analysis by Sheila Eggleston - Market is a moveable feast - Regions will take centre stage - FFB mission should add cash - Fringe products are missing a trick Defining the term speciality is getting trickier as the spectrum of food and drink grows ever wider and the boundaries more blurred. What was special years ago isn't now, and the question is how broad can the market get? "It's best to keep a broad based definition, especially when talking about a sector that is very varied," says Food from Britain speciality foods director Charlotte Lawson. "Speciality food and drink products should be differentiated from mainstream or commodity products by targeting niche markets and commanding a premium price." Food from Britain says this can be achieved in a number of ways ­ through the manufacturing process, raw material, product, packaging, regional identity or the way products are marketed and distributed. "Regionality is important, but we have forgotten we have it in this country. A lot of the work that both we and the regional food groups do is defining what makes a region distinct as far as food and drink is concerned," says Lawson. "Speciality meat or cheese, particularly with a regional identity, is synonymous with speciality and there are new products which could make an argument for the terminology." The work that FFB is now doing to help restore the fortunes of exporters as the foot and mouth crisis recedes should allow it to help producers of specialities. "Additional money from the government will enable us to extend the range of activities to help the speciality sector and bring producer and supplier together," Lawson says. The government has allocated FFB £3m ­ £2.5m this financial year and £500,000 next year. "More than half will go to rebuilding markets for regional specialities in the UK," Lawson says. Foodfinders sells and distributes to independents and speciality food stores and regional multiples, such as Booths in Preston. Director Mike Cook also acknowledges that the definition of speciality is a moveable feast. He believes speciality products should be innovative, premium in the quality sense, and not necessarily widely distributed. He says that because they are aspirational they are likely to be used infrequently, for example contributing to a special meal occasion. Cook says: "Balsamic vinegar for example is still a speciality. Everyone will have a bottle in the larder but most people won't use it often. It has the aspirational aspect inspired by chefs like Delia Smith. And consumers don't mind paying for it. "And once you have the aficionados on the hook, they start with a two to three-year-old balsamic vinegar but move on to the vintage product with better delivery." Some products that are on the fringe of the health foods market could be included in the speciality sector, he adds. "For example, I believe functional products are a speciality but unless the product keeps its promise it won't survive. "You can't hang a product on a health basis only. It has to have a point to make the consumer go back for it." Effective marketing is a main driver of sales. A wacky name and jazzy or sophisticated packaging can only help to accelerate uptake. "People who shop spend relatively little time looking at shelves except in the deli section, where you get people creating the library effect' by browsing," Cook says. "The average shopper spends only a few seconds in any particular aisle, therefore a product needs a degree of attractiveness to help sell it," says Cook. There is reticence among fine food and speciality suppliers to deal with the multiples. Bob Farrand, national director of the Guild of Fine Food Retailers, says that while some companies seek out supermarkets because they want to expand, others openly state they won't do business with them. "The dilemma the small producer faces is that if trade is built up with the independents and food halls, and perhaps a product picks up a couple of awards, the company may get one or even two multiples banging on the door," says Farrand. "And unless the multiple has an efficient regional stocking policy, the demands for that small producer will be great. "Also, if the product is sold at a cheaper price in a multiple, its existing customer base could be alienated." The run up to Christmas is a particularly busy time for independents and fine food retailers as consumers splash out on luxuries and novelties. Companies such as L'Aquila make the most of Christmas with an array of treats specifically targeted at consumers with no limits to their pursestrings. One example is its truffle collection in a stylish presentation box. Many of Cottage Delight's 700-strong product range are specialities, and for Christmas it has brought out 100 new products. These include lime marmalade with vodka, and strawberry jam with Marc de Champagne. A traditional wooden planter containing the company's bestsellers complements its range of hampers this year. Cottage Delight sells only to small, independent retailers and upmarket food chains such as Selfridges. Two of its more unusual bestsellers are a snack product called Vegetable Roots, which is sliced root vegetables fried in sunflower oil, and mini flavoured breadsticks. The festive season is a peak time for Foodfinders. Cook says that almost 40% of its annual turnover is speciality foods and about 27% of its annual turnover is pre-sold. Goods pre-booked and pre-sold between April and the end of July are delivered between September and November. Since May Foodfinders has been based at Ely with the rest of the John Lusty Group's subsidiaries although it is a standalone operation. Foodfinders accounts for 13% of the group's business ­ £9m. It supports the Speciality & Fine Food Fairs and a number of new lines will be on show. It has also been focusing on companies for which it believes a bigger opportunity exists in the speciality store network. "We have been distributing Nando's products and we are now distributing Boaters flavoured coffee. Boaters concentrated on coffee shops and the gift trade and in the last few years on the multiple trade. Let's bring them to the speciality shops," Cook says. Attendance at the Speciality & Fine Food Fairs is high on FFB's agenda where there will be enhanced meet the buyer activity. It will also be taking a high profile at the British Cheese Awards in September with lots of regional cheese demonstrations, and where it will be sponsoring the first consumer dinner to introduce a whole range of regional foods. A meet the buyer programme is also being planned in Scotland with buyers from Fortnum & Mason next month. Bord Bia's initiatives this year include sponsorship of the Speciality & Fine Food Fairs and the British Cheese Awards. It is committed to the promotion of Irish speciality food and drink in Britain and, given the current growth in the market, says it will continue to invest in marketing support. It expects exports to exceed £20m in 2001. Lawson says Food from Britain's biggest challenge to date is the foodservice sector. "It's a difficult sector to crack because you are dealing with larger service providers which have consolidated buying power and consolidated suppliers. "But there is growth opportunity here and the key is to encourage restaurants and other foodservice providers about the marketing benefits of stocking local foods. "We want to see more local food on more local menus. If you are a punter who wants to know where the beef has come from or what types of cheese are on the menu and it doesn't say, we are missing a marketing trick. It's not only about whether they are sourcing local products, but whether they are marketing them as well." FFB is planning a big project which brings food and tourism together and is awaiting the green light from the government. {{FOCUS SPECIALS }}