Interview with an Innovator

M&S's Cathy Chapman: 'It doesn't matter whether it's on a plate or in a packet, it's all about the standards you set'

The supermarket’s director of food product direction and innovation talks about the challenging retail market, the cuisines she thinks will be on trend and how plant-based eating is here to stay.

18 May 2018
M&Sasianready mealsburgervegan

Chapman on Paper – CV

  • Started off as a product developer at M&S
  • Moved to Italy to help an entrepreneur run his food business
  • Director of Food Product Direction & Innovation at M&S since 2009

Cathy Chapman is trying to escape the chicken kiev. As a young product developer at Marks & Spencer, she was responsible for introducing the now commonplace food to the UK as the country’s first chilled ready meal. Yet many years later, when she is asked to name her favourite product launch, she finds it hard to move away from the fact the kiev was a game changer in the supermarket scene. Since then, she has been involved with or overseen the launch of thousands of products – everything from Mexican to Spanish to Asian ranges.

At 16, Chapman studied hospitality management, with a majority of the course focused on classic French cooking. After launching her career at Marks & Spencer, she moved to Rome to help an entrepreneur with his food business. A stint in Cape Town with the South African supermarket Woolworths followed, before Chapman started her own business consulting in retail and manufacturing.

The Telegraph recently recognised Chapman with a Lifetime Influencer award as part of its Food Power List, which highlighted the 50 tastemakers changing the way people eat and drink. It included the likes of chefs Fergus Henderson and Skye Gyngell, CEO of Ocado Tim Steiner and Deliveroo founder William Shu. Chapman was proud of the accolade, particularly considering her job is very much behind the scenes.

Almost 10 years ago she returned to where it all started as Marks & Spencer’s director of food product innovation.

Food Spark had a frank discussion with Chapman about the challenging times facing retailers, how long it takes trends to translate into sales and the conservative phase customers are going through.


After a few years in the hospitality world, I discovered the role of product developer at M&S, and I spent 15 years there the first time round. I started in the dairy department and then moved into our poultry department.

At that time we didn’t have many added-value fresh products. We didn’t have a crumbed coated chicken or ready-to-eat roast chicken, and we didn’t have any fresh recipe dishes.

It was the beginning of the serious convenience food movement. More women were going out to work, so they had less time but more disposable income, and they were prepared to spend more on food. They were also travelling and eating out more and developing more adventurous tastes.

We did pretty much everything you could do with the humble chicken, culminating in the chicken kiev, which we put on the counter in 1979. It was the first restaurant-quality, fresh-prepared dish that we launched, and it really started the recipe dish business. It was a blank piece of paper, an opportunity that doesn’t come along very often, and no other retailer was doing it.

People would say to me: ‘That’s a little odd, you’ve gone from learning classic French cooking to working for a supermarket and putting food in a packet,’ but it is about the standards you set.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s on a plate or in a packet, it’s all about the standards you set. We set out our ready-meal business to bring restaurant-quality food into the consumer’s home with dishes such as chicken kiev, duck a l’orange, beef bourguignon – and we then moved onto the different cuisines from around the world.

We have just launched what we think is our best ever burger. What is so special about it? We will benchmark and research how to achieve the right result in our products. We have experts who will help us identify centres of excellence, and last year it was New York for our 2018 grill range. The team spent time eating a considerable number of burgers around New York. They did find a benchmark recipe and they worked with the chef to understand how it’s done.

This burger is made using specific muscles from the animal, trimmed depending on the type of fat on the muscle, chopped and minced for texture, then seasoned and with a little bit of bone marrow that goes through the burger. When it’s cooked, it bastes the meats and keeps it succulent

I think it is a huge responsibility to be deciding on the taste of something that thousands of people are going to be eating. It is not a dress where you can take it out of the bag when you get home and take it back if you don’t like it. It’s actually going into your body.

I don’t see every single product that we launch, but I see most of them quite early on in the process. I want to understand how the team are developing and to see the direction of travel on range and eating quality.

We work between nine and 18 months out, depending on the product area.

