or seasonal fruit and vegetables they put in their baskets. Stocking essentials, as well as more speciality ingredients, stands the business in good stead. “If we can support one customer who’s looking for that weird and wonderful ingredient, I’m confident they’ll be a loyal customer for life.”
Tom gives merit to the vinegars, oils and dressings at Cobbs Farm Shops, which have proved popular store cupboard sellers this year, despite the undesirable weather.
While Michelle is pleased with the sales of dried pasta, risotto mixes and pasta sauces. “People want to be able to come in and just buy something quick and easy for an evening meal – and these are perfect for that,” she says.
On the subject of rice, with Korean, South American, and Japanese food taking off big time in mainstream cooking, it’s worth, says Claire Harcup of Sun Valley Rice, expanding your range so customers can authentically recreate dishes they’ve seen on TV, in magazines, and in cookery books, at home. “More people are looking for rice varietals,” she explains. “UK consumers are used to eating the right type of rice for a particular cuisine out of home, and confident cooks will want to replicate these meals while at home.” UK staples, she says, tend to be basmati for Indian dishes, or arborio for risotto. “But extending the retail offer to short and medium grain rice, as a side for katsu curry, sushi, or as a base for a chilli con carne or rice puddings, could prove fruitful.”
“Make sure you’ve got a sensible range to fill up a basket,” adds Michelle. “Think about what you would like to take home, and what you could use and combine. It’s all well having innovative sauces, but there needs to be day-to-day stuff too. Think about stocking local bread and eggs, things like Brindisa cooked beans that you could pull out on a rainy day for convenience. They all must be of a good quality though. If you have a jar of sauce, or jar of beans, they have to be exceptional!”
The annual Speciality & Fine Food Fair is used by many retailers as a source of inspiration for the year to come. Event manager, Nicola Woods, says she met many at this year’s show, and was pleased to see them buzzing to get back to their stores, to stock up on the next big thing. “Fine food retailers are trusted by consumers to stock quality store cupboard staples and introduce exciting new flavours and ingredients,” she adds. “This might be an innovative twist on a traditional staple, such as the award-winning organic chestnut gnocchi from Cornwall Pasta Co, or relatively unfamiliar flavours for UK audiences such as authentic Tunisian harissa paste from Lamiri Harissa.”
One of the most surprising trends she’s seen in the ambient sector this year is the rise of gourmet tinned fish products. “Forget your standard tuna in spring water, we’re talking wild sardines in extra virgin olive oil, wood-smoked herring with wild garlic, and Faroe Islands salmon with sea buckthorn and lemon verbena.
“Another trend that isn’t going anywhere is the growing consumer love of spice, which means retailers can’t go wrong with unique hot sauces like the new Black Truffle Hot Sauce from The Truffle Guys and tangy preserves like the Raspberry Jam with Ghanaian Chilli from Schoolyard Chillies.”
Michelle thinks herbs and spices in weird and wonderful blends will continue to prove successful for specialist retailers as customers experiment in the kitchen. “We tend to sell the kind of things you can’t find unless you go to an international store,” she explains.
“I’m also finding people are looking more for Japanese and Korean flavours – chilli oils, and sriracha. My favourites at the moment are a Tonkotsu chilli oil, and Nonya’s curry pastes. They are very good. Also Steenbergs for herbs and spices. They are just fantastic and have just had a big rebrand, which I think will help sales.”
Tom is seeing a customer preference for experimenting across cuisines too, with more unusual ingredients being checked through the till. “I’m a big fan of White Mausu products. In particular the Peanut Rayu – on everything!”
Vicky McTaggart of Stokes Sauces says the store cupboard favourite is noticing consumers using its products in more inventive ways that demonstrate their versatility. The brand’s Real Tomato Ketchup and Chipotle Ketchup are going into stews, casseroles and sauces, where they add body and additional flavour naturally. Surprisingly, brown sauce (which brings depth with dates and Persian Spices) is being used in this way too – drawing it away from its traditional place at the breakfast table. “Sales increase at this time of year too in Chilli Jam, Fig Relish, Red Onion Chutney and Beer Chutney,” likely in response to people stocking up in preparation for the Christmas cheeseboard.
• Chicory-based coffee alternatives
• West African sauces and spice pastes
• Chilli-infused honey
• Bimimbap sauce
• Flavoured salts
• Tinned fish
• Low sugar/fat alternatives
• Sri Lankan sauces and pastes
• Mexican ingredients
• Pizza-making ingredients
• Crispy chilli oil