Cheese and onion - it’s one of those classic flavour combinations that never goes out of fashion. Whether in bread, as a flavouring for crisps, a sandwich or a pasty filling, putting cheese and onion together just works.
But how about as a muffin flavour? Would anyone ever choose to buy a cheese and onion muffin over a blueberry or a chocolate chip one? Ask Michele Young, retail and brand director at BB’s Coffee & Muffins, and she’ll answer ’yes’. BB’s cheese and onion muffins, made from a cornbread mix with lots of fresh onion and Cheddar, are light in texture yet very filling.
The cheese and onion muffins are one of three savoury muffins introduced by BB’s over the last 12 months in response to customer research. "We did some focus groups in-store and customers were asking for savoury muffins," explains Young. "So we started with cheese and bacon, then we had quite a few requests for a vegetarian option so we developed the cheese and onion."
The third in the range - the ’Italian Job’, a combination of cheese, pepperoni, onions and basil - was launched in the summer after BB’s ran a competition with BBC Easycook magazine for readers to create a new savoury muffin.
In branches where the savoury range has been introduced - at £1.85 each compared with £1.50 for a regular muffin - sales are going well. The biggest market is younger male customers, who tend to buy them as a breakfast snack. The muffins are served warmed in the mornings, although some BB’s stores offer them at lunchtime and in the evening, like at the Bluewater Shopping Centre in Kent, which advertises a savoury muffin and soup meal deal for £3.75 (saving 35p).
BB’s Nottingham store witnessed the biggest sales of savoury muffins between June and September 2008, at 8% of total muffin sales, followed by Hull at 5%. "Although the percentages may seem low, we recommend stores to make this specifically as a breakfast/morning product, so the percentages achieved are good in comparison," says Young. "We’ll probably look at some other ideas for savoury muffins in 2009, but a cheesy base is always popular."
Simon Binks of The Muffin Place in Norwich, which supplies base mixes for large Canadian-style muffins, says the options for savoury recipes are endless. "You can just go on and on - I’ve got about 80 recipes. It all depends on your customer base, but people are more used to Mediterranean ingredients now, such as feta, black olives, pesto, olive pastes, sun-blush tomatoes and peppers, all of which lend themselves to making savoury muffins."
Binks supplies his mixes to several cafés and bakeries in Norfolk and Suffolk, including Bushells Bakery in Lowestoft, where Matt Ellis has been trialling muffins with parmesan, onions and tomato. It hasn’t been an easy sell though. "The product is brilliant but pricing is a problem. We’re in a high unemployment area, so when people can buy a sausage roll for 70p, they’re not going to buy a £1.45 muffin, even though they’re so filling they’re like a meal replacement," says Ellis. "We’re going to try again in the new year to see if we can find a pricing structure to suit our customer base, and we’ll do some tasters to push them a bit. Because they’re savoury and full of different grains, they might appeal to people who are weight-watching in January."
Jonathan Vickers, owner of the Vanilla Bean Café in Norwich, is also persevering with his savoury muffins made with the Canadian-style mix. "We did a feta and walnut one and a goats cheese and onion marmalade, but they didn’t go very well. The mixes are marvellous but perhaps people are of the mindset that muffins should be chocolate chip - they need to be pushed to try something new. In January we’ll do a few different types and position them as a lunch item."
Leon, the healthy fast food chain, which has eight sites around London, tried offering savoury muffins but gave up after a few months due to poor sales. Lee Watson, acting manager at the Carnaby Street branch, says: "We had a lovely salmon and dill muffin with cream cheese, and a great goat’s cheese and bacon muffin. The goat’s cheese and bacon used to sell a bit, but the salmon didn’t go. I guess people think of a muffin as sweet, and salmon was a step too far."
=== Helping hands ===
Creating a muffin which not only tastes great but is lower in fat and sugar is not easy, but there are some products on the market to help...
l Frutafit inulin and Frutalose FOS are low-calorie alternatives to sugar, which produce similar results in terms of taste, texture and appearance
l SymLife Sweet is a series of natural flavourings derived from fruit, which enable a reduction of saccharose of up to 30%, while still rounding out the full flavour profile
l CakeZyme is a microbial phospholipase, enabling bakers to use up to 20% less egg, while producing cakes with added volume, softness, improved crumb structure and extended shelf-life
l Dietary fibre from apple, carrot, bamboo, citrus, cocoa husk, wheat and oats can be added to recipes to reduce fat levels without compromising the taste or texture
l Butter Buds natural dairy concentrates, made from butter, deliver the same rich flavour without contributing fat
l Sweet Freedom (pictured) is a new natural syrup sweetener made from apples, grapes and carob that tastes like sugar but has 25% fewer calories
For Sweet Freedom visit sweetfreedom.co.uk. All other products are available from S. Black at sblack.com.
=== Sweet but healthy ===
Healthier versions of sweet muffins have been around for some time, with most manufacturers and retailers offering products that are lower in fat, sugar and salt, or more nutritious, with ingredients such as seeds, dried fruits and oats.
Now BB’s has taken the healthy muffin one step further by launching a wholegrain range, made with wholewheat flour, fresh fruits, oats, nuts and seeds.
There are four flavours to choose from: berry burst with blueberries and raspberries; raspberry, apple and almond; apple, raisin and seeds; and banana, honey and oats.
The muffins have been trialled in Ireland and will go live in January in all Irish stores and selected UK stores.
Young says: "Our franchisees in Ireland have received very positive comments about the product, and we see great potential for it in parts of London and the south, especially as a breakfast item."