Interview with an Innovator

Iceland Head of Development Neil Nugent: ‘The future’s frozen’

One of the leading lights of retail innovation on why smaller is better, the promiscuous modern consumer and the biggest challenge for 2018.

15 December 2017
chefsfrozenNPDseafoodsupermarkets

Nugent on Paper - CV

  • Started out in restaurants, including Moulin de Mougins and Bibendum
  • Since moving into food development, has had senior roles at Asda, Waitrose and Morrisons
  • Joined Iceland in February 2016 to lead product innovation

When Neil Nugent declares that the “the future’s frozen,” he’s not talking about apocalyptic, icy superstorms in the vein of The Day After Tomorrow (we don’t think). No, it’s the potential for decreasing food waste and ensuring freshness that has him singing the praises of frozen ingredients and meals. “It’s easier to capture flavour when you made it and froze it immediately,” he assures us.

Considering Nugent works for Iceland, it’s tempting to take this with a pinch of scepticism. However, the facts appear to back him up, with more consumers paying attention to how frozen fruits and vegetables can preserve certain minerals and vitamins, not to mention the monetary savings made by throwing less away. According to Kantar Worldpanel, the past year saw retail sales of frozen food in the UK grow 5.4% to £6 billion.

It’s no surprise that Nugent is on the money, considering his two decades of experience with supermarket big-hitters like Asda and Morrisons, creating a whole range of foods. One of his more famous achievements involved collaborating on Waitrose’s hidden orange Christmas pudding with Heston Blumenthal. His work at Iceland involves experimenting not just with frozen goods, which make up around a third of the total range, but also the chilled items and general groceries.

Though Nugent is now one of the most influential retail chefs in the UK, he had no idea that such a job was even possible when he began in the kitchen. “When I first started off my career I didn’t know this existed. I kind of fell into it,” he says. “I was working at a restaurant in Leeds opposite Asda House, where I learnt the ropes of food and development.” Today, he spends most of his time in the £2.5 million kitchen constructed specifically for Iceland innovation. So, moderate expectations from boss Malcolm Walker then…

 

I’ve been cooking over 30 years, right from being in home ec class. At 18 or 19 I started working with Roger Vergé, who was a big inspiration for me.

A restaurant kitchen is quite an isolated place actually, whereas working in a retail kitchen, you learn a lot about food. You’re working across thousands of different products. We’re constantly trying to change and introduce things to what people eat in their repertoire every week.

I spend 80% of my time in house, in the kitchen, looking at food, developing recipes. The rest of the time is with suppliers and in agency meetings. In house, we’re constantly reviewing what we sell. And we do a lot of social media.

The pace of stuff now, you’ve got to be agile. We’re in a position now where we can flip things out in weeks. We’re nimble enough to do it.

Working in a retail kitchen can be grinding, kind of slow. That we can be a bit sharper at Iceland is due to having a smaller group. A lack of hierarchy and a smaller team makes it easier. Recently for example, we decided to have a little health push that will land in January.

Street food, pop ups, how do you translate it in retail? And will it work? That’s something we’ve got our eye on.

We’ve just done some of the best ice creams I’ve ever been involved with, working with PizzaExpress. They’ve won awards, but they just don’t sell well. I’m not sure why, the name may be off-putting: tiramisu ice cream. If people try it, they’ll buy it, but are they going to buy it? That’s the problem.

You’re only as good as your next dish. That’s why it’s hard to think about past products. Your mind has to be on the future.

Sometimes, things you might not be so sure about sell brilliantly well. Other times, you research it to death and it just doesn’t shift. The reason can be something daft, like the name, the description, the packaging. Because it tastes great.

You’ve got to stay within the boundaries of what people are familiar with. It’s hard to step outside that.

Iceland is not turning luxury at all. We’re just offering cracking value. For example, we’re now selling really good cheese, really good bread. And following on from that we’ve added crackers, chutney and jam. We thought we had a few gaps and were trying to plug them really. Ordinarily, customers would shop somewhere else for those things. Now they can get it all at Iceland.

Current shoppers generally are quite schizophrenic. They’re so promiscuous. Demographics almost don’t exist in the current consumer market.

We want to attract savvy shoppers. People come into Iceland for value or out of surprise at what’s on offer. It’s a varied customer base, just like most of the retailers.

Being the number-one seafood specialty retailer in the UK, that doesn’t exist unless it’s been frozen. How else would someone get their hands on fresh seasonal fish?

One-fifth of Iceland sales are delivered to home. One-fifth are either purchased online or bought in shop and then delivered. Personally, I buy everything else online, except for food. I’m old-fashioned that way.

What is going to change some things is trying to maintain good value. Food prices are definitely going up. So development chefs are waking up to that.

Probably the biggest shift in food development in the past year is how to keep the price down without losing quality. You can talk about miso paste and seaweed, but quality without compromise is the biggest challenge facing development chefs.

The biggest mistake development teams make is developing food for themselves, without feedback from anybody. It happens a lot. I’ve worked with people who take garlic out of food because they don’t like garlic. 

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