Gordon Lauder has worked in the food sector for more than 40 years. He founded one-stop-shop frozen food consolidator Central Foods in 1996 and under his leadership the organisation has grown to become the UK’s leading frozen food consolidator to the wholesale and food service market – providing quality products that deliver on taste, consistency and value for money.

He tells Wholesale Manager which products are hot news in the food service sector and how can wholesalers make the most of Veganuary.

Can you give us an insight into the food service sector post Covid?

The market has roughly polarised into high end dining and fast food/takeaway/informal dining. It’s the middle ground that has been suffering the greatest losses and closures – the mid-market, casual dining chain restaurants that offer similar menus.

Wholesalers should adapt to take this market shift into account. The move to a more informal style of dining includes the huge take up of the street food trend, as well as sharing dishes. This is the result of the cost of living crisis as consumers look to continue to treat themselves post pandemic when they couldn’t eat out at all, but now they are looking to do it on a budget. This trend is likely to continue with further inflationary pressures still to come. We have energy price rises of at least 5% due this month (January).

Which products are hot news in the food service sector?

As the UK’s number one supplier of frozen bao buns, we can say without doubt that these beauties are bang on trend and one of the most popular products in the UK dining world currently. They’re perfect for the street food trend and the fashion for small dishes, tapas and sharing platters. They’re ideal for the current growing interest in Asian foods, and they fit so many day parts, from breakfast, brunch, mid-morning and lunch through to starters, dinner, buffets and events. They can even be served as desserts so virtually any operator can find room for them on their menu. What’s more, Central Foods’ bao buns are vegan, making them suitable for even more customers.

Chicken is also flying at the moment, and our Golden Valley Foods poultry range is proving particularly popular. One of the main reasons is that chicken is so versatile. Whatever the dish, whatever the cuisine, whatever the trend, there’s a poultry product that suits. Chicken has a mild flavour, a great ability to ‘carry’ other flavours and spices, and it is ideal for people who have religious or cultural dietary requirements. And of course chicken is a meat that travels well, so it’s really useful for take away and delivery menus. Our customers tell us they like GVF products because they are available in small box sizes which take up less room in the freezer and also help with cash flow. They are a consistent portion size and have consistent presentation every time and this helps with portion control, accurate cash flow and stock and pricing forecasting. Repeat purchases from their customers confirms the quality of the products.

What are some of the key challenges in the foodservice sector and how can wholesalers help customers to overcome them?

Staff shortages and deskilling in the kitchen are two of the biggest challenges. Reducing food waste is another. Frozen food can help all of these and it’s one reason why frozen food has now started to shed its ill-founded and false reputation as being inferior to fresh or chilled food. Frozen food is also supplied in a consistent shape, size or portion which helps with presentation and cost controls. It’s perfect for long-term planning too and can help with unexpected demand, especially from diners with allergy requirements. Fewer staff are needed to prep and serve pre-prepared frozen products and they don’t need such a high level of skill. This frees up skilled kitchen professionals to prepare and cook chilled and fresh items.

Frozen food can usually have higher nutritional levels than fresh food, as freezing locks in the vitamins and minerals, which can sometimes be lost in the fresh distribution channels. Many food professionals recognise this, along with the convenience that frozen food brings to their kitchen, so we now see widespread use of frozen food in professional kitchens throughout the food service sector.

This month is Veganuary. How big an opportunity is it and how can wholesalers make the most of the occasion?

In recent years, there’s definitely been an increase in the number of people who are either vegan or vegetarian. But much of the growth in demand for plant-based products has come from flexitarians – people who are reducing their overall consumption of meat and dairy. This might be out of concern for the environment, for health reasons or because it’s generally more cost-effective.

We’ve seen huge development in the pre-prepared frozen vegan sector in recent times, so now it’s very easy for wholesalers and foodservice outlets to source tasty plant-based options. Veganuary – where participants are encouraged to go meat and dairy free for January – has become the perfect time for the foodservice sector to add new vegan items to a menu and to treat customers to plant-based ‘specials’.

Veganuary 2023 broke all records, with more than 700,000 people officially signing up, over 820 new vegan products launched, and an extra 790 new vegan menus added to chain restaurants. It’s well worth wholesalers bearing this in mind and ensuring they are stocking a good range of plant-based options. Share the information on social media using the Veganuary hashtag so that catering operators know where they can find a selection of vegan products to satisfy demand from their own customers.

How is Central Foods catering for the vegan and vegetarian market?

We offer a range of sweet and savoury products that are suitable for meat and dairy-free diners. We’ve made sure that these appeal to those without dietary requirements too, as this helps food service customers avoid menu proliferation and to overcome some of the challenges that the catering sector is currently facing. Some products are also dual-criteria – vegan and gluten-free, for example – as this can be a real bonus in the professional kitchen because dual-criteria menu items appeal to an even wider customer audience.

Our KaterVeg! vegan mince and other vegan and vegetarian products, which include plant-based sausage rolls, burgers, meatballs and sausages, are all popular, along with our KaterBake bao buns, our Menuserve Cajun spiced sweet potato roulade, our Menuserve Indian snack selection and our Menuserve savoury tarts. On the sweet side, our Menuserve vegan and gluten-free chocolate and cherry dessert is a real winner. More recently we’ve launched the Menuserve vegan and gluten-free Asian prawn selection and the Menuserve bao buns Hoisin jackfruit, which are delightful round pleated steamed buns, with a Hoisin-flavoured jackfruit and vegetable filling. Bang on trend and super convenient to serve.

As a supplier of both veg-based and meat analogue products, we can offer all options depending on market requirements.

In terms of cuisine, what regions of the world are popular with consumers at the moment?

Asian cuisine is right up there in terms of popularity – hence why we’ve expanded our range recently to include additional bao buns and the vegan Asian prawn selection. Chinese New Year, which this time falls on 10th February with celebrations lasting several days, is the perfect opportunity to promote Asian-inspired dishes and make the most of the trend.

What can wholesalers do to maximise sales?

Be aware of food trends in the food service sector and try to stay one step ahead if possible. Social media is a great way of reaching relevant audiences and promoting your range. Keep an eye open for special weeks or days that are dedicated to different food or drink, such as Veganuary, or of significant events throughout the year, like Chinese New Year, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Easter and so on, and make sure you have stock to cover these occasions.

Central Foods monitors trends in the food service sector and prides itself on providing all-time favourite food products as well as on-trend menu ideas. So take advantage of experts working in the field to keep abreast of what products are likely to be popular in the future.

How does Central Foods work with wholesalers to help them grow sales?

Cash flow has always been key for wholesalers but now even more so as product, energy and staffing costs have escalated post pandemic and as the war in Ukraine continues. The Central Foods one mixed pallet consolidation model allows wholesalers to purchase a wide range of products from a multitude of supply partners without having to meet minimum order quantities (MOQs).


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