High festive hopes

17/10/2013 - 11:46
As the countdown to the 2013 festive season begins, caterers are gearing up for what could be a good Christmas period if the forecasts are to be believed. Sheila Eggleston reports.

Caterers know that early preparation for the festive rush is the trick for keeping ahead of the game at Christmas because it’s one of the most stressful times for everyone as they try and improve on the previous year’s experience.

There is an air of optimism that this year will be better than last. Analyst Mintel’s survey of Christmas 2012 saw an increase in consumer spending and it believes the feel-good factor about the economy will extend to this December.

It is, after all, still a time that consumers save for or push the boat out for regardless, and the main task for operators is to promote their offer well in advance.

Premier Foods executive chef Mark Rigby says caterers should start planning menus in October to give them enough time to try out new recipes and work out which ingredients they will need to stock up on, so they can then begin to introduce festive dishes at the beginning of December.

“As well as traditional main courses and desserts, caterers can introduce ethnic flavours during the festive season to avoid menu fatigue,” he adds. “For example, putting a spin on classic ingredients, school caterers can use our Homepride ready-to-use cooking sauces to create turkey curry and Chinese stir-fries.”

Meat is obviously important for Christmas menus, and while turkey is the norm there are plenty of alternatives. BPEX says buffets work well at this time of the year and a seasonally glazed premium roasted ham or gammon is a good example of a joint that works for operators.

EBLEX adds that traditional beef and lamb cuts are great but because of high demand for them at Christmas, prices are likely to be inflated.

“So if you are keeping an eye on costs, it’s a good idea to think about more cost-effective cuts, which will still deliver in terms of taste and succulence,” says the organisation’s foodservice project manager Hugh Judd.

He recommends beef rump as good value during the winter as demand for steak eases off; for example, a traditional rump roast, premium easy-carve rump and picanha roast for festive menus. EBLEX has also just launched a carvery range that includes modern roasting cuts, which are ideal for sharing platters.

Classic Cuisine is capitalising on the popularity of its turkey dishes last year and has extended the range.
“This year we’ve seen continued growth with our traditional turkey meals, the most popular being the turkey tornado topped with a festive blend of zesty orange, cranberry and chestnut wrapped in bacon,” explains new product development chef Paul Hunt.

Two of the biggest food distributors, 3663 and Brakes, sum up their respective offers as ‘Christmas made simple’ and ‘Christmas your way’.

3663 says it has responded to customers requesting a simple trading experience for Christmas 2013 – from supplying information and quality ingredients right down to the ordering, which can be done via any mobile device including phones and tablets.

This year it has more than 30 new products covering a broad spectrum of courses as well as 12 different cracker designs, and the whole range is available now. Once again, too, it is offering customers the chance to become Safari Points millionaires by pre-ordering their Christmas joints before 31 October. The loyalty programme enables customers to convert points into equipment, vouchers, experiences and more, and they can even donate them to the industry charity Hospitality Action.

Brakes’ ‘Christmas your way’ guide will be in print and online from October and includes the launch of three collections: Classic, Deluxe and Ultimate to cater for different operators’ needs.

Key findings from its research included a strong demand for a pre-prepared salted caramel dessert, a wider variety of world cuisine-themed party/buffet options and more support with planning, costing menus and promotional tools, which it says it has covered.

One particular request from operators was for more cost-effective buffet-type items to offset the competition from retail outlets. The result has been new additions such as mini oriental and Mexican snacks, a mini fish and seafood selection, steamed dim sum and steamed chicken dim sum.

“The Christmas period is absolutely critical as it is a great footfall driver and offers caterers an opportunity to raise the profile of their operation,” says Brakes’ marketing director Dave Hughes. “A memorable meal experience can make a big impression on first-time visitors and encourage regular customers to keep returning. However, making the most of the opportunity is usually easier said than done, requiring meticulous planning and a strong promotional campaign.”

Susan Gregory, head of food at Nestlé Professional, says caterers can’t afford to ignore the demand for healthier eating that will affect consumer choice at this time of the year. She indicates a survey by the Vegetarian Research Group that found that 23 million people now follow a ‘vegetarian-inclined diet’ compared with 7.3 million full-time veggies.

“But meat-free doesn’t have to mean bland or boring; just look at the vegetarian restaurant scene in London,” she says. “By incorporating exciting flavours from
big food trends such as Asian and Brazilian into their experimentation with seasonal vegetables, chefs are creating innovative and interesting dishes that is helping to drive the vegivore moment.”

She says recipes can be enhanced by using the company’s Maggi vegetable fonds; for example, to boost flavour in dishes such as an aubergine ‘steak’ for a meaty eat with all the classic trimmings.

Stuart Hiscott, marketing manager at frozen food specialist Ardo UK, says that ongoing innovation has helped ensure that frozen ingredients can make a valuable contribution to Christmas menus.

“Better freezing techniques mean that frozen Brussels sprouts are every bit as good as their fresh counterparts but without the need for fiddly preparation. Other Christmas frozen favourites include red cabbage and apple, parsnips, chestnuts, butternut squash and creamed leeks.

“We are also seeing customers experiment with some of the frozen fruit and vegetables we supply to give them a Christmas twist. Our berry mix, for example, which tends to feature as a breakfast product for most of the year, is being used to make a spiced fruity wine-based hot drink and, with the addition of cinnamon and star anise, becomes the main ingredient for a very Christmassy crumble.”

Helen Sinclair, lead category manager at CSM Baking, says sweet products including cakes and snacks can start to be sold in early December, with Christmas-themed ones typically being sold throughout the month.

“It’s not alien to customers as retailers start their big Christmas pushes after bonfire night in November,” she explains. “The focus for sweet products doesn’t have to be on the mid-end of the month and caterers can reap the benefits financially if they start serving them earlier.”

She says that Kantar reports that there was a 10% growth in value sales specifically within the bakery industry during the 12-week Christmas period in 2012 compared with 2011, and establishments need to ensure they capitalise on this and consumers’ appetite for Christmas-themed bakery products.

Mondelez International has launched a range of festive offerings and a new ‘knitted’ packaging redesign across the range for operators this season and says 2013’s is set to be its best Christmas offer ever with its long list of traditional self-indulgent lines, giving and sharing products and first ever festive TV ad campaign.

Among the new line-up is the Cadbury Dairy Milk Mousse Snowman, which it says will appeal to consumers wanting a grab-and-go, self-indulgent festive treat. It features a unique vanilla mousse filling encased in Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate.

“Selling seasonal products is a great way to drive excitement in outlets and generate incremental confectionery sales,” says Susan Nash, trade communications manager at Mondelez International. “We recommend that out-of-home operators stock a tight self-eat range, and boost this even further with branded POS to highlight key products to your customers and make them easy to buy.”

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