Interview with an Innovator

Quorn’s Claire Roper & Adam Kemsley: ‘The Greggs vegan sausage roll is a product people thought we could never create’

The meat substitute company discusses the sausage roll phenomenon, the importance of making its products taste as close as possible to meat and why adding sweet into savoury could be the way forward

28 February 2020
meat alternativeNPDplant-basedveganvegetarian

Claire Roper, head of marketing and foodservice innovation

  • Previously a senior category manager at 2 Sisters Food Group, Roper joined Quorn in 2018 as marketing innovation manager, rising to her current role as head of marketing and innovation in December 2019. 

Adam Kemsley, head of new product development 

  • Spent eleven years at Mars in a variety of roles, including site R&D senior scientist and R&D European C&Ts NPD manager, before joining Quorn in January 2020 as head of NPD.

In the 1980s Quorn became a household name as the most widely recognised vegan and vegetarian meat alternative. And over thirty years later, Quorn still remains the most familiar supermarket staple for meat alternatives and the UK’s number one meat-free brand, with one-in-four people eating it on a regular basis.

As well as their supermarket ranges, Quorn collaborates with high street giants including KFC and Greggs to launch new concepts. One of their most recent launches proved their contemporaneity - and went on to become perhaps the biggest cultural barometer around veganism: the Greggs Vegan Sausage Roll. 

“It really was the first time we’ve seen such excitement around a meat-free product, which has given us a wave to ride for the past year,” says Claire Roper, head of marketing and innovation. “Ignore the Piers Morgan reaction to anything, but it does create good publicity if nothing else.”

Unlike competitors including Pret, which has – for the time being at least - ruled out using meat alternatives to focus on plant-based dishes which do not replicate meat, Quorn insists that dishes replicating meat will remain popular. “It can be difficult to encourage people to go away from the flavours they’re used to and take on a full chickpea lentil-based diet - and actually they don’t have to,” says Roper.

In this Food Spark profile, Roper and head of food innovation Adam Kemsley reveal more about how they identify new trends, how heat and texture are on their minds for 2020 and how Quorn keeps up with the continued success of the flexitarian movement.

[Roper] Our approach to food innovation is collaborative. My role is to look at the trends and the consumer insight and build an insight platform where we think the right opportunities are. I work with Adam to find out how we can bring that to life through the products.

[Kemsley] I come from a more technical perspective... like how to translate insights into making great tasting food which is healthy but also sustainable. I’m the technical translation and execution of that.

There are three key qualities to any Quorn dish. First, there’s fantastic tasting products. The second thing is the health benefits. When you look at the high protein, the low fat, the high fibre, it’s a great product. Then there's sustainability. When you look at the younger generations they’re looking for food to make them feel good. They want to help the planet at the same time. 

We have such a strong heritage in the meat replacement area, creating texture and taste. Realistically we don’t see that changing in the next few years, particularly as we look to people to take on more of a flexitarian approach and reduce the amount of meat they’re eating. It can be difficult to encourage people to go away from the flavours they’re used to and take on a full chickpea lentil-based diet - and actually they don’t have to. 

People want meat-free alternatives to taste as close as possible to the meat version. That’s the stand we set ourselves at Quorn: if we’re developing things it needs to be as close as possible to the real meat version. If you get that right, people can change quite easily.

The benefit with Quorn is that we can replicate the taste of chicken very well. That has led to key successes across the market. The really good thing for Quorn is we take on flavour so well, so when we’re trying to look at sticky glazes for Asian food or a spicy Mexican, for example, you can really have that flavour hit people want.  

When it comes to trend-identifying, we look at the consumer and professional angles. We work closely with Mintel, and we also work with Chantelle Nicholson who is chef patron at Tredwell’s fine dining restaurant in London. We look at what techniques are coming through, and crucially how we can apply those to Quorn. We also talk to consumers to help them understand what flexitarian is and find out, for example, what they expect from a good chicken burger, and then work out what the right textures and flavours are to develop our products. 

In terms of specific trends, heat isn't going anywhere. We’ve developed a slightly more sophisticated heat palate in this country. I’ve [Roper] been in food development and innovation for ten years and we always used to shy away from spiciness, but I think we’ve seen that people like to have that hit, and if it’s going to be spicy make it properly spicy. 

We’ve also seen adding sweet into savoury is something that works well. This is in terms of brunch and also with desserts. Adding maple with bacon; people are getting used to that juxtaposition. We naturally have a sweet tooth in this country so adding that into the more savoury dishes will be the way forward. 

And we’ve also seen the trend for barbecue rise. Barbecue is one of our favourite flavours in the UK and that’s risen from smokey deep Tennessee flavours right through to Asian. So we’re looking at how we can replicate those flavours especially for flexitarians - they have the reference point from barbecued meat so we have to make sure we replicate that.

We’re also looking at how Quorn can offer brunch. We’ve not had specific products for brunch in the past but it’s such a phenomenon, so we’re working to adapt what we have and add in some of the classic brunch flavours. Whether it’s a really simple American style chicken and waffle dish, through to the more Asian buddha bowls and Mexican burritos and those kinds of dishes.

Working on the Greggs Vegan Sausage Roll was just pure excitement. It really was the first time we’ve seen such excitement around a meat free product which has given us a wave to ride for the past year. It’s been exciting watching more and more people across social media getting excited about it and trying it for the first time. Ignore the Piers Morgan reaction to anything, but it does create good publicity if nothing else. 

The vegan sausage roll is a product people thought we could never create. We don’t think ourselves or Greggs anticipated the sheer level that that would get to in such a short space of time. When you go vegan with pastry there’s a development challenge in that, so it shows the expertise. 

[Roper] Like with Greggs, my role is to take Quorn into the places we eat out as much as the places we buy food to eat in. That way, we can bring people into meat free from a different angle. You might not have considered it in the supermarket but if you can go and have products when you’re eating out that you find delicious, that brings the product into a brand and a retail perspective as well.

Having the Quorn brand on exterior products gives the consumer a level of reassurance on the product delivery. In KFC we’ve seen the start of using the brand on the menu, which is something we’d like to continue.

Our lives are so busy, we don’t eat a standard three meals a day. So, at Quorn, we just need to make it easy and have as many opportunities to hit our consumers as possible and I think eating on-the-go is going to be a growing trend in the coming years.

Human beings only like to change their behaviour if it’s easy. We try to talk about swapping: we have a stat that says if you swap one beef mince meal for a Quorn mince meal it saves enough water for twenty showers, so it’s about making things relatable. It is that easy - you just need to make one swap and you will make a difference. 

We’re working with brands on sustainability as well. We are starting to see that. All of our sustainability elements are built by collaborating with institutions and our own strong sustainability team that can provide that robustness that can give people that definite benefit of actually having science behind claims. 

We try to work at least two to three years ahead. Much more than that and you’re in danger that the world will change quite quickly. When we launch these products we want to make sure they’re here for the next ten, twenty years.

There’s some interesting insight to say that we’re becoming smoother as a nation. Everything we touch is smooth - your phone is smooth, your kettles are smooth, everything is smooth - so actually we look in food to maybe get a little more texture. We’re looking at how we can use the texture of Quorn but also work with other ingredients to give you different levels of texture in any one dish. 

Our goal is for people to see Quorn not just as an alternative... but as a fundamental dish they can enjoy - that would be my success point really.

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