Interview with an Innovator

Higgidy’s Alysha Luckin: ‘We know we have to expand out of traditional British flavours’

The director of food at the pastry brand talks about experimenting with insects in pies, why they avoid pulled meat and the challenges of finding a replacement for palm oil.

15 February 2019
bakeryflexitarianfree-frommeatplant-basedsustainabilityvegan

Luckin on Paper - CV

  • Began her career at Mr Kipling as a product developer
  • Went on to become a development technologist at Unilever
  • Joined Higgidy five years ago, rising to director of food

Alysha Luckin says it’s important that Higgidy is known as an accessible brand, which means no one is called a chef at the company – they are all everyday cooks.

The company, which turned over £25.2m last year, was established by husband-and-wife team Camilla Stephens and James Foottit to specialise in pies and quiches. It has since expanded beyond pastries to include frittatas, with Luckin leading the innovation team at the business. She also manages the process and technical teams, which means overseeing food safety and quality.

Prior to joining Higgidy, Luckin had a varied career, from stints at Monty’s Bakehouse and Nature’s Way Foods, to spending some time at Unilever, where she worked on a range of soy-based juice drinks that was recently sold to Coke. Her work has taken in breakfast pouches, beauty drinks and a carb range that had to launch in a 12-week timeframe.

She chats with Sarah Sharples about Higgidy’s plans for wheat-free frittatas, how snacking is driving development and why she isn’t interested in meat replacers.

 

When I joined Higgidy, the NPD team was only three, and now it’s got nine people, so we have really grown it.

We like to source locally where we can, so we get our sweet potato and butternut squash from a company based in West Sussex. But to counter that, we do believe in provenance, so our feta comes from a family-run business in Greece. We have worked with our free-range egg supplier for over 10 years, and three or four years ago we started working with Alec Mercer at Packington Free Range chickens.

Our founder Camilla is active on the food side of the business and she always has an open pile of cookbooks by her bed. We are always flicking through magazines, checking out Instagram to see what consumers are enjoying or reposting, and we also do food safaris. All that helps us with our NPD pipeline and direction to make sure we are on trend.

Back in October 2017, we launched our frittatas, which was our first step outside of pastries. Higgidy has always been known for its pastries, it’s our heartland, it’s our core, but there are negative connotations linked with pastry. It’s really important we don’t forget our core and know where we come from, but we are looking at other ways to bring in new consumers with health, etc.

One thing we know is that there is a difference between what people say and what they actually do. Although health remains the number-one concern, we know it doesn’t stop consumption in bad things like chocolate, crisps and biscuits, which are all in growth. So it’s trying to make sure we are not missing that indulgence that people definitely want. We still need to service that need as well as being mindful of the trend of veganism, vegetarianism and flexitarianism and all those ‘isms.’

We now have three flavours of the frittatas in the retailers, and we are looking at taking that one foot further by potentially making it completely wheat-free so it offers a real solution for someone who maybe wouldn’t buy Higgidy previously. With the frittatas, we are going to be looking at different sizes too.

We have this special guest product that rotates during the year which is sold in Sainsbury’s, so it sits alongside all our other pies. In 2014, we thought it would be a really good idea to do a Higgidy recipe hunt, so essentially people could write in and tell us the pie that they wanted to have made. There was a lot of engagement around it – we had over 800 entries.

We chose the top three recipes and then the public was asked to choose the winner. It became clear when we were going through some of the suggestions that some of them were really wacky. We probably had three just for a tuna mayonnaise pie – I’m not really sure how that was going to work – and pheasant and sardines and all sorts of crazy things.

When we looked at the ones that were being suggested the most, we had a chicken roast dinner and pulled pork and sweet potato pie, which the public chose. The lady (who won the competition with her recipe) came down, she made the pie with us, it was all going really positively from our side – except it didn’t sell.

It was our worst-selling pie at that time, and one of the reasons we identified is that pulled meat probably doesn’t work for us in a pie format. People are expecting to be able to see good quality meat and having shredded meat in a pie isn’t where we are with our premium-ness. We thought it was going to be brilliant, but trying to convert a consumer recipe into an actual working recipe is really quite difficult and gave us a few more challenges then we expected.

