Where do you go if you want the true taste of the south-west, to find a proper Cornish pasty made to a traditional recipe, with locally sourced ingredients, a rich handmade pastry and produced locally? Well, London obviously.
With franchise pasty outlets popping up left, right and centre over the last few years, and one train station in the capital boasting no less than four pasty concessions - not to mention the likes of Delice de France, which also sells pasties - the pasty has bucked health trends to become a popular takeaway snack.
Among the retailers are catering company SSP’s The Pasty Shop, which has around 15 locations in London, going head to head with Cornish Bakehouse and West Cornwall Pasty Co, which are proliferating at a steady pace. This is hardly surprising given that central London, particularly in the train stations, has the kind of footfall that foodservice operators kill for.
Many food-to-go ventures can gain momentum in the capital - the idea being that if the model works, with a bit of tweaking, other big cities would follow suit. And when a franchise opportunity becomes attractive to independents, this snowballs nationally, as has begun with the pasty retailers.
According to Ian Stone, business development director of Apetito UK, parent company of pastry products manufacturer Waldens, savoury pastry snacking has been moving distinctly upmarket over the past 18 months. The company’s data shows that the big winner in all of this is the humble pasty. Pasties now make up nearly 30% of the savoury pastry snacking market, compared with just over 20% five years ago (TNS Superpanel).
"It’s all about provenance," says Stone. "You only have to look at the number of traditional Cornish pasty shops that now populate the high streets to see that pasties have become very fashionable again. Until recently, if you wanted a pasty, it was either steak or beef. Today, you can walk into a shop and buy anything from a lamb and mint pasty to a curry pasty - even chocolate pasties."
Major bakery wholesaler Bako has responded by spearheading its new Bako Finest range with Cornish pasties and pies. "Our customers can easily identify such products and source them simply through Bako, with the confidence that we have thoroughly checked them out for quality," says a spokesperson for the wholesaler.
Authenticity is a real boon and while large chilled pasties have long been a presence in supermarkets and forecourts, there is a consumer shift to hot, baked-off, on-the-go products, with a higher quality and a provenance. While the chilled pasty market is reasonably mature, the take-away pasty trade is yet to take off fully, says Proper Cornish’s national account manager Mark Muncey. "There are lots of places in Britain that don’t have them, so there’s a big opportunity. In Cornwall, there are towns that can hold three to four pasty shops quite comfortably. It’s something everybody can eat and it’s a very broad market. In coming years, I think we’ll see the supermarkets seeing a need for a more premium, regional products too," adds Muncey.
In fact, premium organic brand Duchy Originals has already spotted this gap and launched a packaged pasties range in July, made in its Launceston bakery in Cornwall, and targeted at the multiples.
The supermarkets aside, what marks out the franchised pasty offering from the foodservice crowd is simply offering a single product that customers can understand, rather than catering for all tastes. With a small number of Cornish producers sharing supply to the same chains, major pasty-producing firms, such as Proper Cornish, are benefiting. It started out in 1988, servicing the locality by handmaking pasties, and now delivers frozen to many of the national franchise chains.
"We work with many indepen-dents and there’s a proliferation of pasty shops all over the UK," says Muncey. "People are realising that it’s a good business to start up. Now it’s - dare I say it - acceptable to eat in the street, the pasty has become successful as a take-away product. A pasty shop can generate enough sales on pasties alone to be a good branded business."
Nailing the retail experience - from customer service to shop layout to point of sale - is key. And capturing ethnic flavours increases the pasty’s appeal, such as Balti pasties or an Italian-style tomato and basil offering. A wide range of pasties will cater for most tastes, from vegetarian pasties, such as cheese, broccoli and sweetcorn or spicy vegetable, to cheese and ham and traditional steak pasties. But with little to choose between the chains’ offering and each of them playing up the quality, provenance and freshness of their baked-off product, how do retailers distinguish themselves from the competition?
"They are all very good companies," says Kazan Rafic, joint director of retail chain Cornish Bakehouse, of its competition. Cornish Bakehouse, which has an annual turnover in excess of £8 million, employs around 120 staff and started in Cornwall in 1992. It opened its first London outlets three years ago and now has 20 outlets in London, Wales and the south west, with five more in the pipeline. "There is enough room for all of us in London, if not in the south west. We’re always trying to make the product range better, and people come back time and time again."
One of its suppliers, Crantock Bakery, says there is plenty of mileage in drafting new recipes and flavours. "We are always looking out for new opportunities and, as with sandwiches, there are many things that can go into a pasty; we have created interesting fillings from spicy chicken pasties to a full English breakfast pasty and even a haggis pasty for one of our customers in Scotland," says MD Nick Ringer.
Crantock Bakery has increased local sourcing by 100% since 2003, following the introduction of a ’local purchasing’ policy. The bakery, founded by brother and sister team Frank and Tess Bradshaw, initially made a few pasties from their butcher’s shop in the village of Crantock near Newquay in the 1980s. It has since grown to a 25,000sq ft purpose-built facility at Indian Queens, near Newquay, capable of producing 80,000 pasties and other bake-off products a day.
Bought out in October 2002 by Ringer and operations director Matthew Hurry, a £1.2m investment in blast freezing facilities, staff facilities and equipment has helped it step up production to supply several pasty retailers, including Cornish Bakehouse, The Cornish Oggy Oggy Pasty Co and Proper Pasty, as well as many smaller retailers via the wholesale market.
Broadening its horizons, Crantock has teamed up with two Spanish-based retailers - The Pasty Shack and Tasty Pastry - who are opening up shops across Spain. Since autumn last year, The Pasty Shack has opened six shops, with three in the pipeline. "We see the future of the business in developing new markets, whether in the UK or Europe," says Ringer.
Crantock pasties can now be found across the Continent, and developing the overseas market is a key part of its future strategy. The firm recently signed a distribution deal for Portugal with a former Cornish farming couple, who intend on opening a number of Cornish food shops across the country under the name The Cornish Range. "We are also exporting to Germany and Holland. Export sales account for 10% of turnover," he says.
Growing export opportunities exist on the Continent and in Ireland, concurs Angie Coombes of regional food body Taste of the West, though it is yet to be seen whether domestic growth will continue in light of the pasty’s less-than-healthy image and ongoing health trends, she concedes. "There has been a long period of growth in the franchises," she says. "But I wonder if the bubble will burst [following the healthy eating debate]. Trends come and go but this one seems to be retaining a lot of consumer interest."
One imminent development is the bid to grant the Cornish Pasty PGI status, the regional protection given to traditional products and recipes, following an application lodged by The Cornish Pasty Association in April 2003. The association represents small one-off craft producers and large firms operating out of Cornwall. A lengthy period for objections has passed in a bid to avoid a repeat of the whole Melton Mowbray pork pie debacle, in which Northern Foods challenged Defra’s application for PGI status for the pie and only this week decided to withdraw its appeal.
"It’s between the devil and the deep blue sea," says Coombes, as the Cornish Pasty issue gets set to pass from Defra to the European Commission, with a government spokesman confirming that the process is nearing the end, but unable to confirm a time-frame.
"We’re not looking to prevent people from calling something a pasty, but if it’s a Cornish Pasty it should be made in Cornwall to a traditional recipe. PGI is invaluable from a business and investment perspective."