In an interview with New Food’s Editor, Alison Ordonez, Head of Innovation at Roberts Bakery, discusses the effect of COVID-19 on the bakery, the challenges of repositioning a new snacks range from ‘on-the-go’ to ‘at home’, the importance of flavours, hygiene benefits of individual wrapped products, and future trends.
Q: How did COVID-19 affect bakeries like yourselves?
Since COVID-19 began, we have been through different phases at Roberts Bakery and responses have been carefully and thoughtfully governed by a nimble crisis management team which is still in place. The number one priority is our people and to make sure they are safe, but we are also trying to make working lives as stress-free as we can. The immediate panic-buying in the early days delivered unbelievably large volumes as we took the decision to keep supplying all of our customers – whether a small independent or a major multiple and everything in between.
Those who could, worked from home and are still mainly remotely based. Those that were in the bakeries – we have two sites in Northwich and Ilkeston – were protected in line with Government advice. We put in the right level of social distancing, used Perspex dividers when necessary and placed 2m markers on the floor in the bakery and in changing rooms. Deep cleans, hand washing, multiple hand sanitisation stations and rotas became the norm. Our on-site restaurant ‘Franks’ also provided free meals at the height of the pandemic for all our staff.
As a food manufacturer, we remain on high alert with many measures still in place, but we continue to pull together to maintain supply and keep our customers happy. We were aware throughout that we were key workers and playing our role in keeping Britain fed.
Q: Robert’s recently launched a set of breakfast inspired, healthy snacks which were originally intended as on-the-go bars, why did this vision change?
Pre-Covid the food-to go market was flying, forecasted to reach £23.5 billion by 2022. Our new snacking range was originally developed with that ‘on-the-go’ consumer in mind, but when that market nose-dived, we quickly adapted to a new reality. The range is now being positioned for consumers who want convenient, fresh, fast, individually wrapped snacks at home, as well as those starting to re-join a recovering ‘on the go’ (OTG) sector. It’s still breakfast-inspired but has become a day-long offer; a tasty snack for any time of the day, location and occasion.
As we ease out of lockdown, there is an increased demand for better-for-you snacks that still offer escapism, without conflicting with health goals. We know that most shoppers are now trying to eat and drink more healthily. This new range meets their needs perfectly, being nutrient-rich snacks that taste great too.
As well as switching the focus to a new ‘at home’ snacking option, we have made it available locally through the continually growing convenience channel, as well as via milk doorstep delivery and from our own recently launched e-shop www.robertsbakerydirect.co.uk.
We are playing now much more strongly to new post-lockdown needs with the new range in compostable packaging, using ‘real food’ bakery ingredients for taste, but less than 250 calories per snack.
Q: What challenges did this refocus offer you and how did you overcome them?
One of the main initial challenges was ensuring we could still work with our preferred supplier base on the snacking range as they were severely challenged by Covid. Once we had established this certainty of supply of materials and packaging, we worked with our customer base to really think about how best to introduce the new products and when the right time would be. This range is targeting breakfast, but, in reality, it is suitable for healthy snacking anytime, so we reviewed and critiqued our approach to help our customers communicate this. Changing focus also gave us a few more weeks to invest more time in familiarising ourselves with the new processes – this is the first time we have ever ventured into snacking production – and work on building a detailed scale up plan so we are ready for what we expect to be rapid growth in this new range.
Q: What inspired the flavours behind this new snack range?
The range mixes in real fruit pieces with a new range of flavours – raspberry, apple, cranberry, orange – and other tasty ingredients such as chia seeds, coconut, raisins, cinnamon, chocolate and coffee. We challenged ourselves to try different, more exotic flavour combinations that are new to the sector but work wonderfully well together. Our ‘Exploratory’ NPD team is always pushing boundaries and trying something new.
With this range we are building new categories within snacking, with combinations of cookie and brioche (the ‘Brookie’) and pancake and bagel (the ‘Pangel’), to create challenges to conventional tastes and looks of snacks with the hope to set new trends. That is our role as a next generation bakery. The Porridge Loaf was definitely inspired by the need for ingredients to deliver a slower energy release to fuel activity – Roberts’ MD is a big cyclist – but to have them in a convenient, eat as you go (or cycle) format.
Q: In terms of what consumers are after, is it more indulgence treats or healthy snacks?
In our new snacking range, the healthy focus continues. We use real fruit pieces throughout and some include oats that are full of fibre and some have added protein, whilst keeping calories low – each containing less than 250 calories. Along with food security and the importance that it puts on individual wrapping, we believe shoppers will continue to look for tasty, health-boosting inspiration on shelf and direct from us.
Q: What kinds of ingredients influence a consumer’s purchasing decision?
When we started this project, our initial research told us that consumers looked for variety at breakfast alongside convenience, so that is why we have developed two distinct flavours across each product type. We looked at the trends there and especially around breakfast, which has a heavy bias towards fruit pieces, so we really focused on that as a main message to consumers. Then we considered ‘next generation’ ingredients to offer a more modern breakfast twist, so introduced chia, coconut and coffee alongside the more traditional apple, cinnamon and raisin.
Q: We’re starting to see more individually-wrapped, single-use packaging due to health worries – how do you see this trend evolving given the focus on sustainable products?
The individual wrapping of the snacking range is definitely tackling shopper concern over handling unwrapped baked goods, which has resulted in severely reduced or no availability of the usual fresh baked loose offerings in store. Shoppers are avoiding unwrapped goods across the board. The fact that our range is also in compostable wrap aligns to our wider sustainability goals and gives consumer the ability to make a greener choice.
Q: In terms of the future what kinds of trends should we be aware of?
Although value is important, food sources and sustainability are well up the agenda now and there is a lot of evidence showing that, post-lockdown, shoppers are thinking more carefully about sustainability and how they can make changes for the better – for themselves, their health and the planet. The resurgence in popularity of home delivered milk rounds during lockdown is showing no signs of slowing down and further supports good messages around being local, secure and convenient. Our snacks are available with selected milk rounds.
Ingredients that give an immunity boost are in vogue, especially as children return to school and adults to the workplace, so shoppers are looking for food that helps provide protection. Our newly launched four-strong healthy bread range very much focuses on ingredients to drive nutritional, health boosting value. These include our new True Vitality Good for You Bloomer, which is full of super-foodie ingredients, including whole hemp seeds, brown rice flour, malted wheat flakes and zinc for a healthy immune system. And Roberts’ Vit Hit 50 percent Wholemeal, 50 percent White loaf – a combination of half white flour, half wholemeal flour with the addition of seven vitamins and minerals, including Thiamine B1, Vitamin D, Vitamin B6, calcium, iron, niacin and folic acid.
As manufacturers we recognise there is a place for treats and also imaginative, good tasting healthier options. Regardless of COVID-19, the challenge remains for the bread and baked goods category to stay relevant and to entice existing and new customers to try something different.