Focus on premium snacks: niche nosh

By Daniel Woolfson

- Last updated on GMT

Focus on premium snacks: niche nosh

Related tags: Sausage

Gone are the days when pub snacks meant hygienically questionable peanut bowls and slightly-past their sell by date pork rinds. There are now a multitude of premium products to choose from and selling the right snacks for your venue can prove a lucrative way to drive non-alcohol profits. 

Remember that period of the early noughties when all of a sudden everyone with a smartphone became a “self-proclaimed foodie”?

Food hashtags dominated twitter, the number of pictures of peoples’ meals on Instagram reached peak saturation point and people stopped laughing when you told them you were leaving your sales job to be a food blogger.

And however annoying scrolling through endless pictures of vague acquaintances’ dinners might be, the lightning-fast increase in taste sophistication opened up a whole new market for pubs to cater to.

These growing trends not only aided the rise of the gastropub, but led countless licensed outlets across the UK to upgrade their menus as well as driving “premiumisation” of the snacks category.

So how can licensees take advantage of the growing desire for premium snacks? And what effect is premiumisation having on the industry as a whole?

Why now?

“From the beginning of last year the macroeconomic picture has been of the economy doing well,” says Simon Stenning, executive director at Allegra Foodservice. “The reality though is that consumers do not have more money to spend.”

However, Stenning says, while there is growth in the market, no linear progression has been identified.  Instead he suggests that the rise of premium products is a cultural rather than an economic phenomenon. 

State of mind

He says: “The price-consciousness that many adapted during the recession led to the emergence of a different ‘let’s take advantage of money while we can’ consumer mentality. There’s real scrutiny going on about consumers wanting to get much more for their money — something artisan, experimental or exuberant — we call this the value legacy.”

Buying some snacks with a beer is not an occasion, he suggests, “what people are looking for is something a little bit different. 

Create a niche

So perhaps a premium product doesn’t just mean a more expensive one. Licensees could capitalise on this by attracting premium-seeking customers with a niche or homemade snack rather than ordering in “posher” versions of mainstream products.

But increased premiumisation carries with it risk of oversaturation. If premiumisation is pushed too far, Stenning warns, premium products could become a special treat rather than a regular purchase, potentially resulting in a drop in sales.

“Premiumisation is something consumers have looked for because of the value legacy,” he says. “They’re looking for something to blow extra money on.

“Operators have used the premi-umisation of menus and snacks to encourage consumers to up-spend and to escape the value mentality. I would encourage them to provide a premiumised experience to deliver better value — something that’s greater than the sum of its parts, a different experience.”

Capitalising on crisps

Research by CGA Strategy shows that premium crisps’ share of the overall snacks category, including crisps, nuts and confectionery, skyrocketed from roughly 13% to 25% between 2010 and 2014, also doubling their penetration from 15% to 29%.

“These figures send a clear message to licensed operators,” says Alex Albone, founder of Pipers Crisps. “Premium crisps offer a great opportunity to grow sales and increase margin by meeting the consumer demand for greater menu sophistication and food provenance.”

The success of premium crisps is reflected in rate of sale (ROS) figures, with the average ROS falling somewhere between 60 and 90 packs per outlet per week.

As well as this, the fact that premium crisps command a 30% price premium over mainstream products (the average sale price rose from £1.02 to £1.16 between 2010 and 2014) means that outlets could potentially pull in between £65 to more than £100 a week from selling them.

Popular flavours for on-trade premium crisps tend to extend beyond the realm of traditional flavours (think salt & vinegar, ready salted) but only by a bit — often tweaking these flavours by adding a gourmet touch.

One of the most prominent examples of this is black pepper and sea salt crisps, which has been successfully marketed by Pipers, Tyrells and Kettle Chips as a premium interpretation of ready salted.

Certain flavours have also become premium staples, most notable sweet chilli crisps, which Kettle Chips drove from obscurity to mass appeal.

Some outlets have capitalised on this further and begun making their own crisps served in paper bags, to fit in with the premium food offer they serve.

Posh popcorn

Premium popcorn has proved another successful example of premium snack innovation, with producers and chefs putting a more and more premium spin on what was previously the sole domain of ravenous cinemagoers.

“I think the market for this kind of twist on traditional snacks is growing,” says Andrew Fishwick, owner of Maida Vale pub the Truscott Arms, which offers a selection of gin and tonic, salted caramel and cheese on toast flavoured popcorn.

Many pub chefs are also making popcorn flavours to theme in with special events such as whisky flavoured for Burns night and cinnamon for Christmas.

Upselling opportunities

Bar snacks such as British or Mediterranean charcuterie; sausage rolls, homemade pork scratchings and Scotch eggs have become increasingly popular in recent years and are a big opportunity to capture more spend from drinkers.

