Co Armagh baker Irwin's looks for bigger slice of the action
You would think there's little you could do to make the humble Northern Ireland soda farl more attractive. But Co Armagh breadmaker Irwin's has come up with a new way of marketing the popular product.
Irwin's has launched the first sliced soda farl. It's on local supermarket shelves under the Irwin's brand, and in Great Britain, under the Rankin Selection brand, developed in association with chef Paul Rankin. The new product has secured a listing with 100 Waitrose stores and the company has also launched a new version of its brown soda bread.
Stefan Szymura, Irwin's national account manager, said: "We are delighted to secure this new business with Waitrose.
"Our new sliced sodas are more relevant to consumer needs as they are now sliced for convenience and have a rounder shape to complement British breakfast staples like crumpets and pancakes.
"The latest Rankin Selection Brown Soda Bread is a new and improved recipe, it's sweeter and has a smoother texture, and it has a toaster-friendly shape.
"The two new products follow a recent £350,000 investment in the rebrand of our Rankin Selection range. We redesigned the packaging to include clear messaging about each of the breads' Irish heritage and method of cooking."
The range also has other Northern Ireland staples like wheaten, potato bread, barmbrack and fruit bread, and is sold in the "big five" retailers: Asda, Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsbury's and Waitrose.
Bakers - both independents and multinationals - are battling tougher conditions in the UK bread market. A total £121m has been sliced off bread sales in the past year, as prices have plummeted to their lowest in a decade. The big three suppliers - Warburtons, Hovis and Kingsmill - have all seen substantial declines.
Among the reasons for the slump in sliced bread buying are the growth of in-store bakeries, the launch of alternative morning products and the increased popularity of grain-style loaves, perceived as healthier.
Bread is a key weapon in the current supermarket price wars, as established grocers grapple with the soaring growth of discounters like Lidl and Aldi.
Irwin's chairman Brian Irwin said innovation was key to retaining market share in an increasingly competitive market.
"There's certainly over-capacity in bread in GB, Northern Ireland and the Republic," said Brian.
"We're fortunate in that our Nutty Krust bread remains very popular with local customers, but across the industry, consumers are moving away from standard white bread towards wholegrain and seeded products, with more texture and taste, and there's a big swing towards more convenient sandwich alternatives, like slims, wraps and pittas. We're also finding a greater demand for convenient and tasty products like muffins and sliced Veda, plus fruit bread is very popular.
"The sliced soda farl is about trying to stimulate interest and make the soda more attractive as a toasted snack, as people are moving away from frying bread, for health reasons. Innovation is a challenge but it's also an opportunity."
Brian said the company was looking forward to the Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink 2016. He added: "It will give us an opportunity to engage more with customers, to encourage consumers to love their local products.
"We want to convince them that Northern Ireland foods should be on their shopping list."
Irwin's has been in business for more than 100 years and is independently owned by the Irwin family. It employs around 380 people at two sites in Portadown and Saintfield.