In a puff of frozen liquid nitrogen, one of the most iconic tie-ups in modern British grocery has disappeared.

After 12 years, Waitrose is ending its partnership with celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal. The grocer is taking its “product development in a new direction” – and it’s turning to its own in-house chefs to deliver that goal. 

It’s arguably a risky move to ditch its tie-up with one of the UK’s best celebrated and inventive chefs. For a supermarket that lauds its foodie credentials, his creations have been a good fit – after all, it’s hard to get much more gourmet than an entire candied orange inside a sherry-soaked Christmas pudding.

And the proof of that pudding lies in the sales figures. When the Hidden Orange Christmas Pudding first hit the shelves in 2010, it sold four times more than any such line in the past, selling out by November.

To believe a team of until now largely anonymous in-house chefs, no matter how talented, could replicate the literal gold dust and gravitas brought by Blumenthal is bold to say the least.

This might not be entirely of Waitrose’s choosing. According to The Mail, this was a decision based on relationships rather than commercial potential. A company source told the paper senior partners had grown tired of the chef’s distance – he has lived in France since 2019, which may have complicated matters – and “unpredictability”.

Meanwhile, Blumenthal seems to have his hands full with other commitments. The chef is working on “the arrival of a new sensory experience at The Fat Duck as well as the opening of an innovative new bar concept and Dinner by Heston at Atlantis the Royal, Dubai”, a spokesperson for the chef’s The Fat Duck Group told The Mail.

So when the contract came up for renewal, execs decided to act. (It’s alleged to be worth “hundreds of thousands of pounds per year”, but Waitrose declined to comment on any contractual details.)

Still, there is sense to this decision in the context of Waitrose’s wider strategy. After all, the impact on shelves will be much less significant than Heston’s heft may suggest – and that celebrity heft has somewhat waned in the years since the partnership began.

At the partnership’s peak in 2016, Waitrose stocked just under 60 Heston from Waitrose SKUs on shelves, most of which were seasonal, tilted towards Christmas and Easter. That’s dropped to 15 SKUs listed on the Waitrose website at the time of writing. In total, Waitrose has stocked 37 since Christmas, Assosia data shows.

So at least from a productivity point of view, it should be workable for its in-house NPD team to pick up the slack.

Especially given its recent investments in capacity. In 2019, the retailer spent big on a new Waitrose Food Innovation Studio at its Bracknell headquarters and hired former Tesco executive chef Martyn Lee to lead the product development team there.

This has enabled Waitrose to up its own label offer with the launch of its premium No 1 range in 2019 – replacing Waitrose 1 – followed by the reintroduction of its Cooks Ingredients range in 2022.

While not as experimental as Heston, No 1 has certainly hit the mark on premium credentials. The range includes the likes of Milk Chocolate & Orange Florentines, Garlic Mushroom Macaroni and a King Prawn, Garlic & Chilli Sourdough Pizza.

Waitrose has hinted there is more to come in its own label offer, with “some exciting plans in store for the rest of the year”.

So even if it is losing a high-profile chef, Waitrose seems keen to use its own foodie credentials to create showstoppers that bring in the punters. And that could well be a strategic win.

It was sweet while it lasted, but now may be the right time for the Heston era to come to an end.