For a long time, the focus in the sandwich trade has been on developing novel flavours and ingredient combinations for fillings, while sandwich retailers have often seen the bread as an afterthought. But some are now thinking outside the triangle.

Not missing a trick, David Bal-mer, food technologist at Marks & Spencer, who heads up its sandwich range, endeared himself to bakers at the British Sandwich Association (BSA) conference this month by saying, "Bread is the most important part of the sandwich."

"We’ve tended to focus on fillings and what goes into the product," he said.

"But there is a need to focus on the bread itself. The challenge for us and - our bread suppliers - is how can we improve on what we already do?"

Over 216,000 tonnes of bread were used in commercially-made sandwiches last year, according to latest BSA estimates. This means there is huge scope to vary the types of breads used.

"The UK bread market is hea-vily swayed towards plant bakers; they’re large-scale, high-volume and there’s a market for that. But we need to look at what other breads are out there," said Balmer.

When it comes to retailing sandwiches, all eyes are on M&S. The firm, which claims to be the first to sell pre-packed sandwiches in the UK in 1980, trails behind only Tesco and Subway for value sales and dominates the premium high street trade.

But it is the small independent stores that are showing the way forward - both at home and overseas - by using a wider assortment of sandwich carriers, said Balmer.

While the wedge sandwich remains king in the UK, he cited the food-to-go capital, New York, where wedges are in the minority and sandwiches come on anything from sourdough to rye to multi-seed and in baguettes, bloomers and bagels.

"Inspiration comes from getting out there and looking at some of the fantastic small deli bars and coffee shops.

"At M&S, we don’t have all the answers but we can pick up on key trends and try to stay ahead of the game."

One of those trends is environmental impact. A complete shift away from plastic packaging towards cardboard took place at M&S last year, with a more environmentally sustainable pack designed by Nampack.

But solely from a commercial standpoint - the cost of the new packaging set against an eight-week trial at the end of 2004 that yielded little or no uplift in sales - the decision to switch to cardboard would not have been made.

M&S absorbed the investment in kit and the extra cost of the packaging rather than passing it on to its supply base.

"I won’t tell you how many millions of pounds that cost us but, as a business, we now have a sustainable format," he said.

"We’re having big successes where we’re going bigger, bolder, and with improved presentation."

Seasonality is another major trend - an area where the retailer has so far struggled, he conceded.

"There’s plenty of availability of raw materials, but getting the right quality is the key challenge. There’s a growing army of people in the media and the industry looking to make more of seasonal products."

Food scares, such as the recent free-range eggs scandal, with some nine million battery eggs sold in the UK as free-range, have tested the public’s trust of food manufacturers.

Similarly, food miles are a growing concern, with every item sold in the UK estimated to have travelled on average 1,000 miles before it reaches the consumer.

This, coupled with the shift towards the demand for fresher products on the high street, will mean questions will be asked of the distribution chain.

But while some retailers are hea- vily reliant on brands, M&S’s 5,000 SKUs are 100% own-label, which means it can effect change, stated Balmer.

"To the frustration of a lot of our suppliers, we control the supply chain tightly - we don’t just let suppliers go out and buy key raw materials. That gives us differentiation."

Most consumers are open- minded about trying new products and experiences, he argued, and M&S has 65 food technologists charged with developing new products. This includes an ’additive-free’ range, designed to meet consumer demand.

The retailer is finding new ways to reach its food-to-go customers, extending its Simply Food format into service stations and forecourts with BP’s Connect chain.

Meanwhile, its website offers online buying of catered sandwiches, targeted at businesses and boardrooms.

M&S has been "been fairly arrogant over the years", he admitted, but chief executive Stuart Rose, who took over running the retailer in 2004, has challenged its somewhat cosy business culture and brought product innovation, service and store environment to the forefront of people’s minds.

"I can’t overstate the importance of service," said Balmer. "It’s becoming one of the key points of difference within any business.

"It’s well-known that we paid an American £1m to come and train our store staff in good service. Simple things like asking ’how was your day?’ can make a real difference.

"Innovation is not just about innovative products but also an innovative mindset, and that is gradually seeping through." n


=== Sandwich facts ===

Latest figures for sandwiches show that:

l Nearly half of all sandwiches bought last year (48%) sold for an average of £1.67 - a rise of 13p

l People buy on average one sandwich a week, spending £1.82 a week

l Chicken is the nation’s favourite out-of-home filling (30%)

l Over 216,027 tonnes of bread were used in commercially made sandwiches last year

Total commercial sandwich market

Value £’000s £4,585,786

Packs ’000s 2,700,348

Commercial sandwich market growth

Value = +8.9%

Volume = +0.3%

(Source: 52 w/e 13 August 2006, The Sandwich Report 2006, TNS Superpanel/British Sandwich Association - compiled from 5,000 consumers reporting their sandwich purchases via texting and telephone interviews)