Festive sandwiches are big business, but what other seasonal opportunities are there for sandwich players? 

Not everyone looks forward to Christmas. While most of us are stuffing our faces and flopping out on the sofa in front of Love Actually, sandwich manufacturers and retailers are feeling decidedly unloved.

“Sales of sandwiches dip sharply just before and after Christmas,” says Martin Wood, head of strategic insight at IRI, pointing to the 15.4% slide in volumes in the four weeks before Christmas 2017 [versus 4 w/e 2 December]. “It’s unsurprising, as most sandwiches are bought as lunch by people who are at work or on the go.”

But innovation has helped to mitigate the seasonal slump. The British Sandwich Association says it has seen a steady increase in demand for Christmas sandwiches. “Seasonal sandwiches are here to stay,” said a spokesman. While the best-selling festive sarnies have been traditional fare – such as turkey, bacon, stuffing & cranberry – Christmas ranges are becoming more indulgent. Recent festive offerings included Waitrose’s duck & blackberry chutney, and Pret A Manger’s lobster & prawn thermidor.

Sainsbury’s launched a snow globe brioche (see p40) and, with indulgent lines often carrying higher prices, festive fare helps offset the seasonal fall in volumes.

Offering such lines isn’t risk-free. “It takes about six months of development,” says Isla Owen, senior marketing manager at Adelie Foods. “It’s only a seven-week period we are catering for, so there is a risk involved.”

Retailers have learned this to their cost. “In 2015, convenience travel customers wanted to offer something similar to M&S,” says Owen. “The products were too risky – we did curried egg & cranberry to give vegetarians a choice from standard brie & cranberry. This year we went back to the classics.”

That said, vegetarianism, flexitarianism and veganism have led to a surge in meat-free launches. “This is not a fad,” says Richard Thorpe, market development director at Ornua Ingredients. “The vegan trend notwithstanding, this is driving the use of cheese, the number two sandwich filling, and we can only see this share increasing with the growth in vegetarianism.”

While this presents new opportunities, there are also challenges. “Food suppliers are under pressure to provide exciting options for vegan customers,” says Stacey Cosens, marketing assistant at sandwich supplier Raynor Foods.

Other events offer NPD opportunities in sandwiches, but some suppliers contend these need to be of a decent length.

“Those with short time spans such as Valentine’s Day are more difficult for larger retailers and producers to deal with economically,” says Greencore.

Meanwhile, summer sporting events are gaining growing attention from the sector.

Last June, Asda launched a Wimbledon-themed line to coincide with the event and Adelie ran with a coronation chicken sandwich in a beach hut pack in a bid to appeal to picnickers. And there are other opportunities in 2018, say suppliers. Signature Flatbreads suggests that when the World Cup kicks off in Russia in June, the sector could cash in with lines reflecting the cuisines of competing nations. Meanwhile, New York Bakery Co reckons the Super Bowl offers another untapped opportunity.

Others suggest the holiday season gives retailers the chance to get more adventurous. “Look to global cuisines for inspiration – hot Cuban-style sandwiches created with layers of ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese and pickles are popular or, for a lighter variant, try Danish smørrebrød,” says Pan’Artisan new business development director Chris Dickinson. “A more ‘deluxe’ range could enable a higher profit margin.”

Perhaps Christmas could come early for sandwiches this year.

Sandwiches with a difference

Snow Globe Christmas Dinner Brioche, Sainsbury’s

Priced at £3.50 and packaged in a clear plastic dome, the brioche is stuffed with turkey, bacon, Brussels sprouts slaw, stuffing, mayo and cranberry & port sauce, then topped with edible stars.

Very Merry Vegan Christmas Lunch Sandwich, Pret

The filling for this vegan version of a Christmas lunch (£3.50) comprises grilled carrots, baby spinach, crispy onions, crispy pecans, port & orange cranberry sauce and vegan stuffing.

Steak, Stilton & Quince Sandwich, Waitrose

Two slices of red onion bread sandwich shredded seasoned beef, creamy Stilton, quince chutney and seasoned mayonnaise. This indulgent offering is priced at £3.18.

Vegan Hummus & Beetroot Sandwich, Raynor Foods

This addition to Raynor’s growing vegan range has been launched as retailers ramp up their vegan offer. It mixes beetroot, carrot, red onion and hummus on malted brown bread.

Post-Brexit labour threat

Sandwich suppliers are facing significant labour pains in the wake of the Brexit vote.

In November, British Sandwich Association (BSA) director Jim Winship welcomed government plans to allow EU migrants to stay in the UK post-Brexit. But he also issued a warning.

“A number of EU citizens have already left and there is already a shortage of labour in the market, which would normally be filled through the free movement of EU citizens within the UK,” he tells British Baker. “If the inward flow dries up due to immigration controls, we face some very serious economic problems in the years ahead.”

The response from the BSA’s members has been varied.

Greencore says it is “working hard to ensure that we are an attractive employer of choice through a broad range of group-wide initiatives”.

Adelie Foods, meanwhile, says it is looking to “embed a quality culture” across its operations.

“To facilitate this, we took the decision two years ago to start converting agency staff to permanent, salaried members of the Adelie team,” explains marketing director John Want. “This has enabled us to provide security for our staff and allow us protection against a fluctuating labour market.”