When you talk about wet cooking sauces, you’ve got to be talking Italian, says Tracy West. It’s the ‘real thing’

Bolognese is one of the UK’s favourite meals, with many families eating it at least once a week. Time pressures mean very few of these meals are made from scratch, instead mums will opt for a little help from a jar of tomato sauce. The jar of choice is Dolmio, which is the best selling Italian cooking sauce in the UK, with bolognese the best selling variety. So it would seem those TV ads with that puppet family are right and every day is indeed ‘Dolmio day’ for someone in the UK.

The Dolmio range has just been extended with the launch of chunky varieties that include big bits of vegetables. However, there’s much more to Dolmio than bolognese. There are Pasta Bakes and Stir Ins plus the Express range of pouches that can be cooked in the microwave in seconds.

Dolmio spokesman Joy Marsden says: “Our aim is to bring products into the market that are relevant to the consumer and provide growth opportunities for retailers. The UK relies on convenience foods - the average time people take to prepare a meal has fallen to just 13 minutes. Meals for one or two are on the increase, which suggests more fragmented meal times. Our single serve pouches fill this market need. “Wet cooking sauces help make life a little easier by taking the hassle out of preparing lots of different ingredients and helping the consumer to explore different cuisine types that are not too difficult to prepare. Jars are still the heartland of the wet cooking sauce category, with growth coming from more premium offerings.” According to AC Nielsen data (52 w/e May 14, 2005), it is indeed premium Italian sauces that are driving category growth in the convenience sector with sales up 26% compared to the slight decline of 0.5% for mainstream sauces. Typically, these premium sauces are for one- to two-person households that are prepared to pay slightly more for quality sauces.

Premium sauce Sacla is enjoying strong growth in the convenience sector. The company says that’s because its comprehensive range - pesto, stir-through, pour-over, antipasti and paste - enables retailers to provide a strong authentic Italian offer even when space is limited.

There’s a lot of activity within the market on the pesto front but Sacla boasts being the number one pesto brand in convenience with a 65% share.

It is also doing very well with antipasti as consumers become more experimental thanks to cookery programmes, celebrity chefs and their own travels abroad. Sacla sun-dried tomatoes and artichokes are the most popular lines.

Sacla had better look out however, as Unilever says it is committed to establishing Bertolli as the Italian-inspired brand of choice in the UK within convenience outlets. The company says that with its rich heritage and product base, Bertolli has all the necessary ingredients to build a successful Mediterranean brand. Julie Gilroy, category planning manager at Unilever, says: “It is essential that the authentic sector offers truly Italian brands, especially as people who buy into it are more discerning and aware of what the ‘real thing’ looks and tastes like. Bertolli fits perfectly within this sector as it is made in Italy and its UK varieties are made to identical recipes as those sold in the Italian market.

“Currently, we are finding that premium pasta sauces are under-spaced in small stores despite their growing share of value sales. Also, merchandising is an issue as consumers are often confused by the endless sea of red on shelf, which can make the category difficult to shop.” Unilever UK Foods suggests retailers should offer clear brand and segment clustering to help shoppers find what they need easily. Elsewhere, there’s more competition courtesy of the Buitoni pasta brand, which has launched seven ambient sauces. There are five tomato-based sauces and two pestos.

Two of the tomato-based sauces, basilico and napoletana, come in 400g jars and as such are suited to family mealtimes and quick midweek meal preparation. The remaining three tomato sauces - siciliana, formaggi and toscana, which come in 250g jars - are more suited to adult eating and entertaining. Finally, the two pesto sauces, rosso and basilico, which are described as intense and flavoursome, come in 150g jars.

Nelleke Kloet, customer marketing manager at Buitoni, says: “We’re giving retailers a great Italian double act with our pasta and sauces which we’re confident will generate strong sales and, of course, profits.”

Meanwhile the Loyd Grossman brand of Italian, Oriental and Indian cooking sauces goes from strength to strength thanks to superior product quality and new flavours that are regularly brought out to appeal to the more adventurous consumer. There are seasonal recipes, for example, available for a limited period as an extension to the range. The most recent is piccanti - a tomato, chilli, red pepper, olive, caper and white wine sauce. These seasonal variants feature a different packaging design from the existing range to increase standout on shelf. New to the Italian line-up are green and red pestos and indulgent creamy Italian sauces. The Loyd Grossman brand will be backed by a £3m national TV spend this year. The Uncle Ben’s brand, perhaps best known in sauces for its Oriental favourites, now includes a Mediterranean collection comprising Italian tomato, Spanish chicken and sweet & spicy Moroccan tajine.

