A front-runner in UK bagel manufacturing, Maple Leaf Bakery has invested in the redevelopment of its branded bagel range and hopes to widen its eating occasions. Georgi Gyton finds out more

There are several stories about how the humble bagel came to be. Some believe the word bagel is derived from the German word ’buegel’, meaning stirrup. It has been said that, in 1683, a Viennese baker wanted to pay tribute to the King of Poland, who had saved the people of Austria from an onslaught of Turkish invaders, by producing a roll resembling a stirrup, in commemoration of the king’s favourite pastime. Others say bagels were invented much earlier in Poland, as a competitor to the bublik, a lean bread of wheat flour designed for Lent, and were a staple part of the Polish diet in the 16th and 17th centuries. All I know is that they are amazing when toasted and filled with bacon and cream cheese.

Whatever their origins, bagels made it big in America after Jewish immigrants bought them over around the end of the 19th century. Bagel businesses thrived in New York City, and there was even a union dedicated to them. As with many things Americana, they also made their way across to UK shores, where companies such as Maple Leaf Bakery UK have driven the market considerably. Bagels are something the Americans are very passionate about, with shops such as H&H bagels in New York City seen as a destination outlet. The shop has even been used in number of major Hollywood movies. This passion is what Maple Leaf is hoping to instil in UK consumers.

Maple Leaf make-up

The business, part of Canada Bread which is 89.8% owned by another Canadian firm Maple Leaf Foods is focused around three product groupings: bagels the origin of the business; and Viennoiserie and speciality, which were acquired businesses. It also produces some sliced and ISB bread. Its bagel business is concentrated in Rotherham, with Maple Leaf the first company on a commercial scale in the UK to use the traditional bagel-making process, which involves passing the dough through boiling water before baking it.

Despite the growth of the bagel market over the past 10-15 years, the firm was keen to drive even faster growth of the market by getting consumers to eat bagels more frequently, and to encourage them to use them for a variety of different eating occasions not just breakfast. Following months of research, the redevelopment of its bagel recipe and, subsequently, the production process, the firm has announced it is to relaunch its New York Bakery Co brand in early-January 2011, backed up by a £2.4m marketing drive. The new-look and -taste bagel, along with revamped packaging and a new ad campaign, is designed to bring a taste of New York to Blighty.

When marketing director Simon Foster joined Maple Leaf UK in January this year, he decided to find out what was working at the firm and what wasn’t. After visiting the plant in Rotherham, undertaking extensive consumer research and visiting the heartland of the bagel, New York City, he jokes that he probably knows more about bagels than is healthy. "We asked our customers for feedback on what we were doing well, and not so well, which helped us understand how we can get this business growing at the rate it deserves to," says Foster.

He says a key visit for him was the trip to New York, in order to find out and understand what New Yorkers’ views on bagels were. And what did he find out? Well, that New Yorkers have an "almost manic passion" for bagels, like the English alternative of a passionate real-ale drinker. He says they all had an opinion on where the best place to get a bagel was, and about what constitutes a truly authentic bagel. "If we’re being honest, we once knew what that was in the UK, but we’ve wandered from that path," he adds.

The product has been reformulated, so that it can be used un-toasted throughout its shelf-life, whereas the old bagel was only really suitable for toasting at the end of life, says Foster. The new recipe is around 10% heavier than the old one, the bagels are now fatter and have a smaller hole; the size of the hole being very important in determining the authenticity of the New York-style bagel, says Foster. According to Americans it should be no bigger than a dime (around 17mm in diameter), or it’s a reject. Incidentally, the smaller hole makes the bagel more suitable for sandwiches, as your filling will be less likely to fall out. It also makes the product a lot bolder, which helps tackle the challenge of visibility in the morning goods fixture, explains Foster.

The new pack design features varied strips of colour on the front of the pack to represent the different flavours, and has a "tasteful New York red brick" style. It needs to maintain the aesthetic of a premium food product, but bolder colours will have more impact on-shelf, he explains. The firm has also invested heavily in the quality of the ingredients it uses, including much better-quality flour, he adds. The relaunched range will feature six varieties, available in a five-pack format: plain, cinnamon & raisin, sesame, multi-seeded, onion and a new addition wholemeal. Its top three sellers plain, cinnamon & raisin and sesame will also be available in four-packs.

Research results

The firm carried out ’usage and attitude’ research, quizzing 600 consumers for 20 minutes each about bagels. "We asked them chapter and verse about their bagel consumption what? where? when? why? and how? We set out to investigate how to drive consumer value in all aspects of our product, from the recipe and packaging to promotion and advertising," explains Foster. "We found out a number of things we didn’t know before. Firstly that consumers don’t have bagels top of mind when they walk into a food retailer. The usage and attitude research showed that 62% of bagel purchases were bought on impulse, compared to 38% of consumers who actually had them on their shopping list," he explained. "Consumers will walk through the sliced bread aisle and buy whatever they need from there, then they will turn the corner into morning goods and, at that point, they’re shopping free-style, they’re open to suggestions, thinking about what they might have for the weekend brunch occasion." Interestingly, the research showed that consumers weren’t put off by the cost, he says, it was just that they had forgotten about bagels as an option.

Managing director Peter Baker reiterates: "It’s about getting bagels to consumers’ front-of-mind again, in an area that’s traditionally a discretionary purchase. It’s also about moving them from single usage to wider usage." UK consumers tend to just eat them for breakfast, either toasted or not at all, so there is a big opportunity for growth, adds Foster. Across the pond, for example, they use them for lunch, as an alternative for sandwich bread, and they don’t just toast them, he says. "We need to educate UK consumers that bagels are great for lunch as well - it’s a huge opportunity." Adds Baker: "The product we had in the past was not very amenable to do that, because it was much better toasted. We’ve now changed the product proposition so it is a much more acceptable lunchtime eat as well."

Foster says the bagel market is far from mature, and although he is realistic enough to know that not everyone is going to buy bagels as often as they buy sliced bread, he says if Maple Leaf can get those consumers already buying bagels, to buy them twice as often, then that would be a notable result.

Bagel facts

lBagels are bought by 23% of UK households, with 640 bagels eaten every minute in the UK (source: AC Nielsen Scantrack and Homescan, MAT to October 2010)
lNew York Bakery Co bagels are bought by 15.2% of UK households, 3.5 times a year
lThe firm has 47.6% market share (by value) up 1.4% year-on-year (source AC Nielsen Scantrack and Homescan, MAT to October 2010)

How bagel sales figures stack up

According to the latest data from Kantar Worldpanel, plant and ISB bagel sales saw a 1.89% increase overall to £46.1m for the 52 weeks to 31 October 2010. Sales of plant bagels increased 3.6% yoy from £37.3m to £38.7m, while sales of ISB bagels, dipped 6.21% yoy from £7.9m to £7.4m over the same time frame. Despite the overall increase in spend, volumes were down, falling 1.07% for plant bagels, and 2.94% for ISB.