We are aware of and influenced by trends, but we need to understand whether a trend is emerging or accelerating and here to stay. For example, if a cuisine is not yet becoming established in the restaurant world then it is very unlikely that the retail customer will be ready for it.

What might be on trend might not be the biggest seller. So it’s always a balance between wanting to lead the retail agenda and making sure that what you want to do is relevant to the customers needs.

It’s a difficult trading time in retail at the moment as you will well know, and customers will not risk their hard-earned money on unknown products. We know they have established favourites and we have to find ways to encourage them to taste different things without taking the whole of the weekly spend budget. I would always want the team to push the boundaries, but the challenge for retailers is in building these new lines into a substantial business.

Many of our food customers are older, post-family consumers who have been shopping with us in food for some time. We all need to grow our customer base and we need to improve on how we deliver the right offer and shopping experience to a wider demographic group. It’s about food for sharing, food at the right portion size and food that is accessible to more of the family. We do that well in lots of areas, but not necessarily right across the board yet.

Personally, I believe the customer is going through a relatively conservative phase at the moment. There will always be those who want to experiment and have the budget to experiment – but some of these products don’t always translate into big business. We need to make sure they can find the products they want and be more single-minded about showcasing them in store.

We come into our own at Christmas, where our market share goes up, and that is a great opportunity for us to push the boat out with wow products. Although customers are quite clear what they want for their Christmas lunch, the entertaining during the Christmas period gives us a great opportunity from an innovation point of view.

Delivering the M&S taste and quality is very much a collaborative process of development with our technical colleagues. There will be projects led by culinary trends, others by technical advances and others will be joint projects.

It takes a long time for a trend to become mainstream, far longer than people actually anticipate. Mexican food is a good example. We first tried Mexican food 30 years ago, when restaurants were emerging in the UK. We have tried it maybe five times since then, because there were more restaurants and they were higher profile, but we still only sell a few different lines.

Our Taste Asia brand has been a successful way to bring in new Oriental cuisines, and that’s enabled us to establish a number of cuisines which would not have succeeded as stand alone ranges.

From an eating quality point of view, our Spanish range was outstanding. Spain is still a popular holiday destination, the flavours were accessible, but it was challenging to convert customers away from the Italian range. So that hasn’t been as successful as it should have been, but we will come back to those dishes at some point.

The biggest mistakes in R&D are probably making a dish too individual – adding cost and limiting the market and not recognising that the customer has a strong affiliation with familiar flavours.

The taste is what will bring the customer back to that product. The product has to look appealing on the shelf and it has to be an accessible price point that the customer recognises as good value for the product benefits, but it will be the taste that brings them back for a second purchase.

Plant-based foods are here to stay. There is a lot of activity in the vegan market, but I believe these products have got to be naturally delicious and suitable for vegans, vegetarians and flexitarians, rather than contrived into dishes that are too worthy.

Asian cuisines – with a focus on regional Asian, Sri Lankan and Japanese – these will continue to grow. These are full of flavour, meet all the street food and snacking trends and are healthier than other well-established cuisines.

Middle Eastern cuisine continues to grow and modern British is here to stay in the restaurant world.

I think that South American will be very small and African will be smaller. Whether they will appear in a range in the future remains to be seen.

As people live longer and realise food can be medicine, more focus will be given to understanding how food can preserve and improve health, for example fermented foods for gut health, or phytonutrient-rich vegetables for their antioxidant properties.

The focus on sustainability, freshness, healthier food and less waste will continue to increase, but we won’t lose the taste for indulgence and comfort food. These are deeply rooted in our upbringing and psyche.

In the last 12 months, people’s demands for convenience has increased considerably. They want the food not only delivered but actually delivered hot – so that’s in direct competition with our meals business and something for us to be aware of.

Ingredients I can’t live without are sweet smoked paprika, Sarawak pepper and caramelised onion chutney.

What I wish was a fad and therefore would not last is deconstructed menu descriptions, where there is no room for the imagination to recognise the dish or recreate nostalgic memories of taste, which are part of the whole eating enjoyment experience.

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