UK foodservice suppliers are well placed to exploit a lack of innovation in Europe and the States, says James Durston

Foodservice is often seen as grocery retail's less sophisticated cousin, lacking the hard data on consumer habits and the quality personnel that drive the latter. Although some analysts are predicting that it will soon account for 40% of UK consumers' food spend, its general business model is said to be about 10 years behind retail.

As a result, suppliers are not taking the opportunities presented by foodservice seriously and its potential is not being fully realised, believes Food from Britain's CEO David McNair. Nowhere is that more the case than outside the UK, he said as he unveiled new research on supplying international foodservice at last month's Food from Britain Foodservice seminar.

The catering markets in the US and Europe are booming, and are increasingly looking for high-quality, innovative products that the UK can provide, he argues. "The important thing for suppliers to know is that the UK is seen as a great source of premium, innovative products. But we have to look at it from a trade perspective, not just a consumer perspective. This 'Britishness' can really help in getting in front of a trade buyer."

The key to tapping the export market is to approach each country separately. Belgium's foodservice market, worth e8.7bn (£6.2bn), has doubled over the last 10 years. It is best approached via distributors, rather than trying to deal directly with the caterers. FFB Belgium's Olivier Delrue says: "There are very few chains in Belgium. Nearly everything is independently owned. We have 1,800 hotels for example, but only 50 or so of those are parts of chains, so suppliers should approach the distributors such as Enco and Deli XL and not the chains."

He also points out that high-quality products are particularly appealing. "We don't like fast food."

Business transactions are often a more pleasant affair than in the UK too. "Belgians are food specialists first, and negotiators second," says Delrue. In contrast, Germany's foodservice market is primarily defined by its trend for convenience food and low prices. McDonald's is the biggest operator by a distance, with 1,262 outlets and a turnover of e2.3bn, three times bigger than the nearest competitor LSG Lufthansa. Those looking to break into Germany should be ready to adapt to German requirements on food law and recycling, for instance, says FFB Germany's Angelika Goeth.

"There's no structure in Germany, so it's hard to quantify different sectors and identify real gaps in the market, and German buyers often require German testing procedures because it's what they know. But if you can offer a very innovative or cheap version of an existing product, there are some good opportunities because of its size."

The size of France's foodservice market also presents opportunities, particularly in convenience. The sandwich and snack industry has boomed in recent years as consumers spend less time eating lunch. Italy's market, although dominated by small, family-run businesses, is growing rapidly according to FFB, particularly for added value products and for fish and meat. And there are also growing markets for UK products in countries that have large ex-pat communities.

The US is another market that UK suppliers should consider, says Pavel Kolarov at FFB North America. Americans spend more money on food out of the home than in Europe - 47% of the food spend is in foodservice - and tastes are growing for new flavours such as Thai and Indian food and for healthy products.

"But it's not a simple supply chain," says Kolarov. "There's no inherent demand for imported products so suppliers have to convince the operator that they want your product. Plus, UK suppliers often think that if they just get 0.1% of this huge market they'll be happy. It doesn't really work like that."

Others think that opportunities at home are just as good. Peter Backman, MD at foodservice consultancy Horizons, says: "We would expect FFB to say this but it only works if you're an experienced supplier. If you're not that experienced, exporting will just become another headache."

However, looking overseas often represents a relatively easy alternative to the competitive UK market, says McNair: "You don't need to be big in these markets. If you focus on a few you can expand out from them. Ginsters, for example, has done really well by focusing on petrol forecourt sales. It's important to get your product right and to do your research."

Product opportunities

Belgium - Added-value finished and half-finished products Denmark Ethnic food, especially Mexican

France - Sa ndwiches and snacks, prepared meals

Germany Ethnic food, especially Asian, ready meals

Italy - High-quality, low preparation dishes for pub trade

Netherlands - Red and white processed meat, seafood, prepared meals

Portugal - English breakfast items for hotel

Spain - Cheese, pizza, cakes, fruit drinks, salads, ice cream

Sweden - Ethnic foods, vegetarian foods

US - Mini versions, ready meals, premium breads