A bid to lose some “bakery baggage” has seen Croydon-based craft baker Coughlans continue to roll out its rebranding as Munch and, in the process, scoop the Baker Sandwich Maker of the Year at the Sammies for the second year running.
The rebrand has given Coughlans the confidence to try new things, says managing director Sean Coughlan (pictured). This means a continuing focus on updating recipes and keeping a keen eye on the big-name high street competitors.
“People get bored very easily,” he says of consumers’ fickle lunchtime habits. “We work really hard on coming up with new recipe ideas. We’re constantly looking at what the opposition does, but we’re also very conscious that we don’t copy other people and retain our own identity.”
The new stores certainly have that, with the distinctive lime-green branded fascia replacing the brown hues of old. While the balance of products remains largely untouched, the baker’s high street profile has been boosted. Six of its 20 shops have now undergone the revamp. “We didn’t stand out enough in the past,” states Coughlan. “I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, you’ve got a new shop now’ when we’ve been there for 20 years!”
The facelift was inevitable; around 70-80% of Coughlans’ trade is now done at lunchtime, with bread and cakes making up the remainder – a complete reversal of its past trade. Sandwiches are key to its strategy and are freshly made on request alongside around 20 ready-made sandwiches on panini, ciabatta, baguette and sliced breads. The biggest sellers are the bloomer and pre-packaged wedge sandwiches.
One aim is to “bring the restaurant market into sandwich fillings”, he says. This means catering for an increasingly discerning crowd. The philosophy applies across the breadth of offering, including coffee, for which it sells premium Italian brand Illy. “We’ve gone for the top end on everything we do. The coffee, the uniform, the packaging – all have completely changed,” says Coughlan. “We’re not making humdrum, boring sandwiches; we bring out a new sandwich every week.”
Up to 10 ingredients go into the fillings, and Coughlans does not buy in mixes. Most pre-packed sandwiches in the market with mixed mayonnaise fillings all look the same. “They all look grey,” he adds. “I really can’t stand mixes. Some places put mayonnaise in every sandwich. There’s a market for that, sure, but it’s certainly not a future market. We’re buying top-quality ingredients, and I’m a firm believer that you’ve got to be able to taste each ingredient. You can’t beat a chicken, bacon, avocado, spinach and tomato sandwich, with a bit of mayonnaise on the bread. You don’t want to hide those flavours.”
Confidence in inventive ingredient combinations and a touch of brand flair have seen the coffee and sandwich chains steal a march on the bakers. Coughlan says “There’s a lack of trust in bakers when it comes to sandwiches.You would be happy to go into a Pret A Manger anywhere because you know what you’re going to get.”
He believes in harrying suppliers to come up with new and interesting ingredients, and to source items for his own creations. He also urges losing some of the “bakery baggage”. “Bakers have to see where the future is, and it’s not in bread. I love the trade, but there’s no point in flogging a dead horse,” he says. “It’s about us battling to get customers. You’ve got to be different to drag them in.”
FILLINGS - THE INSIDE STORY
As Sean Coughlan, managing director of Coughlans stresses, the café and sandwich chains, with their slickly branded, varied and highly desirable sandwiches are sweeping up the lunchtime trade. Many bakers, though not Coughlans, see ready-made mixes as one way to compete. They widen the sandwich repertoire, without having to switch hats, step into the kitchen and invent original recipes, or prepare fillings from scratch.
Fillings suppliers can also help keep bakers in touch with lunchtime trends. The dozen or so most popular fillings, such as tuna mayonnaise, coronation chicken and mixed cheese and spring onion, will always provide the core offering, but with office workers buying sandwiches five days a week, people inevitably crave the occasional break from egg and cress.
“We’re constantly upgrading our range and following the trends, which are for sandwich fillings on the drier side, such as glazed and marinated ingredients,” says Maxine Wing, sales and marketing director for Kent-based Fresh Start Prepared Foods. The firm distributes 400 varieties of fillings nationally, sup-plying sandwich manufacturers, bars, airliners, restaurants and hotels. Crayfish and dill, she says, is “quite a trendy thing now”; minted lamb, barbecue lamb, hoisin duck, aromatic duck, and salt beef and dill are also proving popular. For vegetarians, falafel or mozzarella with roasted vegetables are good sellers, she adds, while houmous, olives and kidney beans are recent additions.
The catchment area and typical customer type should always guide the baker’s range, and more outlandish fillings might better suit inner-city traffic, where a cosmopolitan spread favours international tastes, affording the baker the freedom to experiment.
But common among customers is a waning demand for mayonnaise-based mixes, claims Wing. “A lot of people are trying to get away from mayonnaise now,” she says. “Low-calorie dressings are popular at the moment, as are glazed meats, such as Mexican chicken, which comes in a mayonnaise-free sauce base.”
Andrew Vagasi, production director of the London Crispy Bacon Company, which manufactures 70 different mixes and distributes nationally, agrees that marinated dry mixes rather than mayonnaise-based mixes – which he concedes are cheaper to manufacture – are now in vogue.
“We do cater for sandwich manufacturers but mainly for sandwich bars, and they tend to want more upmarket fillings than the cheap and cheerful mayonnaise-based fillings used by sandwich manufacturers,” he says.
He adds that he follows a 70/30 ratio of filling to mayonnaise, compared with the more common 50/50. “That’s where we differ from the other sandwich filling manufacturers,” he believes. Cheese-based mixes have also seen a dip recently, he adds. “Because of bird flu, we thought that people would go more for our vegetarian fillings, but we’ve found that pork and beef mixes are picking up instead.”
The word “vegetarian” may come as a surprise from a company that has “Crispy Bacon” in its name; but since starting out manufacturing bacon seven years ago, it has supplied a whole range of sandwich fillings. These include chicken-based fillings such as hot and spicy, tandoori and tikka, made from fresh ingredients and using no ready-made sauces or pastes.
“We don’t put any preservatives in,” says Vagasi. “Everything is made from scratch, and
the market seems to be going more towards the ‘natural’ way.”