There’s nothing quite like a good, juicy dust-up between industry giants to shake things up, is there? Especially when it’s between two heavyweights who are about to knock ten shades of - shall we say chocolate brownies - out of each other.

In a "let’s get ready to rumble" moment, wholesale foodservice giant Brakes exclusively revealed to BB last month that it would be fronting up to arch rival 3663 in a head-to-head grapple for the bakery foodservice market.

While Brakes weighs in heavier - it’s currently the biggest foodser-vice wholesaler in the country - the form is with number two player 3663, which, for many years, has dominated bakery foodservice supply, classed as everything from sandwich and coffee shops to catering and hotels, and a market believed to be worth about £266m.

So the stage is set: an out-of-form giant facing an uphill struggle to regain the belt. Most remarkable is that Brakes has only been in training for nine months, having decided last summer to target bakery. Since then, it has established a dedicated bakery division and engaged in a whirlwind of new product development.

The real work started in August 2008, following a hefty chunk of market research across corporate and independent customers, in which they identified 100 product gaps, and scrubbed out some repetition and poor sellers. Senior purchasing manager Emma Kent says the time was right for Brakes to up its game. "From the response we got back, I think people were looking for another player in the market," she says.

"We found there were 60 true gaps versus our competitor’s. We didn’t just want to be ’me too’ and replicate their range. We tried to understand, from market research, where we could add to the range." This led to a total new product launch of over 70 skus (stock-keeping units). "That’s normally a year’s worth of product development for us and we were looking to launch that in one month," she says, somewhat exasperated.

Suppliers were handed a breathless four-week turnaround to pitch for business and present new product ideas and prices. The result is the launch of the new division La Boulangerie, which division head Simon Cannell describes as "the total shop". Within that, the La Boulangerie brand is attached to a line-up of products - from artisanal breads to Viennoiserie, alongside Brakes-branded items, ranging from burger buns to sliced breads.

But given the short time frame, can the quality of the products really stack up against that of its established rival? A view of the new range suggests the Cannell has not settled for default products on the market, but pushed the boat out a bit to overhaul the perception that Brakes was mainly about commodity bread. "Within our range we realised that we did not have a speciality section," he explains. "We really wanted to rectify that. "The feedback we got - quality wise - was that quality was fairly consistent across the main competitor. The main things that came out were about the breadth and depth of our range; we were seen very much for our commodity bread lines."

So he focused on the key development areas of artisanal loaves, sandwich carriers, and what he calls "traditional" bakery - traybakes, muffins, flapjacks and Viennoiserie. "We needed a much broader range. Whereas before we had a really good all-butter ready-to-bake croissant and a fully-baked croissant, that was it. We’ve now got everything from a ready-to-prove authentic French croissant, a fantastic 24% butter 16-laminations croissant, a crescent shape for the UK market and a premium, gold-plated, all-singing, all-dancing ready-to-bake French croissant that has won awards in France."

And while Brakes has been working to FSA salt targets, it has notably taken a refreshing "there’s some products you don’t touch" approach to its no-nonsense, properly salted focaccia with cherry tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil, where other focaccias in the market have pandered and suffered from blandness. Having said that, the revamp is not just about premium artisanal products, and includes a sub roll, designed for independents to compete with Subway.

While The Brakes Group already has a bakery and food-to-go division in Country Choice, Cannell says, the crossover was "surprisingly minimal". He aims to make inroads into coffee shops. "We knew there was an opportunity to develop this business solely dedicated to foodservice," he says. "One of the key sectors where we probably didn’t place well was the coffee shop market. We’ve got products in the range that really address that, and we’ve already got loads of ideas to be developed."

But can Brakes really become number one in bakery foodservice, given that many accounts are tied up in long-term contracts? "On the corporate side, we already had five customers confirmed pre-launch. So, over the next two years, I think we’re going to see some really significant wins." And we’ll be taking ringside seats to see who comes out on top.


=== Brakes/La Boulangerie at a glance ===

The Brakes Group: La Boulangerie is purely foodservice-focused, with a special eye on the café market; Country Choice is also a division of Brakes, offering bakery retail food-to-go, from bread, sandwiches and confectionery to doughnuts and savoury pastries

Key personnel: Simon Cannell heads up La Boulangerie as ’bakery specialist’; Emma Kent is the senior purchasing manager; NPD manager is Peter Innes; marketing and product manager is Neil Smith and Par Liddar is technical manager

Products: 70+ new products alongside 200 existing skus


=== Simon Cannell on the new range ===

l Artisan loaves: "It wasn’t about finding artisan-style products for us; we really wanted to do this properly and they all fit within the Real Bread campaign. We found a proper traditional artisan bakery called Brown Sugar, based in Henley-on-Thames. They are phenomenal. They use a 60-year-old ferment, in which they’ve added wine from the local vineyard. It’s not too overpowering a sour. We’ve also got more basic doughs, but with interesting shapes and exciting visuals, and seeded breads and rolls, which is an area we needed to bolster."

l Sandwich breads: "We have a caramelised onion loaf, which is not too overpowering; a multigrain baton, which was a great find because most in the market are too uniform; an artisan baguette, which is nicely aerated; a unique ’Oxford sandwich bread’, again by Brown Sugar; a twisted ciabatta; and a good, proper crusty white roll. Believe it or not, trying to find one was a nightmare!"

l Muffins: "People take their standard muffin mix, put it in a tulip muffin case, and charge double the price for it. We’ve gone for a really premium quality. For example, I would never normally touch a carrot cake muffin - I call them bird feed muffins - because they’re normally very dry. But ours has got cran-berries, sultanas, shredded carrots, lots of different seeds and it’s packed full of flavour. And our treacle toffee muffin is... awesome!"

l Signature product: "An absolutely unique product that we’re really excited about - and nobody else would be crazy enough to make it because of the ridiculous amount of time it takes - is our rosemary tree bark bread. It starts with a foot-long piece of dough that’s pockmarked, doubled in size, proved for two hours, stretched to double-size and pockmarked again, proved, and then the process is done again and again until you have a six-foot long dough, which is cut into squares. The female market is moving away from bread, and this is a much lighter eat."