How restaurant brands have successfully taken over supermarket shelves
It looks like a Sloppy Giuseppe. It’s called a Sloppy Giuseppe. It’s made by the same people that created the Sloppy Giuseppe. But is it really a Sloppy Giuseppe?
Or is it a sloppy doppelgänger, a look-a-like that could spell bad luck, in this instance to your highly-tuned tastebuds? It’s almost the same… but not quite. The question is, does it matter?
According to the UK, the answer is ‘Not at all, pass me another slice’.
At last count, PizzaExpress sold over 33 million supermarket pizzas, millions more than the 20 million it served up in its restaurants. And that was before the pandemic shut them down.
Zoe Bowley, the Managing Director of PizzaExpress, agrees the supermarket versions are “a different experience” to a restaurant one. But that she is proud of the fact that customer feedback is “consistently positive”. And because it has supermarket versions of its restaurant classics, PizzaExpress has “unique scale in retail, delivery, and restaurants, offering us a broad reach beyond locations where we have a restaurant. PizzaExpress products are universally available across the UK.”
That’s no exaggeration. PizzaExpress products are in 4,500 shops, almost 10 times as many places as its 470 restaurants. And it’s not the only restaurant doing brisk business in the aisles. Nando’s, Greggs, YO!, TGI Fridays, Ed’s Diner, Chiquitos and Harry Ramsden’s all have a range, and that’s just in Iceland. Carluccios’s recently launched a supermarket range, joining Zizzi, Itsu, Wahaca, Wasabi, Wagamama and more.
“There’s lots of opportunity,” says marketeer Mark McCulloch, who’s worked with high street restaurants like Pret A Manger, Dishoom and YO!, and celebrity supermarket brands like Paul Hollywood Bakery.
“Look at Wahaca, they’ve done a really good job, even though they’re up against that big yellow wall of Mexican products. The big question is, how do you stand out against the retail experts?”
The trick is to use “visual shorthands” that deliver instant restaurant recognition, says Vicky Bullen, global CEO at design experts Coley Porter Bell. “The most successful brands stick closely to the most powerful visual cues from their parents. Think the Nando’s rooster, the vibrant colours of Leon or the white of Itsu. That’s very deliberate.”
She says using the “original restaurant iconography triggers system 1 associations” of the parent brand. System 1 thinking relates to the snap decisions people make based upon previous experiences. So when a bored supermarket shopper sees the Nando’s rooster “they immediately know what they are going to get, and that’s a yummy spicy kick to their chicken.” It also acts as a “shorthand to the restaurant experience” even if you’re eating it at home.
“Many people are still cocooning,” says Bell. “So recreating restaurant experiences at home with products like these is a way of adding variety and excitement.”
It’s why several restaurant brands upped their supermarket game to make money when they were shut down. And their new ranges were warmly welcomed by people fed up with baking banana bread.
“For fifteen weeks people were locked inside and we saw this desire to cook their favourite restaurant food at home,” says Emma Woods, who was the Wagamama CEO during lockdown (before that she was at PizzaExpress, where she dreamed up the Leggera pizza).
Wagamama increased its at-home range during lockdown, and created a series of short ‘wok from home’ videos on YouTube, like how to make a Wagamama Katsu curry. And the range “really took off,” says Woods. “Lockdown saw much more blurring of the restaurant and cooking-at-home experience, in a really good way.”
For restaurants, Covid was like a “punch in the face that could have stopped their entire business,” says marketeer Mark McCulloch, who has worked with high street chains like Pret, Dishoom and YO!, and supermarket brands like Paul Hollywood Bakery. “Nowadays, if a restaurant is only operating within its four walls, I’m super-worried for them.”
Still, the restaurants might be super-worried that people will stop visiting them if they can get the same thing cheaper and eat it at home.
A Sloppy G costs £14.90 in PizzaExpress. In Sainsbury’s it’s currently on offer for £2.50. That’s a saving of £12.40, and that’s without a drink and a tip. Or to put it another way, you could buy six Sloppy Gs in Sainsbury’s for the same price as one in a PizzaExpress. As a bonus the supermarket version is dramatically lower in fat, sugar and salt.
“It is a crucial time for the high street, but I don’t think offering at-home products would make a restaurant less busy,” says McCulloch, who recently launched Hospitality Rising, a campaign to help young talent consider a career in bars and restaurants.
“Diversification is a really smart thing to do, if you do it properly, and some do it better than others. But I’d really question why a restaurant wouldn’t explore it. Even if it’s just a sauce or a condiment, there is always something a brand can add to a supermarket range. Also, another coronavirus is very likely to happen in the future, and if people can’t eat in your restaurant, what are you going to do?”
So why doesn’t everyone do it? Why doesn’t KFC bag up some frozen Crispy Strips or, even better, McDonald’s bottle its Special Sauce?
“People would buy Special Sauce in their droves,” says McCulloch. “I’m kind of shocked McDonald’s don’t. It’s like Costa Coffee saying ‘I’m not going to provide you Costa Coffee at home’. But they do, and they do it extremely successfully.”
No doubt it’s over those footfall fears, or an at-home product not living up to the restaurant experience. In fairness, a frozen Big Mac sounds wrong. Though you’d have to be a truly terrible cook to mess up pouring Special Sauce out of a bottle. Or for that matter, heating up a sausage roll.
Greggs has a special place in the nation’s heart. There are over 2000 Greggs outlets in the UK, far more than McDonald’s, which has around 1,300. Greggs launched a frozen range into Iceland in 2012 and Iceland shoppers loved it. Greggs was a little bit worried the cheaper frozen range might steal sales from its shops, and a year after the launch it confessed it was selling fewer sausage rolls in stores “in close proximity” to an Iceland. But it just cut down the range in those stores, and all was well. The products flew out of freezers up and down the UK. And that was before the pandemic.
During lockdown, Greggs addicts desperate for a fix swarmed down to Iceland and filled their trollies. And today, a spokeswoman for Greggs says offering a “variety of ways to enjoy Greggs on-the-go or at home has become increasingly important” to its growth. She adds its partnership with Iceland doesn’t mean any “compromise on quality” and that sales soared by “13.5% in 2021.”
In its last set of accounts, Greggs said sales in Iceland were “record breaking”. Most importantly of all, sales just keep going up all round. So ten years on from diversifying into freezers, Greggs has a bigger business overall. As does PizzaExpress, which has been slinging supermarket pizza since 2000. “We haven’t experienced any cannibalisation, and we continually build our presence,” says Bowley.
So maybe it’s true. A home-cooked PizzaExpress, or a Greggs, or a Nando’s, isn’t quite the same if you’re eating it at home as it is when you eat it in a restaurant. But it’s almost as good. And if another lockdown strikes, maybe KFC and McDonald’s will join.