Nearly everyone likes a sweet treat to munch with a cuppa, and the ever-increasing range of bakery products means there's something to suit every taste. Patrick McGuigan reports
From simple filter coffee to a skinny soy latte, there's a coffee to suit everyone's taste these days. But the choices don't stop there, with an equally dizzying array of cakes and pastries to accompany your caffeine fix.
"Free-from", Fairtrade and "grab and go" are just some of the bakery sub-categories that have evolved in recent years as food service operators try to meet their customers' every desire. As Kate Raison, marketing director at Bakehouse, says: "The market is becoming increasingly sophisticated, with greater segmentation and customisation of products to suit people's lives.
"Our consumer research for new products delves beyond age, sex and class to look at people's attitudes and broader lifestyle trends that cut demographics."
According to Raison, trying to pigeonhole your customer base by social status can be a red herring simply because these days everyone can afford a sweet treat and a coffee. "You find an amazingly wide range of people in coffee shops, from busy mums to businessmen to workmen. It reflects how wealthy society has become," she says.
A better way to understand the sweet bakery market, argues Raison, is through broad lifestyle trends such as health, convenience and indulgence.
Consumer attitudes over issues such as Fairtrade, organic, local sourcing and gluten-free also span traditional demographic groups. Simon Tupper, director of contract caterer Redcliffe, says he has noticed increasing demand for products with an "ethical" dimension. "We try to use local bakers rather than buy in mass-produced brands in our staff restaurants and have seen a growing demand for organic and Fairtrade products," he says. "It's a balancing act though, because people in staff restaurants tend to be price-sensitive - they subconsciously expect some kind of subsidy."
One company quick to pick up on these trends is Delice de France, which earlier this year launched a Fairtrade range comprising cookies, shortbread and muffins. The company devised the range after Mori research found one in every two adults in the UK now recognises the Fairtrade mark. Of these, four out of five people said that getting a fair deal for growers in developing countries was "very" or "fairly" important.
Demand for cakes and pastries free from wheat, dairy and/or gluten is another lifestyle trend that affects some food service sectors. Kate's Cakes has recently launched a "free-from" range including a dairy-free granola bar, wheat-free flapjack, gluten-free brownie and dairy-free fruit loaf slice. Sales director Andrea Stevens says: "According to Allergy UK, 45% of the population now suffers from some form of food intolerance, so we market our ‘free-from' range to the majority of customers, be they young, old, male or female."
Buying in these kinds of products makes sense for large caterers, such as Charlton House. It bakes most of its cakes and sweet treats on site across its 150 staff restaurants, but says it's not viable to make specialist products in house. "If you're feeding 800 people and only a handful are gluten-intolerant, it doesn't make sense to make specialist products," says a spokeswoman. Instead, the company buys individual gluten-free cookies from Byron Bay Cookie Company, which launched several types of "free-from" cookies earlier this year.
Battle Bake House, from Bexhill, East Sussex, has also recently developed gluten-free cookies and cakes for a staff restaurant run by contract caterer Elior. "The company wanted to offer staff flexibility," says owner Kate Kent. "Gluten-free is not just for coeliacs lots of people avoid wheat because it makes them feel tired or bloated. It's a lifestyle choice." Key consumer groups include thirty-something women, older men and people of both sexes in their early 20s, she says.
Hotels and transport are highlighted as buoyant markets for gluten-free cakes by Emma Goss-Custard, managing director of Honeybuns. The company has recently developed mini versions of its gluten-free brownies, traybakes and flapjacks for customers including Thistle Hotels and GNER to be served as complementary accompaniments to coffee.
"The packaging on our products doesn't scream ‘gluten-free'. People who have gluten intolerance want to be quietly reassured the treat they're eating is safe, but don't want to be made to feel different from everyone else," she says.
Beyond "free-from", the popularity of high-street coffee shops is driving sales of muffins, brownies and pastries in other areas of food service. "Coffee shops are pushing into all aspects of catering, whether that's contract catering or pubs, and are setting the pace in terms of price, quality and range," says Peter Julian, head of food service at BakeMark UK.
This is particularly true of business and industry and leisure catering, where operators are restyling restaurants to give a coffee-shop atmosphere or actually teaming up directly with high-street coffee brands such as Costa and Starbucks.
"Contract caterers can charge more if they get the quality of the coffee and the food right - £2.20 for a coffee and £1.40 for a muffin is common," says Julian. "If the atmosphere of a staff restaurant is right, it discourages people from heading to the high street. There are also opportunities to sell muffins, cookies and brownies for people to eat at their desks."
Although coffee shops are influencing the entire sector, differences remain depending on the type of food service outlet. According to Stevens, coffee shop customers generally have more time to enjoy cakes, so tend to order plated slices of cake. "But in staff canteens, time is limited so there's an increase in ‘grab-and-go' products," she says.
Bakery goods are traditionally eaten in the morning, but there are ways of boosting sales at lunchtime and in the afternoon. Délifrance, for example, has recently launched a high-fibre multiseed croissant, which can be eaten as a breakfast item, mid-morning treat or sliced and filled to act as light lunch or afternoon snack. "It's lighter than bread so this could encourage people to purchase other items, such as a piece of fruit or yogurt," says category manager Lucy Pickersgill. "We see this product doing particularly well on hotel menus, where the added health benefits can be explained."
Other new Délifrance products include the Whirlwind, which resembles a muffin but is made from croissant pastry swirled with crème pâtisserie. It's available in red berries, peach, pecan and chocolate flavours.
At the four-star Mandeville hotel in Marylebone, London, food and beverage director Ian Jenner says business is brisk in the afternoon thanks to its relaunched afternoon tea, which features traditional cakes baked on site and served on Zandra Rhodes china.
"We get a lot of business people holding meetings over afternoon tea as well as those who just want to get away from the hustle and bustle of London," he says. The cake selection is purposely nostalgic, says Jenner, with options such as macaroons, scones and fruit cake. "Things have gone full circle and traditional cakes are fashionable again," he says. "People are looking for food that isn't mass-produced and full of preservatives - they want that home-made touch."
This is a point also made by Simon Law, sales director of the Handmade Cake Company, which makes traditional cakes. "Brits are a conservative bunch when it comes to cakes and it's no surprise to me that Starbucks has introduced Victoria sponge and Costa is selling carrot cake," he says. "Cake is the ultimate comfort food."
Bakehouse 0800 234034 www.bakehouse.co.uk
BakeMark UK 0151-343 1600 www.bakemark.co.uk
Battle Bake House 01424 219400 www.battlebakehouse.co.uk
Byron Bay Cookie Company 0117 953 3522 www.beyondthebean.com
Delice de France 0845 077 2266 www.delicedefrance.co.uk
Délifrance 0116 257 1871 www.delifrance.com
Handmade Cake Company 01628 779057 01628 www.handmadecake.co.uk
Honeybuns 01963 23597 www.honeybuns.co.uk
Kate's Cakes 01903 891910 www.katescakes.com