Our innovation around rolls, especially our vegetarian rolls, is where we are seeing huge growth and it’s really exciting for us, as we are moving from a single-serve format into this more sharing, family-orientated, bigger pack size formats. Having different pack sizes and therefore different price points means we can attract different consumers.

60% of our sales are through our vegetarian products. We have always been at the forefront of vegetarian flavours, so when we launched our spinach and feta quiche, it was unheard of, whereas now own-label tend to follow in our footsteps, so we always have to make sure we are one step ahead.

We are seeing more and more people snacking – it’s probably one of the biggest things that is going on.

With this new snacking format we are trying to attract people who have busy lives and are looking for something convenient, finding that easy solution for them and hitting that fourth meal that we know is a big trend.

We just launched in January our first vegan pie, which is a creamy mushroom pie, available until April. We’ve seen an amazing response not just in sales but in terms of social media.

Vegan is big. Everyone knows that from the Greggs vegan roll and the bleeding burgers that are taking the shelves by storm. We think you can have great tasting veggie and vegan food that heroes the veggies – we are not trying to use meat replacers.

We are doing some more development around vegan, which is great. Camilla is also writing a veggie cookbook that is launching in August. We are looking at other categories we might be able to move into and are doing lots of exploration.

I was told a fact that Kantar Worldpanel claimed that 30% of the population is going to be non-white British by 2050. I think we all know – with the world travelling more and with social media and the speed that people are sharing information – that fusion cuisine is going at a super fast speed and it seems any kind of combos go. We did launch our paneer, coconut and chickpea pie back in October 2017 and that was quite a big step moving away from traditional pies into a slightly different cuisine. It’s worked really well. We have a spiced aubergine out as well with a filo top.

We know we have to expand out of traditional British flavours and that actually people expect us to do that. More specific regional dishes are becoming popular, but we also know cuisines are being influenced by sustainability and social responsibility, so we have to be mindful of that as well. I think we are an established brand and we have to be true to our core, so we have to make sure if we do any of those flavour profiles or world cuisines that there is an understanding of why we have done it. It’s not just sticking a pin in a map and saying we are going to develop this, it has to taste good and work well with pastry.

We get 30ish comments a week from our consumers. They are very active and engaged, so we get enquiries about doing more vegan products, obviously palm oil, but the majority is on plastic.

We want to do the best we can from a responsibility point of view on plastics but we also need to make sure it’s not damaging to our products. Our products get made, they get packed and transported through a supply chain and put on a shelf so they need some protection around them.Pastry isn’t generally hugely robust, so the packaging needs to work with it to help it, but equally we know that adding extra single-use plastic isn’t where we want to be.

A few weeks ago, we changed our parcels out of plastic acetate and put them into paper cases. We are just looking at our second sub-category now. We won’t have a solution in place in six months, but we are on a journey to do what’s right and make sure that when someone gets their premium product home that it arrives in a state they would expect.

There is a lot of talk about West African food. Middle Eastern is huge with the Ottolenghi effect and his cookbook last year is making the cuisine very accessible to everyday cooks. Italian seems to have taken one step further to being very modern. Lots of cooking seems to be about ease to the consumer – so one pot or one pan.

People are now looking at using the tail to gill of a fish, so what other bits of fish could we be eating?

There is also this movement towards more insect-based foods and sustainability, so rather than being purely about veganism it’s about plant-based, flexitarian, being able to feel like you are doing some good by reducing meat intake but by not compromising on an offering – that you will still get something tasty even though it doesn’t happen to have meat.

I quite like the pastry hybrids. No one thinks it’s going to stay, it’s driven by Instagram and people wanting to photograph the most crazy food, like those freakshakes, but it’s fun to look at and it’s made food exciting – and that’s the main thing, to get people excited about food.

Last year we did look at insects and put some stuff out internally to gauge reaction. That wasn’t particularly serious but it was interesting to see how it works. You have to try a lot of things to find that one nugget you can take on.

With palm oil, we are looking at what other solutions are around, but palm oil is so unique that it makes it quite tricky to replace. It’s so unique in its properties in terms of how it behaves; if you use something like coconut oil or something else you might end up moving back to hydrogenated fats, which isn’t good from a health perspective. So there is no real option yet to make great-tasting pastry that gives you the same qualities as palm oil. Our palm oil is sustainable and fully segregated as we know it’s very emotive to consumers.

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