The UPF backlash has fuelled demand for less ‘complicated’ ingredients, says Merchant Gourmet’s MD. He’s now innovating to capture that market

Is the party over for plant-based? For Merchant Gourmet boss Richard Peake, the answer is a firm no. “Since 2012, there’s been a 14% decline in the amount of meat that people have eaten,” he stresses, pointing to the findings of Defra’s Family Food Survey in October. “I’m totally convinced that plant-based isn’t going away – it’s an enduring trend.”

Peake is adamant the collapse of alt-meat operations such as VBites, Meatless Farm, and Plant & Bean instead points to a more complex situation.

“What we’re seeing is people are eating less meat, but they don’t necessarily want to substitute it with highly processed things. They really want to substitute it with high-quality, clean, whole foods, which are processed as minimally as possible.”

He references a quote from Michael Pollan’s book In Defence of Food: “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food.”

Such thinking puts Merchant Gourmet – which specialises in minimally processed ingredients such as chestnuts, lentils, quinoa and mushrooms – in a perfect position. Peake says the pushback against ultra-processed foods has encouraged the brand to be “a bit clearer and bolder on that messaging”.

“We’ve adopted a ‘veg-forward’ approach, highlighting the quality of pulses, grains, and vegetables in their most natural forms,” he says. Peake points to launches such as its Wholegrain Spelt from Le Puy, featuring spelt and olive oil. These “underscore our dedication to offering foods with minimal processing”, he says.

Frozen savoury Merchant Gourmet Korean Style Vegetables and Mix 2

Merchant Gourmet has been on an NPD spree since Peake took the helm

Consumers abandon ultra-processed foods

The approach seems to be reaping rewards. The brand is on course to reach retail sales of “above £30m” in 2024 – a 50% rise on the £20m recorded four years ago, when Peake took on the role of managing director.

This was 2020, and the first national lockdown. At the time, Many fmcg brands were simply focused on staying afloat. However, Peake and his team “looked inwards” and sought to strengthen their brand at a time of increased at-home consumption, he recalls.

First on the agenda was an overhaul of Merchant Gourmet’s positioning to play up its plant-based credentials. In 2021, all references to meat and cheese were removed from the brand’s packaging and website, and a new ‘Plant-based Simplicity’ strapline was rolled out.

The company also pivoted quickly to the “online shopping surge” of the pandemic. In 2021, it launched a direct-to-consumer platform with a range of exclusive bundles and meal boxes.

Peake’s enthusiasm was undoubtedly a driving force behind this rapid response. He’s clearly passionate about his work, which – even before his time at Merchant Gourmet – has involved injecting excitement into more niche areas of fmcg.

Name: Richard Peake

Lives: Marlow, Buckinghamshire 

Family: Married with four children: Archie (10), Mollie (eight), Lottie (six) and Daisie (four)

Potted CV: I started on the Mars graduate scheme and worked there for eight years, then joined Method / Ecover, where I was UK GM, before joining Lily’s Kitchen as commercial director and RX Bar as MD

Career highlight: Probably establishing Method in the UK and then turning it into a mass market brand. A green revolution, and lots of fun!

Best business advice received: Never be the smartest person in the room but be the one prepared to break the most rules

Hobbies: Spending time with my super-special family, CrossFit, walking around supermarkets looking at brands and products

Luxury item you couldn’t live without: My Whoop band

Morning routine: I drink a shot of fresh lemon juice mixed with Himalayan sea salt (I am told that both help with good gut health and digestion) along with a double espresso. Then, I pick up a blank sheet of paper, make plans, and avoid meetings until 11am when possible

Some ventures have proven more successful than others. Prior to taking up his position at Merchant Gourmet, Peake was managing director of Kellogg’s now-discontinued protein bar brand, RX Bar. But he also did stints as UK general manager for cleaning brand Method and commercial director for premium petfood supplier Lily’s Kitchen – both brands which have enjoyed impressive growth trajectories.

“Throughout my career, I’ve had this fascination with going into ‘begrudged’ categories and finding a way to add excitement and value,” Peake says. “At Method, we used to say: ‘Let’s create a candy shop. Let’s make something that people put under the sink into something they want to leave out.’”

It’s a mindset he’s endeavoured to bring to the 30-year-old Merchant Gourmet brand, best known for its ambient lentil pouches. Under his leadership, the brand has launched lines that “stand out and look inviting and exciting” and expanded into new categories.

The 2021 launch of Plant Jars – a microwaveable “centre of plate” range that spans puy lentil bolognese and lentil madras curry – marked the start of the NPD drive. This was followed by the launch of snacking chestnuts and frozen pulses and grains in 2022.

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Then, last year, Merchant Gourmet took on the likes of Tilda and Ben’s Original with its own range of microwaveable rice pouches. Despite such fierce competition, Peake insists the range offers something different from the big players, with “high-quality flavours” and a “more gourmet feel”.

That gourmet element also came through in the launch of its frozen ‘grab and cook’ veg and grains last year. The Korean-style variant impressed enough on taste to win the Frozen Savoury category at The Grocer’s New Product & Packaging Awards 2023.

Targeting the time-poor

Such innovations are aimed squarely at time-poor shoppers. This is something that has come through strongly post-Covid – and a trend Peake can relate to, as the father of four children under the age of 11.

“People are really tight on time again,” says Peake. “The best possible way anyone can eat is just getting clean, fresh, whole ingredients and cooking everything from scratch. But, often, that’s just not achievable.”

Convenience has “led a lot of our innovation decisions” of late, says Peake, who points to a microwaveable Black Dhal pouch launched at the end of 2023 that aims to “substitute a dhal you might get from a takeaway restaurant”.

That convenience element was a focus of its first national, out-of-home marketing campaign in January. Featuring straplines such as ‘Cheating is good for you’, ‘Take pride in the ping’ and ‘Strut your shortcut’, the billboards aimed to demonstrate that “good food doesn’t have to be complicated or dull”, says Peake.

It’s certainly an on-trend message when consumers are facing a lack of time and increased pressure to cook from scratch. But Peake is clear to differentiate between tapping the zeitgeist and playing to fads. Merchant Gourmet’s innovation is unlikely to be inspired by TikTok crazes or ‘trending’ ingredients, he stresses.

“We’ve got our core ingredients: grains, lentils, chestnuts, and mushrooms. That’s our cornerstone. Once we’ve got those guardrails, it becomes very much like a game.

“We can try a few things and… we haven’t done it perfectly every time, but we’ve learnt from that. As long as we can create something that tastes amazing, that we feel is convenient, and it’s based around whole foods, we’re interested.” And going by that £30m sales projection, so are consumers.