If anyone has the inside line in to the thinking of the major grocers and their future strategies, particularly around food, fresh produce and ready meals, then Neil Nugent is your man, writes Richard Siddle.
No he is not a high flying grocery executive, corporate director or City retail analyst, but a straight talking chef. But a chef that wields a lot more power than influence than even a Jamie Oliver or Heston Blumenthal.
For as well as training as a formal chef and working in a host of top name restaurants, including Bibendum in London, he has really forged a unique career as an executive chef helping a number of the major grocers develop their private label and ready meal ranges.
In fact Nugent is probably responsible for feeding half the population at some stage or another with his roles at Waitrose, Asda and most recently Morrisons.
He has now turned his attention to one of the UK’s most resilient and innovative grocery retailers, Iceland. He has been brought in as head of product development to help put Iceland’s food and produce offer on to another level.
It is an opportunity you can tell Nugent has grasped with both hands. For, as a chef, he has been given the increasingly rare opportunity to go in with a clean sheet of paper and really put his personal stamp on the Iceland offer.
Jumped at the chance
He said he did not take long to consider an offer to join Iceland when he met up with its charismatic founder and still chief executive, Malcolm Walker. “I was just overwhelmed by his passion for his business and for offering great food,” said Nugent. He was also, he added, typically frank in admitting the retailer needed help to take its offer on to the next level.
The Iceland team is also happy to accept that it needs to address potential perception issues some consumers might have about its overall range compared to others on the high street. Hence Nugent’s open brief.
“It’s like we are turning a page and going again,” he said.
Key to the turnaround at Iceland is its Power of Frozen initiative which is a combination of a marketing and PR drive, as well as a renewed focus on the quality of the frozen food offer that Iceland has built its name on.
The focus on frozen food is also a new challenge for Nugent who in his previous roles would have been much more focused on the retailers’ chilled offers. But it also gives him and his team an advantage in that Iceland is not just well known in the UK for being the leading frozen food retailer, but with food producers all over the world.
Nugent’s initial challenge was to improve and build on the retailer’s sourcing capabilities and look to find the very best suppliers to work with. Particularly around fish and meat, Nugent stressed.
If you get it right then you really “can’t tell the difference between fresh and frozen,” he said.
Working with frozen food is very much part of a chef’s every day life, said Nugent. Yes, the image of chefs walking through fresh food markets buying the latest from today’s crop all looks very good for the TV, but in reality much of what they are handling comes straight from the freezer or is pre-pared and then frozen to be defrosted when it’s time to use it.
“The freezer is a chef’s best friend,” is how Nugent describes it. “If you get a delivery of fish in to a restaurant the chances are you will freeze some of it. You really can’t live without a freezer as a chef.”
Freezing fish or meat just after it has been caught or killed means Nugent and his team at Iceland can source quality produce from all over the world.
“We are selling sea bass that is farmed in Turkey, and within 24 hours can be scaled, gutted, frozen and with us here at Iceland,” he said. “It has all the same nutritional benefits.”
He said he was quite happy to take on people’s perceptions about frozen food, be it consumers or the media.
“We have to break a few of the myths around frozen food. That is part of my job. Be it with journalists or customers.”
Another perception issue about Iceland that Nugent is keen to address is the fact frozen only actually accounts for around a third of the range. The rest is split between chilled and general household. So he is also looking to do the same for Iceland’s chilled offer too and ensure it has “a more relevant offer” without duplicating what it is doing in frozen.
Nugent’s experience of working for different grocers means he is fully aware of the fundamental challenges and issues that he needs to address. Yes, he needs to make great food, but they also have to be at the prices that retailer’s customers can afford.
Nugent joined Iceland in February and has already made great strides. Next month sees new Chef ranges going in-store which he is particularly proud of. Which will build nicely to a Christmas range that he is confident is really going to turn heads with some of the products he and his team have developed.
The new Chef dishes we can expect include his twist on classic styles such as cottage pie, lasagne and chicken korma. All with new quality packaging under the Chef label. There are also new premium pizzas being introduced.
We spoke to him at the height of summer just when he was busy organising the brining and preparation of turkeys. Again the beauty of frozen is that Iceland can work so much further in advance than other retailers, and buy at better prices, said Nugent. Which is all good news for the end shopper.
The new turkey offer will include smoked and butter and brined styles that he says offer unbeatable quality and value.
As well as Nugent Iceland has been prepared to invest in new skills and people across its development team, including two further chefs. “It means we can be constantly creating and innovating. It makes a big difference,” he said.
That is the big challenge, he believes, face all major grocers. The ability and the desire to be able to to constantly “re-invent” themselves. “You can’t sit still,” he stressed.
As well as his day to day work at Iceland, Nugent also “keeps his hand” in with the restaurant scene. In the past that has involved also running his own restaurants, but at the moment he is taking a break whilst he finds the right site and concept. But he is still in touch with the chef community to keep a handle on what is going on.
“It is never out of your blood system,” he said. “I have to keep my hand in.”
Whilst he loves his restaurant work, Nugent said the size of the responsibility and the opportunities working with a national retailer gives you, far outweighs the satisfaction of serving a room full of diners in an evening. “What we are doing here means we are effectively feeding millions of people a week,” he explained. With Iceland that equates to 4.5m customers a week.
For a chef it means learning very different skills. But again the satisfaction of turning of couple of kilos of stock in to thousands of kilos is hugely satisfying, he said.
Close supplier relations
Nugent is also keen to stress how important Iceland’s suppliers are in the whole process. “We would be nothing without our suppliers,” he said.
His approach is to try and work with as many as they can on exclusive products giving them long term success and security too. “Our suppliers really want to work with us and help with our innovation. There is a huge amount going on with our suppliers.”
So what would be Nugent’s measure of success in a year’s time?
“That we have started to turn the quality perception around about Iceland. That people have stopped and re-assessed the products and quality available in Iceland.”
It seems he is already a long way down the road to achieving that.