Uncle Ben’s has also extended its Indian, Oriental and Mexican offering with rogan josh with tomato, hoi sin with spring onions, and Texan barbecue with sweet peppers, respectively. Most recently, two existing recipes - sweet & sour and sweet & sour with extra pineapple - moved from 350g to 500g jars to appeal to the brand’s core family market. Finally, the trend for healthy eating cuts across all food categories, which is why Sharwood’s recently introduced a healthier eating Indian sauce range. The Balanced Living range comprises three variants - korma, tikka masala and Madras - and contains at least 50% less salt, 25% less fat and 25% less sugar than Sharwood’s regular recipes. Made from all natural ingredients, Sharwood’s says it has been able to use its spice-blending expertise to reduce salt, sugar and fat levels without compromising taste. Of course, there are sound business reasons for making such changes. Rob Devonport, Sharwood’s head of marketing explains: “Healthier eating represents an exciting growth opportunity for the Asian meals category. As the fastest growing reason for food choice over the past year, healthier eating has the potential to add at least £5m to the category.”

According to Discovery’s marketing director Paul Vita, Mexican is set to be the new Chinese. Actually, he didn’t say it, he cribbed it from an article in The Mirror, and the paper was reporting TNS data which said Mexican food was on course to overtake Chinese as the nation’s second favourite ethnic food dish after Indian.

The Discovery range includes dinner kits and separate meal components and Vita says c-stores should stock both to satisfy customers. Vita says Mexican food offers consumers something different. “It’s new and it’s spicy. There are very few Mexican restaurants around so if you want a Mexican meal you’ve often got to make it at home. Another reason for its success is the sharing element - eating fajitas is a form of casual entertainment that’s becoming really popular.”

Another spicy brand worth a look is Nando’s. Phil Lynas, managing director of The Grocery Company, which sells Nando’s, reckons c-stores should stock it because, thanks to the successful restaurant chain, it is a highly visible brand on the high street. “In addition, Nando’s offers a point of difference as we have a variety of flavours that all feature the core ingredient peri-peri, which is derived from the African birds eye chillies and adds heat and flavour. Lynas recommends c-stores stock a couple of Nando’s pasta sauces too - “roasted reds plus spicy tomato. Spice is a growing culinary trend and ours has a peri-peri kick. I’d also suggest our two cooking sauces with the least distribution in the multiples - spicy tagine and curry coconut”. The recommended retail prices are £1.49 for cooking sauces and £1.39 for pasta sauces.

Tom Metson, general manager at Tiger Tiger, says retailers who really want to capitalise on cooking sauces should be proactive and keep on top of trends.

“Space will always be a constraining factor, but as well as mainstream Indian and Chinese sauces, c-stores should experiment with more unusual cuisines. Many customers like something exotic, so by stocking a more exciting range of cooking sauces they can transform their outlet into a must-visit store. “However, retailers should also remember that some consumers may need guidance, particularly when preparing more unfamiliar ethnic meals, so they should try to take a one-stop-shop approach to the ethnic category by also offering noodles, rice and accompaniments.”

Tiger Tiger’s range now includes Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Malaysian, and Thai sauces. The brand claims “unrivalled authenticity” thanks to the use of finest ingredients from the Far East. TRENDS
Younger consumers - 15-34-year-olds - are the heaviest users of cooking sauces. This is because many of them lack cooking skills and view cooking sauces as user-friendly.

35-44-year-olds are also heavy users but are more discerning when it comes to taste, health and perceived authenticity. Growth in the market is most likely to come from authentic/premium lines and smaller pack sizes. Fresh chilled sauces are performing exceptionally well.

The overall cooking sauce sector faces stiff competition from chilled and frozen ready meals, pizzas and takeaways.

The low-carb craze has put some people off pasta and therefore off pasta sauces.

Overuse of bogofs and multibuys in the grocery multiples has had a detrimental effect on value sales.
Source: Mintel