Interview with an Innovator

Iceland’s David Lennox: ‘I think every supermarket is in the same boat at the moment – I think everyone is feeling the pinch’

The supermarket’s new head of product development talks to Sarah Sharples about nailing personalisation and experimenting with vegan sponges and puff pastry.

6 September 2019
chefsdessertfrozenitalianNPDpersonalisationsupermarkets

Lennox on Paper – CV 

  • Began his chef career in restaurants like Michelin-star Inverlocky Castle and Skido Castle, before opening his own place in Leicestershire
  • Moved into various development roles, including at Bakkavor, Morrisons and Waitrose, where he worked on the Blumenthal range
  • Started as senior development chef at Iceland in 2016 before being promoted to the top spot this year

David Lennox has kicked off his new role leading Iceland’s innovation department with a bang. The supermarket is introducing more than 550 new or improved products in what is described as its biggest ever own-brand shake-up. The NPD was based on intensive research, analysing customer feedback and reviewing product recipes, with additions including Thin & Crispy Southern Spiced Chicken Pizza, Ridiculously Crispy Crinkle Cut Chips and Lemon & Herb Tempura Basa Skinless Boneless Fillets.

“It all derives from getting back to basics but leaving space for innovation, so hopefully what we are doing will entice customers,” explains Lennox, adding that he hopes to continue changing consumers’ views of frozen food.

Iceland will also roll out 500 limited-edition products over the next 12 months – created with an investment of around £2m – which will last until sold out. This range looks to tap into seasonal events like Halloween, but also uses a number of trends from restaurants, street food, takeaway and social media. Products include the likes of Stilton Pie, Frozen Pomegranate Seeds and Salt & Pepper Chips.

A new frozen Italian range is coming too, in collaboration with celebrity chef Gino D’Acampo, including pizzas, pasta and desserts, with some surprises for customers on the hunt for unusual ingredients.

While it’s been a busy development period over the last year, Lennox tells Food Spark there is still more to come with a focus on quality products, vegan desserts and Japanese food.

 

My father was a long-distance lorry driver for many years and he used to take me to France when I was a kid. My earliest memory of food is sitting in a bin yard in an old kitchen, with a big, wide, wooden table, drinking bottled water and eating pâté out of a Kilner jar. When I was six or seven, we didn’t really have that in Scotland.

I was always interested in the development side of food… I wanted to learn new cuisines, new ways of working and new ingredients. I find it really intriguing.

You’re a big thing in a small place when you run restaurant kitchens. When you move over [to development] you are a very small cog in a lot of big wheels and a big environment, so you almost have to be humble enough to start from scratch. Some people can’t do that as they like being head chefs and executive chefs. I wasn’t of that mindset, I was more interested in the knowledge and trying to learn a new path.

The new role for me is working closely with the frozen and chilled directors. It’s about quality first and foremost. We’re not going back to the beginning as we have amazing products in cabinet, but really we are trying to drive the quality and make sure what we are developing and what we are putting out there for customers to buy is quality comes first.

Over my career, I’ve developed thousands of products. In another retailer, we did 11,000 products in 18 months and I was involved in probably 50% of those… But even since I’ve been in Iceland we have done quite a few ranges, whether it be street food, vegan, Italian, luxury – so probably in the early thousands as well.

We did a truffle turkey last year – it was only in for one year – and I thought it was amazing. This Christmas coming we are doing another version, which took quite a few trials to get the recipe right.

If you ask Neil [Nugent] he will tell you desserts [are my favourite category to work on]. I am quite interested in desserts. I was a pastry chef at one point in my career and I quite like the ins and outs… The desserts we’ve done at Iceland, I think we’ve kind of stretched what’s possible.

The chocolate snowflake we’ve had for the past couple of years [at Christmas] with the melting centre – every time we showcase it, I think it’s an amazing product. Everyone does the whole melting chocolate thing, but it turns into a chocolate soup when you do it with a sphere and pour the hot chocolate sauce over. You lose the structure of everything. But the way we designed it, where the sauce goes in the middle, everyone can get the same portion.So you get the best bit of the warm chocolate sauce but then you still get the structure of the rest of the dessert – I just think it was a very clever design. It makes it really fun for the customer, which is what we are supposed to be doing.

I think every supermarket is the same boat at the moment… I think everyone is feeling the pinch... But Iceland are really great because they want to innovate, they want to differentiate, they want to stay relevant and innovation helps us stay relevant, so we have to keep driving forward with the innovation. I see in other businesses as soon as belts get tightened, as soon as the numbers don’t start coming in, they basically start taking money out of product and start reducing it and it all becomes a bit of a mess. But in Iceland as soon as that happens, the only way we are going to get out of that is innovating.

We obviously do a lot of trend work with various different outside companies. But I also look at quite a lot of restaurants and what’s happening there. All you need to do if you want inspiration is look at the Top 50 Pellegrino and what’s happening. You’ll have restaurant Mirazur, who won this year, who do amazing food. You’ll have the Roca brothers in there – Jordi Roca has his own ice cream outlets now called Roca on the Door where he is doing brilliant ice cream, so if you want ice cream innovation at the highest level you can get inspired by just looking at what the guys in the restaurant industry are doing. That’s just a small part of it, we have quite an open mind, we try and look everywhere we possibly can.

It’s very difficult to tell what’s going to land and what’s not. You can put loads of work into something and it doesn’t land or go anywhere, and you can put a day into something and all of a sudden it shoots off – sometimes there is no rhyme or reason to it.

The rise of vegan is phenomenal and we were looking at some vegan sponges the other day and vegan puff pastry. These are all way in the development process, they’re not even attached to a product yet. We have obviously done really well and we have got a great vegan range, but we are really trying to push that forward and see what we can do.

There is a cabinet getting launched probably [next year] and it’s going to be about personalisation. Quite a few retailers have tried it where you can pick from various different protein and noodles, etc., and it usually lasts for a bit of time, but we think we have got the right mix of products.

For me, Japanese is going to be massive as a trend just because of what is happening next year with different sporting events and everything else… I’ve looked at trends for a quite a few years and went to various different shows and Japanese has always been there, but it has never really come to the fore. But I genuinely do think it will come to the fore just with the whole rise in miso and the rise in shio koji, which is more for the development sector.

There are a few Italian ingredients that we are doing in a range that is coming up soon that is probably not in the mainstream.

You’ve got the Philippines as well with the different ice creams and the adobo pork, that’s kinda there, but I think that’s a bit too niche for us… But we will see what we can get out of it.

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