West African food has been tipped by trend lists to hit the big time in 2019 and consumers are set to get a taste in the bakery section of a major supermarket.
Ghanaian specialists Uncle John’s Bakery has four of its SKUs hitting shelves in 42 Morrisons stores across the UK.
All the products are traditional bakery goods that are eaten in Ghana, based on family recipes. Uncle John’s Bakery was established by John Mensah and his wife Emelia almost 25 years ago. The company is the result of Nana Mary, Uncle John’s mother, and her family’s secret sweet bread recipe. It has a store in South Tottenham as well as supplying independent retailers.
Sweet spices, doughnuts and sponge cake
The goods set for Morrisons include its sweet bread, a signature product, which is like a white loaf but is made with sweet spices and a touch of Madagascan vanilla. It has a soft texture and is traditionally used as a show bread at African weddings, christenings and weddings. Joining it is Uncle John’s sponge cake, which has a special star shape and a rich taste.
Another product heading into the supermarket is borfot, traditional Ghanaian doughnuts with sweet spices that are often sold as street food.“In future, we are looking at different flavours infused with a jam or a custard,” Uncle John’s Bakery director Samuel Mensah tells Food Spark. “At the moment it’s just as it is, but a lot of people tend to purchase it from our store.”
The final product is the savoury chin-chin, which are also called Ghanaian chips, and are a thin biscuit, flavoured with Malibu cracked pepper. “It’s kinda like a bread stick with a bit of flavoured taste to it. It’s very moreish, so once you start eating it from a customer’s perspective they can’t seem to stop,” says Mensah.
Morrisons is looking to expand its world food categories, according to Mensah, and a buyer approached them after seeing them exhibiting at a trade show. They worked together to decide on what products would be best to list.
“We have around 20 products in our own store and distribute around 15 to local shops and grocery stores, so sweet bread is our signature loaf –it’s what started the whole business. The chin-chin and doughnut and sponge cake are pretty much our next bestsellers,” he explains. “So we thought it’s best to start with that – that’s what people know the most –and then see how we can grow it from there.”
Previously, Uncle John’s Bakery products were distributed in Tesco through a sub-contractor and the business is hoping to get their products back in stores in the future.
“We can see it going to other supermarkets. They tend to say once you are in one, others are keen to get you in the stores, so in the future I do see it growing,” he comments. “We already distribute throughout the whole of the UK. We go throughout the whole of the Midlands and Scotland and we go out to Belgium and France – just based off local grocery stores that we deliver to and distributors that take them.”
It’s the perfect time to highlight Ghana’s food and culture, particularly as people are increasingly travelling there – with CNN picking it as one of its top places to visit in 2019, says Mensah. He thinks business like his allow people to have a taste of Africa when they arrive back in the UK, as well as giving people from the country the flavour of home.
“It’s definitely good for people to see ethnic-based goods in supermarkets in time a where people like to try new things and experience new things,” he says.“I think a prime example is Nando’s who do chicken in a certain way. It’s the same with us, we specialise in what we do, it’s very niche but at the same time, everyone has their sweet tooth and I think with what we are doing it should definitely grow in terms of the outreach.”
Uncle John’s repertoire includes seven different types of breads and not all are sweet, unlike a lot of the range going into Morrisons. There’s tea bread, an artisan hand-rolled speciality, shaped like a mini baguette, which is low in sugar and slightly crusty, but soft and fluffy on the inside and a platted bread, called the twister, which is glazed and perfect for sharing. Mensah is particularly proud of their chocolate bread, made from Ghanaian fair-trade cocoa, which they want to promote more widely.
In store, they also sell coconut cake, carrot cake and a coconut version of its chin-chin. Pies are also part of the staple containing chicken, meat and fish and Ghanaian flavours.
Gluten-free products and vegan offerings are also in the pipeline, he says. “We have been looking at market trends and the way it’s going with healthier eating – it’s something that we do ourselves – so it’s only right we do the same with our products,” he comments.
Uncle John’s Bakery move into major retail follows Unilever’s launch of its Red Red range last year – their vegan, gluten-free snack pots inspired by popular Ghanaian dishes and start-up DVees which created snacks, spices and a range of other West African-inspired condiments that it is selling on Amazon.
So will Sparkie be grabbing some Ghanaian goodies?
This is exactly the kind of thing I think is going to become a lot more mainstream. Customer curiosity for traditional cuisine is huge business right now. The market is wide open for this type of offering. Any product is possible really, within the realms of common sense, it just needs to be as authentic as possible.
The easiest to move would be cuisines that the country is familiar with – Indian, Chinese, Italian, Mexican, etc. – anywhere that the food was previously diluted to suit our palate.
The other side of this though is that cuisines which are brand new tend to get a lot of media focus, so there really has been no better time to try and introduce something new. Owners should be aware,however, that the crowd that this draws will expect it to be good, so anything below their quality bar might suffer.