“The way I see it, bar snacks are typically for people who don’t come in for food, but a good quality snack can entice them into maybe trying something from the menu,” says Simon Duncan, head chef at Indigo Pub Co’s Preston Park Tavern, in Brighton, whose homemade sausage rolls are on sale at the bar. “I sell more of them than pork scratchings and people rave about them.”

Adventurous snacks

Another by-product of customers’ new-found adventurousness is an increasing curiosity about and willingness to try more boundary-pushing bar snacks.

Walkers cashed in on this trend early in the decade by experimenting with crisp flavours such as their notorious Cajun Squirrel and Ranch Raccoon varieties.

The Gannet, in Finnieston, Glasgow, has crispy pigs head crisps with homemade piccalilli on offer for the adventurous snacker.

“They’ve sold brilliantly,” says Peter McKenna, chef and co-owner of the Gannet. “A few chefs thought we were mad when we first put
them out but soon embraced them.”

As well as providing an eye-catching option for customers, crafting their own gourmet bar snacks has been relatively cost-effective for the Gannet. “Our homemade bar snacks are labour intensive, but apart from that they’re not expensive to create,” he says. 

Tempting trends

The pork scratching has seen variations with chicken and salmon scratchings offered at some pubs and restaurants, but pork belly bites are now taking the scratching one step further.

Pickled snacks are also making a comeback. This time though, operators are going for less of a Moe’s
Tavern-esque, “jar of stinky floating eggs” vibe in favour of genuinely tempting interpretations.

Pickled quails eggs can be found at the Talbot Inn, in Somerset; the “nibbles” menu at Red Lion at Britwell Salome’s features traditional pickled eggs; while the bar snacks menu at the Michelin-starred Harwood Arms in London’s Fulham offers pickled onions (£3).

Whether the resurgence of interest in pickled and fermented foods has anything to do with Noma pioneer Rene Redzepi’s infatuation with preservation we can’t be sure, but customers are becoming increasingly open to eating these dishes.

Cauliflower is in position to be-come one of the major food trends of 2015 and chefs are already experimenting with it as a bar snack, with cauliflower fritters becoming a popular option amongst the country’s gastropub operators.

Going all croquettish

Mediterranean style croquettes are similarly gaining appreciation, with Ribble Valley Inns’ sites offering a pea shoot croquette, accompanied by leek and celery fondue and salted celeriac as part of their dedicated Valentine’s Day Menu.

At the Harwood Arms, in Fulham, London, cauliflower cheese croquettes are offered (£3.50); at ETM Group’s Jugged Hare in Moorgate, London, Clonakilty Irish black pudding croquettes with Guinness sauce (£6) are on offer, along with wild boar head croquettes and apple caramel (£6.50); while at the Bull & Last, Highgate, the menu includes ham and sweetcorn croquettes (£6.50).

Fish bites

While pork has long been the daddy of the bar snack, fish and game are also making much more of an appearance in different ways as a bar snack ingredient and not just in Scotch eggs.

Chefs are moving beyond pints of prawns and whitebait to dishes such as tempura crab, battered cod cheeks, devilled Cornish sprats with tartare sauce and breaded skate nobs all taking a place at the bar.

Scotch egg revival

The Scotch egg has been a star performer in the eating-out sector in recent years due to a collective premium reimagining of the product.

Different twists on Scotch egg have been a key trend in bar snacks in recent years with venison and black pudding a key ingredient being embraced by chefs for Scotch eggs.

The annual Scotch Egg Challenge at the Ship in Wandsworth, London, has helped spearhead the trend, with the innovative attitude being taken by chefs reflected in the event’s contestant roster.

Last year’s finalists included the Red Lion in Britwell Salome’s black pudding Scotch eggs with chilli jam; and Legbar eggs rolled in Tamworth middle white pork, herbs and spices courtesy of the Princess Victoria in Shepherd’s Bush; and Publican’s Morning Advertiser​ features editor Jessica Mason’s own quails eggs wrapped in pork, leek and beer crumbs.

The ultimate snack

Fish Scotch eggs are also becoming increasing popular. Anglian Country Inns’ director of food Harry Kodagoda’s smoked haddock kedgeree Scotch egg with mango chutney was served at the recent Budweiser Budvar Top 50 Gastropubs Awards lunch.

“Scotch eggs are the ultimate bar snack,” Mason says. “Not only are they handheld, they pair perfectly with a pint — they’re breakfast in a ball. Every pub could put their own spin on a Scotch egg, ultimately getting the perfect GP for whichever Scotch egg they think represents their pub and what their customers want best.”

Sausage rolls are attracting a similar level of attention, with increasing opportunities for chefs to put their own spin on the iconic snack.

The annual Great Sausage Roll Off took place last month at Fuller’s-owned the Red Lion pub in Barnes, west London.

John Grabecki, senior sous chef at investments company BNY Mellon, beat off fierce competition from 18 other chefs with his rabbit leg and loin sausage roll featuring black pudding, maple syrup and Bayonne ham with a rabbit liver parfait, offal crumb and powdered potato. 

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