Fried, salted or coated in countless different flavourings, the potato crisp is the snacking leviathan that has so long formed a daily staple of the – at times – less than healthy British diet. However, a combination of greater awareness of the importance of healthy eating and product innovations has delivered a new challenger to fried potatoes: fruit and vegetable crisps. Produce Business UK finds out more
To put matters into context, the UK retail value of potato crisps was an estimated £1.37 billion in 2014, down 0.9% from £1.39bn in 2013 (Mintel, 2015). This was despite an overall 14% increase in the category’s retail value between 2009 and 2014.
In context, the total retail sales of crisps, nuts and savoury snacks in the UK totalled an estimated £3.54bn in 2014, up 1.8% from £3.48bn in 2013, which suggests that recent growth in the category is coming from non-crisp products.
This is borne out by recent research, which has found that some 40% of regular crisp buyers were interested in purchasing sweet potato crisps, while almost a third would move to apple or pear-based crisps (Mintel, November 2014).
Further evidence comes in the form of Grimsby-based vegetable crisp manufacturer Scrubbys, which lists sweet potato crisps among its range. Although only set up three years ago, the company, which is now listed with Waitrose, is forecasting a turnover of £350,000 for 2015.
Independent British potato crisp manufacturer Corkers Crisps became the latest company to stake a place in the emerging market with the launch of its first vegetable crisps earlier this year. Following an investment of over £1 million in a specialist vegetable fryer, the Cambridgeshire-based company, launched the first in its new, non-potato range – mixed vegetable crisps – in May and promises to follow suit with more flavours.
“We’ve been trading in the UK for four years now and have identified a gap in the market for high quality, hand-cooked and home-produced vegetable crisps, which is exactly why we’re launching the new range,” says Corkers director and co-founder, Ross Taylor.
The company will focus initially on crisps featuring locally-produced beetroot, parsnips and carrots, as well as sweet potatoes imported from the US.
These success stories could well be followed by a string of ambitious new entrants into the alternative crisp market, all confident of taking a bite out of traditional fried potato sales.
One such company is Nim’s Fruit Crisps, whose story is not only inspirational, but also illustrates precisely why crisps that use non-traditional ingredients could have a bright future on the UK’s supermarket shelves.
A former coffee shop-owner in suburban south London, Nimisha Raja first saw the potential for a healthier form of non-potato snack in response to demand from local mothers. “Children and their mothers would come in from the school opposite and one of the problems they had was finding healthy snacks because the children always wanted crisps,” she explains.
Although Raja tried selling existing brands of freeze-dried apple crisps, she felt they were “not quite natural”.
Taking matters into her own hands, Raja decided try and create fruit crisps herself and set up a makeshift kitchen in the garden shed of her Battersea home.
With the aid of a meat slicer, she experimented with different fruits whenever time allowed, during evenings and weekends, focusing on keeping the cooking temperature at a level that enabled the dried fruit to retain as many of its nutritional properties as possible. “I did a lot of research, then worked to get a product that still had a nutritional value,” she says.
Fruits were also combined – such as kiwifruit with pear – to produce combinations that were better-tasting and also more cost-effective – pear is significantly cheaper than (imported) kiwifruit.
Raja handed out completed packs to local shops on a sale or return basis, but soon found that she was having to re-stock displays by hand due to burgeoning demand for the crisps.
With seven different flavour combinations now available, Raja is currently focusing on setting up a factory operation on an industrial scale to meet demand that has since spread from local stores to upmarket retailers, with luxury department store Harrods among those who have sold the brand.
Raja says the success of Nim’s Fruit Crisps to down to consumer interest in a healthier alternative to conventional potato crisps, and believes fruit and veg crisps will eventually break into the mainstream snack market.
“Walkers produces 11m packets of crisps every day, so I don’t think fruit and vegetable crisps can replace savoury crisps, but I think they will certainly take a big chunk out of the potato crisp market,” she predicts.
An even-more recent entrant to the vegetable crisps market, although by no means a fresh arrival to the produce sector, is Scott Farms International, the UK subsidiary of North Carolina-based sweet potato exporter, Scott Farms.
Buoyed by interest garnered at foodie events, the company recently developed a line of sweet potato crisps that it believes will find favour with British consumers.
With demand rising year on year for sweet potatoes in the UK, Scott Farms International’s CEO, Stan Smith, says the move into the crisp market has been a natural progression for the company.
Smith notes that sweet potatoes are rapidly establishing themselves as an attractive alternative to potato crisps, adding that Scott Farms can offer “absolute provenance” when it comes to sourcing since the firm grows the sweet potatoes itself.
To date, the company, which now manufactures the crisps at a UK location, is offering two bagged variants – original and three colours; the latter taking advantage of the fact that Scott Farms produces sweet potatoes in orange, purple and white varieties. Smith claims this visually-striking product features flavours that perfectly complement each other.
Initially being promoted at consumer food fairs, such as the recent Cheltenham Food & Drink Festival, Smith is confident that it’s only a matter of time before the range is listed with major retailers. “The feedback we get from visitors to these shows about the crisps is – ‘they’re not oily, they taste good and where can I buy them?’,” he says.
“We talking with the supermarkets and progressing with some good conversations, but like anything it takes time,” Smith concludes.