The power of fragility

From supporting rapid change to the power of young chefs, Amy Fetzer talks to Nestlé Professional’s MD Katya Simmons about rays of hope for a sustainable future in a post-Covid world.

“Life is fragile, but even when things seem solid, nothing is a given.” In a Covid-19 world, this is a sentiment we have seen played out first hand. But when I first spoke to Katya Simmons, Managing Director, Nestlé Professional UK and Ireland, in the halcyon days before lockdown at the end of Feb 2020, neither of us realised how prophetic her words would become as the scale and pace of the pandemic rapidly and dramatically altered life as we know it, taking a sledgehammer to the foodservice industry in the process.

I caught up with Simmons again a couple of months later, just as lockdown was starting to lift in early summer. Her mindset, borne out of a childhood shaped by the difficulties of growing up in Russia, and which had matured into a drive to “do the right thing, create real value, and to do something that I can be proud of”, and to work for a company that shared those values, had provided a sound basis for life in a pandemic.

“I think what happened during Covid-19 is that you become hyper sensitive to what is really important. It goes back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – you are back to safety; security and health. And for us at Nestlé, we can contribute to these at the level of the individual, our community and the planet. Covid-19 highlighted the important role we play as leaders, and how important our impact is on our suppliers, our customers, our workforce and all our stakeholders.

“It is vital we provide help and listen to each other. It is only by all coming together and understanding our shared needs that we can work out how we rebuild and address areas of concern.”

The key to coping, says Simmons, is to share lessons and experience with the community. “From a leadership perspective, how do you manage the change - personal, professional [brought about by Covid 19]? How do you support people through this change by supporting them with how they are feeling? How do you understand capability – and redirect resources, and cope with change very fast – to support people in comfortable ways to let go of what they are used to, and to open up to new things to help them with what they are facing tomorrow?” These same questions must now be addressed to the climate crisis.

During the drama of the lockdown, when panic buying, food shortages, and supply chain disruption was at its height, Nestlé reacted and adapted. It harnessed its technical expertise to ensure it was still able to supply to 4,000 outlets, from small shops and supermarkets to small businesses and vets. It kept its factories open and donated £4m pounds worth of food and drink to food banks and key workers across the UK and Ireland. Nestlé also partnered with the British Red Cross to match employee donations, providing more than £8m of support.

Covid has turned the normal relationship between products, consumers and trends on its head. “Normally,” explains Katya, “we’re working backwards. What are the trends? What are the analytics telling me? And I base my steps on this incrementally to what is happening.”

The pandemic, Simmons believes, has shown the need to totally reset: we cannot hold on to what we have always know and are used to. The key question now is: “where is the right focus of capability and how fast can you shift to it?” The crisis needs managing, but companies must also look at how to manage tomorrow. This requires agility and support for change from leadership, whilst supporting people in this journey. The surprise for Simmons has been how quickly and how easily teams, the business and the industry has been able to radically adapt. And this provides hope in the gloom for the green economy.

“I can clearly see from my team - they have been able to change really fast, they are succeeding. They don’t need years and years of tactical change. Nestlé already has a strong belief and commitment towards driving change towards a greener economy, with strong successes in moving towards more sustainable solutions.”

Like others, Simmons believes the pandemic will only make the “sustainability point stronger, driving the intensity of the need to move to more sustainable solutions.” From a consumer perspective, she believes it will also drive important shifts in the plant-based and healthy agenda. This is in part because lifestyle-related diseases such as obesity and diabetes were seen to make people vulnerable to the virus, whilst food shortages and supply issues connected people to food systems. “People will be more aware of what they eat, and care more about a healthy immunity and Nestlé are committed to support society on a healthy, sustainable journey.”

Part of this is Nestlé’s commitment to plant-based menus. As Simmons notes, with out-of-home consumption typically setting trends which are then mirrored in the home, foodservice has a responsibility to drive the shift towards plant-based diets.

Thus, the company has worked hard to deliver a strong vegan/vegetarian offering – five meat alternatives including vegetarian/vegan burgers, mince and fillet pieces – under the Garden Gourmet brand. The range is quick and easy for chefs to prepare but offers, according to Simmons, “no compromise on taste and really excites people.” This is necessary to address consumer concerns around taste regarding plant-based dishes, in particular meat analogues, as well as combatting perceptions around pricing.

