Smaller players in the cooking sauces market face huge challenges in a sector dominated by own label and big brands.

That is the view of Martin Hopkins, managing director and founder of Safetoeat, which produces a range of eight free-from cooking sauces.

"Challenges facing smaller companies include scale and cost of manufacturing, distribution channels, advertising budgets, resources and the power and influence of the multiples," says Hopkins.

But the smaller producers do have an advantage over the big power brands in that a less complicated corporate structure enables faster reactions to emerging trends and consumer demands. Retailers prepared to stock smaller brands benefit by providing niche products that appeal to the growing number of 'foodies' and consumers looking for a break from the norm.

This allows smaller companies that are on the ball to pre-empt trends and establish a niche for their new product. In a category all too often criticised for its lack of innovation, a raft of rising stars are emerging to defy the sceptics.

The likes of Walkerswood, Cranks, Safetoeat, Wagamama and Motherhemp are producing authentic, high-quality cooking sauces.

Sales of premium food are already booming, and cooking sauces are no exception. Shoppers are looking for a unique product to pass off as their own creation at dinner parties, and mothers seek a sauce with a difference to break the monotony of family dinners.

Smaller brands often have a loyal customer base, but future growth will stem from providing a point of difference from the market leaders.

Appealing to consumers' sense of adventure is a great place to start.

"Although it can sometimes be harder for smaller players to compete against the big brands purely on the number and depth of price promotions, we find our consumers are incredibly loyal and will buy our brand even if it's not on promotion," says Sally Campbell, category manager at Geeta's Foods.

Products such as coconut rundown sauce from Jamaican company Walkerswood tap into the growing interest in the Caribbean as a holiday destination.

"Convenience is a key factor driving demand for our sauces," says chairman Roddy Edwards.

"Firstly, consumers save time, and secondly, many consumers do not feel confident about cooking emerging cuisines.

"They prefer to buy them in ready-meal form or utilise partially prepared products such as a cooking sauce."

Sales of the Walkerswood range increased 55% in 2006, says Edwards. But he notes that, as a small player in a big arena, sales rely upon the brand's reputation for authenticity.

While the Wagamama restaurant chain has gained respect nationwide, the branded range of sauces launched by The Grocery Company in November 2006 faces strong competition from power brands such as Sharwood's.

"The range is targeted at busy, affluent consumers who are more than happy to spend money on signature brands with the right image and quality and who enjoy great-tasting Asian food at home," says marketing director Ben Johnson.

But, despite the challenges, there are gaps in the market that the smaller players may have better opportunities to explore than their bigger rivals. Waitrose launched its own chilled tapas range last year, but as yet there is little Spanish action in cooking sauces.

The health perceptions associated with a Mediterranean diet have aided the Italian sauce category and many believe there is potential for Spanish flavours to grab a piece of this market.

Others claim there are opportunities in hemp, which is being nudged into the spotlight through a focus on omega-3.

"From a food-lovers' point of view, the fact that hemp produces great-tasting food with a wonderful, rich nutty flavour is as important as the health benefits," says Ria Spencer, MD of Motherhemp, which manufactures a range of hemp-based products including organic red and green pesto sauces.n