Breige Donaghy says her job title is always a dinner party conversation starter. She’s the director of delicious food at the Co-op. “People always ask: ‘What’s your title? What do you do?’ So I usually say I eat for a living, and then everyone thinks it’s the most amazing thing. And then you have to explain that although you eat for a living and have the joys of going around the world and trying new things, you also have the challenges of trying to look after your waistband,” she says, laughing.
She describes food as being in her DNA. She loves bringing people together and “talking, touching and thinking” about food. She also gets quite the buzz when she sees a new product on a shelf and consumers interacting with it.
When she is not wearing different hats at the Co-op, where she focuses on everything from product development through to food policy, she is also a mum of two.
“It will make you giggle – my daughter is four and she will walk around the shop going, ‘Did you make that mummy?’ if it has a Co-op sign on it. I tend to say, ‘Yeah, I did in a way,’ and she gets so excited and asks, ‘How did you make that?’ and ‘What are you going to make today in the kitchen?’
While she is dabbling in the flexitarian movement at the moment and trying to bring her family along for the ride, Donaghy also can’t go past something hot and spicy, so Mexican is a favourite.
Here, she gives us an insight into what is happening in Co-op’s kitchens, stores and beyond…
I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t really interested in food. I’m from Ireland and I had a family friend who is Italian, and her getting everyone in the kitchen and coming together was one of her biggest things.
I worked for Tesco for 12 years in many different roles, but it was all connected to food. So I started off in product development and then got heavily involved in their local sourcing program.
I joined the Co-op five years ago where I came in to do product development, as part of their True North journey. So it was really when they were putting food back into the heart of the business and we realigned ourselves to get back into the convenience market.
We were the first to put British protein in all of our ready meals and our sandwiches, and we’ve continued that. We’re going to complete that journey this year in terms of investing again by ensuring we have British protein in all of our frozen products.
I think the health agenda for me is just getting more and more interesting. As a retailer, we were the first ones to put GDAs [Guideline Daily Amounts] on the front of our packs. Our ambition as a business and one of the things I’m very passionate about is being able to provide a healthy choice on every meal occasion, whether its breakfast, lunch or dinner. That is the key space that customers eating patterns have changed so dramatically over the last decade. I think people are much more aware of their health and much more aware of what they are consuming and how they are consuming it.
I have a team of 20 developers who work across all the fresh food, frozen, grocery and non-food, so we sit with our own-brand team to set the strategic direction, our values and agenda, either from a seasonal events point of view or health perspective or promoting an area of our brand.
At the moment I’m indulging myself in vegetarian food. It was one of the big trends for last year and now it’s going to continue this year, it’s the whole growth around flexitarian. We did a trip out to the States last year and it was really interesting to see how vegetarian food has just become so much more exciting and actually there is no compromise.
Listening to our customers, they are asking for more and more [vegetarian food]. I wouldn’t necessarily think we are behind [the US], but I think we need to provide the choice to the customer.
I think there has been quite an explosion in terms of restaurants and street food, and that is now translating into the retail sector. We have got a very vegetarian credible range, it’s just about how we elevate that to our customers and talk to them and provide inspiration.
People are more interested now in food and what they are eating then they ever have been, and I just think that’s fantastic. You look at customers’ experiences, they are travelling more, they are eating out more and there is the influence of digital and the influence of TV programs.
Don’t underestimate the power of The Great British Bake Off or MasterChef to give people that inspiration and connection to food, because it’s real people.
I think we have got more sophisticated in our stores and formats, so it’s not a ‘one size fits all’ program, we are being much more targeted on who our demographic is.
We have done a lot around grazing, and that’s a huge area of growth for us, whether it’s our protein snacking or healthy snacking as well, and I think that’s just something we will continue to evolve on.
If you ask me which is the product I’m most proud of and where we did the biggest step change in terms of our offer from a Co-op point of view, it was when we relaunched all of our pizza ranges. Our Irresistible pizzas are one of the most fantastic pizzas out there – we went back and looked at the starter culture for our mother dough, we looked at the type of base sauce we used, the provenance on our ingredients for our toppings and started to play around with what would make us really different versus the market. And we took it a step further on how recyclable our packaging was.
The 100 stores we have identified [to open this year] will have a tailored range, it allows flexibility to test new programs as well as to test products before we roll them out.
No one wants to go to the big hypermarkets anymore and have that end of day doing their groceries; they want that quick, easy in, easy out pace, but still want to feel inspired. And it’s about how do you bring that inspiration to the front-of-house for customers that are drawn in.
From a food trends perspective, we are looking a lot to the States again, but also Australia, just to look at their approach to eating and how they are bringing people together. A lot of the work the team would do is around work and home life balance, and there is a lot more of that culture of eating out in Australia. I think that’s the interesting space, it becomes a lot more of a sociable eating space, and how does that play out as a trend and what type of cuisines are we seeing?
There is quite a lot of fusion in Australia, and I think we find that an interesting piece and how that could translate back.
A lot on our mind is how to bring those fermented foods and pickling into our offer. I think there is also the space around the growth of flexitarian and vegetarian.
Interestingly enough there is a level of nostalgia that is floating around, and it’s about reconnecting with food, so people are looking for their home comforts still and want to reconnect with what they had in their childhood. How can you do a twist on your lasagne, and how do you make it more accessible to them?
I think what people are really interested in at the moment is around that personalisation of health for them. I think that one of the biggest challenges that we as retailers have at the moment is understanding how you allow your customers to personalise their health and give them healthy choices, so that they can build that around their lifestyle.
I think you have to find the right moment on the curve to launch a product and really listen and understand the customer base. I think that you have to take your customers on the journey with you. If you identify the trend, it’s about being able to pinpoint when is the right time to bring it to market, and have you tested and learned from your customers before you go to full rollout?
My favourite dish if you go to that home comfort, nostalgia space, is butternut squash risotto, but I like to do it with toasted walnuts to add some texture to it. It’s one of those ones that can be a family favourite or you can make it into an entertainment dish as well.
My kids tell me I’m a good cook. I would count myself a good cook, but that’s a bit like marking your own homework.