“Currently, the perception is that veggie-based diet should be cheaper so it’s our job to make sure product delivery is so exciting, and delivers and exceeds expectation so next time, diners are happy to pay the same.

“If we are going to have a drastic shift from meat-based to plant-based dishes, and if plant-based dishes can’t command the same price point as meat – even before Covid-19 - the foodservice economy will not survive. So we, together with our foodservice partners, see it as vital that consumers see vegan and vegetarian dishes as delivering on that taste profile and as great value for money. This is so customers feel that ‘the money I am paying for it is absolutely reasonable, justifiable’.

“We want to make it possible that if an operator shifts to serving more plant-based offers, it will still be a healthy business that can grow and cover all those base costs such as salaries and rents etc., by charging comparable prices for plant-based mains.”

And, prior to lockdown, the reaction to their plant-based offerings from foodservice had been really good, says Simmons, with examples such as the Meatless Marina sub launched with Subway in January deemed a big success.

Another important area to drive the shift to sustainable diets is ensuring that future chefs are excited and knowledgeable about healthier diets and are familiar and confident with plant-based ingredients. This is why Nestlé has a Sustainable Future theme for its – sadly now largely virtual - annual young chef’s competition, Toque D’Or. It is also why it supported Footprint Intelligence and Westminster Kingsway with the development of a “Healthy Plate, Healthy Planet” sustainable-diets chef training module.

“We are asking our young chefs, ‘how to do you create healthy but really exciting dishes?’ We want our young chefs to challenge us and the industry. What are the future tastes? We can’t take exactly what was there in the market and make it plant based – they need to exploit the flavour that the plant can give us. How we can evolve and be in a better place tomorrow? We’re also focussing on bringing more female chefs into the competition – from both a judging and participant perspective.”

Nestlé has not always had a smooth ride with making products healthier. Being a treat producer, often the more effective way to make something inherently indulgent less so, is to reduce the portion size. But this has often created a backlash, though some products, such as the mini McFlurry made with reformulated Smarties, gained acceptance as part of children’s meals.

Other promising innovations like Milkybar Wowsomes, a white chocolate treat made with 30% less sugar, was pulled in early 2020 after disappointing sales. This seemed surprising, especially given its focus on parent-friendly natural ingredients, particularly milk. Though perhaps pricing was to blame: I noticed that whenever I tried to purchase it as a less sugary children’s treat, it cost more than similar confectionary and wasn’t included in bundle deals at high volumes occasions like Halloween. Nestlé created the treat after massive investment in new technology that aerated the sugar crystals to make them ‘hollow’ so that less sugar could create sweetness whilst maintaining mouthfeel. A Nestlé spokesperson told the MailOnline at the time that Nestlé was using the learning from Wowsomes to develop ”even higher performing, more versatile and affordable sugar reduction technology."

The YES bar – a healthier range of fruit and nut snack bars that come in fully recyclable paper packaging – appears to be faring better, though it will undoubtably have been hit by the impact that the virus has had on travel hubs and corporate sites.

And just before coronavirus hit, Nestlé was about to launch a brand new indulgent yet low calorie muffin with Costa. The Rollo muffin had been specifically reformulated using new technology and aeration techniques to deliver the same mouthfeel and pleasure as a standard muffin.

Jokes about the Covid-10 pounds that people have put on during lockdown abound. Even before the pandemic, the latest overweight and obesity prevalence statistics from 2020 – which were based on pre-coronavirus data from 2018/19 - showed a 23% increase in hospital admissions where obesity was a factor. And early research indicates that obesity could as much as double the risk of coronavirus-related hospital deaths

In troubled times when people have – and are likely to continue to want - their treats more than ever, products which provide comfort and indulgence with reduced calories/fat, and in the case of Garden Gourmet, reduced planetary impacts, are arguably more important than ever.

The virus is still out there, and the climate crisis is still just as urgent as ever. So it’s good to know that for people like Simmons, sustainability is still a priority in a pandemic-defined world.

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