Tipped to grow by 3.2% annually, the UK’s vibrant and diverse eating out market is crying out for new, exciting, and healthy food
There are “real opportunities” in the UK foodservice industry for global fresh fruit and vegetable suppliers to offer something new or different to UK market and demonstrate innovation with new varieties or fresh produce items.
So says Tony Reynolds, managing director of national fresh produce foodservice supply specialist Reynolds, who points out that the sector is not only highly competitive, but also expanding – in contrast to the stagnating growth being experienced by the UK’s top four grocery retail players.
£83bn – Value of UK’s eating-out market
300,000 – Number of eating-out outlets in UK
£3.5bn – Foodservice spend on fresh food
“Foodservice is certainly an attractive supply avenue for any exporters looking at the UK,” Reynolds tells Produce Business UK in an exclusive interview.
“The eating out market is always looking for the new, latest thing because there’s a breed of modern chefs in the UK who like to experiment with food and introduce new ideas to their menus.
“There are also opportunities to sell a much more diverse range of products than perhaps through the traditional retail channels,” Reynolds continues.
“For instance, the Asian and Mexican restaurant businesses are growing phenomenally well in the UK, which is quite exciting. So there’s a fantastic opportunity for anyone supplying products suitable for these markets.”
In addition to the demand for new and exciting food, there is a real buzz and growth around healthy eating in the UK, says Reynolds, with fresh food at the top of the agenda.
“There’s been an emergence of quite a few fast food operators focused specifically around healthy eating, many of whom Reynolds supplies,” he adds.
“It’s certainly an opportunity for foreign exporters to supply functional foods with specific nutritional qualities or benefits that the operators can sell and market to their own consumers, in the form of a superfood or detox salad for example.”
A number of recent initiatives and changes to UK legislation, such as free meals for primary school children, are also helping to drive the consumption of fresh produce and presenting greater options for the industry.
At the same time, the rise in food prices has led many foodservice operators to reduce the size of the expensive component of a dish to save costs by offering a smaller piece of meat, while adding more salads and vegetables, which also paints a positive picture of the future of the produce business.
Importantly, Reynolds says there is a “huge opportunity” for imports because produce grown in the UK only makes up 23% of what UK consumers eat.
“There is an expectation from consumers to eat local or British produce when they visit restaurants,” he admits.
“But as a country we have limitations around what we can grow. What we produce in the UK will only ever make up an element of operators’ menus and that will always have to be supported by imported produce.”
The total eating out market in the UK has grown by 2.4% on average per year over the last three years, according to statistics from foodservice insight provider Allegra.
Looking forward, though, the overall market is set to expand by around 3.2% annually over the next three-year period.
Within the category, the branded restaurant sector and branded fast food chains are both on course to grow by around 5.9%, while branded and managed pubs are tipped for even greater growth of around 7.2% – all at the expense of the independent sector.
Reynolds says large restaurant brands have exploded onto the UK foodservice scene in recent years, largely at the expense of independent operators.
At the same time, the variety of eating-out establishments has increased exponentially, particularly in London.
“London now has perhaps the most diverse food offer of anywhere in the world,” he says. “You really can eat pretty much any cuisine type you can imagine and some you probably couldn't imagine!”
Quality is key
As trends that have their roots in London quickly spread across the country, the eating-out market is thriving more with each passing year across the UK.
As a result, the supply landscape has become highly competitive, with national and local operators vying with the traditional wholesale market business. This in turn, is having a positive impact on standards.
“Food quality has improved beyond recognition because there's no longer anywhere to hide with the increasing popularity of social media,” Reynolds says.
“British consumers are also more savvy than ever about what food should look and taste like because they’re better travelled.”
But Reynolds also says it is not just the leading restaurants that demand top quality, but the entire out-of-home sector.
“General standards in UK foodservice have improved massively. All of our suppliers work to farm assured or GlobalGAP standards. Traceability is really important to us, so these standards are essential.”
Reynolds adds that foodservice operators in the UK are now looking for the same, if not better, quality products from their suppliers as the retail supply chain.
With tight turnaround times and specific customer requirements, fresh produce has to be just-in-time, fit-for-purpose and as uniform as possible.
“We require consistent sizes, quality and specification week in week out because our customers demand it and both their and our reputation demands it,” he says.
“Take avocados, for example,” he says. “Our customers need to know that they’re really ready to use because they’re serving it to customers that day and an unripe avocado simply won't do.
“Some customers come to us because we are specialist greengrocers. For instance, they might want a particular sized and shaped strawberry to go on top of a cake or gateau. We work with our customers to a specific brief so we need suppliers that can act accordingly.”
As such, Reynolds says there are huge opportunities for specialised fresh suppliers who are able to offer more than just the cheapest fresh produce, meat, fish or dairy items.
“It’s about being able to offer knowledge and expertise in your field, the best customer service and bespoke solutions,” he states.