FOODPRENEURS: Taking Back Control of Who We Are and What We Eat

Part I: Food Cultures at a Crossroads

Those of us who don’t fall into the over applied “Millennial” demographic will remember a time when food choices within retail and out of home were limited and consumed a lot less of our thinking time, but probably more of our actual physical time spent nourishing ourselves.

Now, as a society we are chiefly characterised as overfed, overweight and surprisingly undernourished, both literally and spiritually.

Almost 30 years on, there’s been a quite a food revolution. The shop shelves are groaning with new products all competing for our attention and a share of our purse, and the out of home dining experience has spawned an incredibly diverse range of options in places you’d least expect.

Today, many of us can choose to eat just about anything, anytime and anywhere. How this has affected our relationship with food, and whether it is good for us, is an entirely different subject for another day.

A Simmering Issue

I remember a time when the thought of fresh soup sold in the chiller seemed a ridiculous and extravagant concept. Now it’s a long established fresh category with its own set of challenges.

The evolution of this category stands as an exemplar for many other.

Fresh soup was developed to create a premium product from the tinned shelf staple. Its job is to deliver convenience, taste and flavour. In all soups, the traditional flavours have less resonance and appeal for younger consumers. This has allowed less conventional brands to seize market share by creating more exotic flavours such as Moroccan Chicken (from family owned Yorkshire Provender, since sold to US giant Hain Daniels) and on trend new “street food” style ranges from brands like Glorious (Sainsbury’s £1.90).

Equally established are chiller brands like New Covent Garden Soups which is busy dispelling the category convention of lazy, winter hibernation with an energetic new ad spot which celebrates the get up and go vibrant spirit of active citizens.

All of this has left classic ambient brands scrambling to respond to customer demand for more exotic flavours which tick the healthy nutrition box, don’t add to the packaging waste pollution issue and better reflect the true life experiences of soup lovers across all age ranges.

Over the past decade, industry tracker NPD Group has recorded an 18 percent decline in canned-soup consumption at dinner and a 7 percent decline at lunch.

As category volumes declined, so too did canned soup producer Campbell’s share of the plate, with its namesake brand’s US share dropping from 49% in 2005 to 42% in 2014, according to Euromonitor International.

“We understand that increasing numbers of consumers are seeking authentic, genuine food experiences and we know that they are sceptical of the ability of large, long-established food companies to deliver them.”

Campbell Soup CEO Denise Morrison speaking to Fortune Magazine

Campbell’s has responded to this dilemma with the purchase of Bolthouse Farms and Plum Organics, transforming the company’s natural foods know how.

The doyenne of ambient soups Audrey Baxter meanwhile, has reacted by marking the company’s 150th year with a range of more contemporary flavours alongside its classics and its signature Royal Game soup, backed by a “super” new TV commercial.

Baxters marketing director Cara Chambers describes consumers as “discerning and diligent in their food choices”. What she means is that consumers are seeking genuine, authentic food sources and this is challenging the very existence of some legacy food brands.

Meltdown by Millennial

The latest fridge staple to apparently fall victim to more discerning “Millennial foodies” is identified as American cheese. Bloomberg reports that demand for the multi-generational staple is melting away as food to go outlets replace it with posher, speciality cheeses often made in small batches by the farmer down the road. Because that’s what consumers want.

Backing this up is data from Euromonitor International which says that US sales of processed cheese, including heritage brands like Kraft Singles and Velveeta, a mainstay of delicacies like Stadium Nachos, are projected to drop 1.6 percent this year, the fourth-straight year of declines.

Image result for millennials shunning alcohol

Then there is the news that the under 25s in the UK are turning their backs on alcohol. New data published by the journal BMC Public Health suggests today’s 16 to 24-year-olds are increasingly shunning alcohol, with 29 percent considering themselves to be non-drinkers.

Going sober is a lifestyle choice for more young people who say they have quit booze because they want to save cash, feel better mentally about themselves and avoid hangovers.

Pile on more of the pressure that already comes with not drinking more than your recommended weekly units, and alcohol revenue will decline by two-fifths, or £13 billion  (source: IAS and University of Sheffield).

A sobering statistic for all those craft distilleries that aren’t skewing their campaigns to influence the allegedly more alcohol dependent older generations who may even themselves be adopting a more mature, moderate intake but still have sufficiently deep pockets to support the premium end of the market.

This trend away from binge to either responsible or total abstinence is aided by the large scale drinks providers themselves who continue to support moderation with a wider range of low or alcohol free products.

Just the Tonic

Which brings me to the low calorie and premium mixers brigade. Dress it up however you like, there is no such thing as a natural tonic (well not for the moment, but please do watch this space). Many “diet” versions contain the sugar substitute aspartame and even those that don’t but still claim to be “refreshingly light” come with a hefty four teaspoons of sugar.

Whatever the latest alcohol study claims, as a nation, we’re nowhere near calling time on booze. According to Pulsar, there have been as many as two million social conversations just about gin on blogs and social media sites this year.

The problem if you’re on the wagon and looking for an interesting alcohol free alternative is what’s on offer beyond plain fizzy water?

Image result for adult soft drinks

In my view, the bar is wide open for a new breed of beverage which helps us to take back control of what we drink. On this list is kerfir and kombucha based drinks which need to be available on trade as low calorie, low carb alternatives for people like me who want to limit their alcohol intake but don’t want to up our fizzy, sugar intake. When we socialise we want choice, and casual dining outlets really need to appeal to broader audiences.

In the off trade space meanwhile the problem is that while retailers pay lip service to becoming a destination shop, the big brands can simply protect their shelf space with bigger cheque books regardless of whether it’s in the interest of shopper preferences. That said, I’d like to be proved wrong, something my team is working very hard on.

The result is a dissonance between which brands are getting top shelf billing and a fairer approach to customer choice.

Someone’s got to break the mould if retail is truly going to turn a corner.

Or maybe it’s time for a Not on the High Street for food and drink which doesn’t cost the Earth.

By Fiona Esom

Fiona Esom