By Lucas Witman
Less than a decade ago, many Anglophiles and British expatriates living in the United States were compelled to seek out niche specialty retailers and online food stores when looking for their favorite U.K. brands. Today, however, nearly every major grocery store contains at least a small section of British imports, and picking up a package of PG Tips or a Cadbury Flake bar can be as simple as heading to the local market. For a country that once viewed British cuisine with a collective air of disdain, the recent explosion in popularity of U.K. imports in this country may have come as a surprise to some. However, for those involved in the burgeoning British specialty food industry, this trend has been a long time coming.
British culture has perhaps never been more omnipresent in the United States than it is today. One cannot navigate contemporary American popular culture without a proper education in Harry Potter, Downton Abbey, Simon Cowell and Adele. Recently, the 2012 London Summer Olympics, Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee and the royal wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton have put Great Britain at the epicenter of international attention. It was perhaps somewhat inevitable that British cuisine would follow as the logical next trend to emerge from the British Isles
“I think British products have got a real sort of cache here,” said U.K. Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Owen Paterson. “Obviously there is a very longstanding close relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom. The Olympics gave, I think, a huge shove in this great campaign of British culture, British history, British fashion, British music—and I think British food is part of that. There’s a real interest.”
According to Paterson, it is the British specialty food industry’s emphasis on family-run companies producing artisanal products in small batches using high quality, locally sourced ingredients that particularly appeals to a 21st century U.S. clientele.
“I think that probably the attraction for U.S. consumers is that they know that these are made by small niche family businesses working in small rural areas where you will have completely impeccable traceability of raw material and very reliable systems of production,” Paterson said. “You’re not buying anonymous meat products washing around the world commodities circuit in gray frozen blocks. These are local materials converted very rapidly into top class products and sold by the people who bought the material, who converted them into a food product and who actually shipped them and marketed them. I think that’s really attractive to many American consumers.”
Nina Uppal, Owner of New York Delhi, a British snack company most famous for its ViP Nuts brand, echoes Paterson’s sentiments. “There is such a desire for good food, for quality food and for innovation in food as well. You get all of that in the U.K.,” Uppal said. “The British brand alone draws so much attention from around the world, and that’s the impression we get wherever we go…People want to know what the Brits are doing next. That’s what we see. We not only offer the quality, but it’s also the innovation. Those are really the two things that you need when it comes to great food.”
Unfortunately, for British companies anxious to enter the U.S. market and reach out to a brand new consumer base that is increasingly hungry for U.K. imports, there are potential roadblocks as well. Navigating U.S. regulations, getting FDA approval and filling out necessary paperwork can be serious challenges to small food companies hoping to introduce their products to the United States. However, Paterson emphasizes that his office and the U.K. government are committed to helping small companies overcome these obstacles, and he sees nothing that is truly insurmountable for companies that are committed to navigating the process.
For Paterson, the biggest challenge British food companies will face is finding the right American partners to help them get their products into the hands of consumers.
“I think the challenge is finding a good distributor and a good agent who they can work with,” he said. Uppal cites the same issue, saying her biggest concern is “getting a credible importer, somebody that understands your product, who is passionate about your product, and can get the right sort of distribution for it as well.”
Looking to the future, U.S. specialty food retailers are anxious to predict what might be the next major food trend to emerge from Great Britain. Both Paterson and Uppal have their own predictions for what foods, flavors and fashions are sure to show up next in the international aisles of grocery stores across the United States.
For Paterson, the one trend really dominating the British food scene today is the use of particularly strong, bold flavors. He joked, “With deepest respect to American chocolate…It does tend to be a bit bland compared to our chocolate. And I think bland might be another adjective one could apply to American cheese.” Taking a more serious tone, Paterson continued, “I think there is interest in quite strong flavored products. [British] chocolate is really strong. There’s [also] quite a lot of hot products, chili products.”
Uppal points to the growing interest among British consumers in eating healthier, cleaner foods. “The huge emphasis is on natural and non-GMO. People are very specific about what they’re eating. They’re very aware of what they’re eating and what goes into their food,” she said. “So I think the cleaner the ingredient, the better…It’s not so much the organic thing, though I believe that’s still popular, people just need to be reassured that what they’re getting, it’s nutritious. It’s good. It’s clean. That’s what they’re looking for.”
Paterson hopes to be able to promote increased trade between the United States and the United Kingdom, recently meeting with officials in Washington D.C. in an effort to promote a potential free trade agreement between the two nations. Ensuring that the recent successes experienced by British specialty food companies in this country are not merely the evidence of a fleeting fad but rather represent the beginnings of a long and fruitful relationship will require sustained work on the part of government officials and industry leaders alike.