The pudding economy: how desserts became big business in the North East; Tom Keighley finds out more about the growth of dessert-only retailers in the region, and what is driving demand.
Changes on North East high streets have delivered hungry consumers an increasing range of niche comestibles.
We've got a taste for the "dude food" of BBQ venues, to exotic craft beers and street food, sometimes carrying the rather hollow "artisan" tag. One sub-sector of this largely independent scene shows few signs of being a mere fad: the number of retailers peddling puddings and dishing out desserts that have sprung up in the region in recent years.
The cluster comprises delivery outlets such as Desserts Delivered -- run by 25-year-old Rachel McCabe; cafe style franchises such as Kaspa's; and takeaway units like The Pudding Parlour.
Their market has emanated not only from a sweet-toothed population but also arguably from a growing allegiance to independent retailers among UK consumers. Recent UK market entry of larger US confectionary players such as Krispy Kreme and Dunkin' Donuts -- two decades after a failed attempt -- has also undoubtedly bolstered the market.
Last year a study of high street openings by the Local Data Company (LDC) and the British Independent Retailers Association (Bira) showed independent store openings had managed to keep rising vacancies rates at bay. In the North East, the proportion of independent units across all retail premises rose 1.13% in the second half of 2014, compared with a 0.27% fall in the same period in 2013.
Alongside her brother, Kristy Giblin runs the Pudding Parlour chain of takeaway dessert shops in Hexham, Morpeth and a concession in department store Fenwick. She thinks delivering a unique experience is the key to cracking the pudding market. Her business deliberately avoided cupcakes when starting out, on the basis that market was saturated.
Kristy explained: "Like a lot of businesses in our market, we don't buy anything in to re-sell. Everything is made in-house and that means you can't buy our products anywhere else.
"Our concept is American recipes -- picked up from numerous family holidays -- with a twist and modifications to suit the ingredients available in this country. There are some good products in supermarkets, but they tend to use preservatives, so you're not really getting a fresh product. That's where we can offer something different."
Like many retailers, the Pudding Parlour receives a mix of repeat customers on a semi-regular basis, plus tourists and impulse buyers. Around 500 products are rotated monthly in their stores in order to maintain an element of surprise for customers. Kristy talks of the concept as destination retail -- a notion which is intrinsically linked to the economy of small- scale producers and independents.
Neill Maxwell runs Northumberland-based Doddington Dairy -- now famous for its carefully considered range of ice creams -- and supports the idea that consumers will go out of their way to get food items with quality and visible provenance.
He said: "There has been a movement over the last eight to 10 years to the idea of localism. Consumers have had lots of issues of trust with established brands and manufacturers because of various scandals and are looking to different products. The whole idea of buying from someone you know has become more appealing, and I think people now have a taste for quality that they didn't always have."
Visitors to The Pudding Parlour often make their trip part of the weekly food shop, as Kristy explained: "We have a lot of customers who get their essential groceries in the supermarkets, where prices are good, but then get other bits from independents. The independents have become part of their shopping routine because they like to support their community, and because they like the products."
For the cafe and restaurant-style dessert venues, developing as a "destination" is also crucial to their survival. Asim Mahmood and two of his brothers are setting up a franchise of ice cream and dessert restaurant Creams in Newcastle's Bigg Market. The concept has proven popular in London and the South East where around 18 stores have opened in the last year alone -- selling ice cream, crepes, coffees, milkshakes and cakes.
In London a number of dessert and pudding outlets are open into the evening, and even late into the night -- encouraging diners to move on to dessert-only outlets after a restaurant meal, or perhaps to ditch the main course entirely, in favour of a sweet treat. Dessert-only dining in the capital is also established at the high end of the market, with a number of smart "club" type concepts which delve deeper into the global pudding pool with exotic niche dishes and tasting menus.
Mr Mahmood said: "We're bringing the Creams name up from London and think it will do well. There are around 14 to 15 stores in the London area, and it has done so well that the owners expect the total number of stores to double in the next six months.
"My family and I are based in Leeds but we wanted to go into a city that's growing fast and has the audience for a venture like this, and Newcastle really fits the bill for us to come and establish ourselves.
"We first started looking into this around 18 months ago and went for the Grainger Street building because of its position in a very lively area, where footfall is very high.
"It's also an up-and-coming area and we had discussions with the council who told us about the Heritage Lottery Fund money being put into regenerating the Bigg Market, so we thought the time was right too."
News of Creams' opening comes just weeks after the opening of Kaspas in nearby Clayton Street, which first introduced the concept of serving up late-night ice creams to sweet-toothed customers.
"A culture has very rapidly developed among young people, students and families, where they go out for the evening to have a dessert," said Mr Mahmood.
"I've visited six or seven in the London area over the last week and the atmosphere in them is very lively, friendly and vibrant. There's a real gap in the market in the North for this type of business."
The fine tuning of opening times will undoubtedly be crucial to the development of Kaspa's and Creams'. If they succeed, the competition could heat up for the likes of The Pudding Parlour.
Kristy said: "Competition helps to keep us on top of the game. If one of our competitors puts out a similar dish to us, we'll take it off the shelves. It drives us to innovate and develop our range of products."
In Seaham, 1950s-themed ice cream parlour Licketty Split has worked hard on the customer "experience" to set themselves apart from the competition. A strapline on their website reads "fantastic and memorable leisure experiences are built on people". It's a strategy that has helped them to win numerous awards, including a shortlisting in this year's North East Business Awards (a feat also achieved by the Pudding Parlour).
Whatever the format, out-of-home dessert consumption has driven a neat market for entrepreneurs to take advantage of.
Cupcake businesses sprang up on the strength of their simply format and scope for customisation.
The wider world of desserts could hold that potential, multiple times over. It's strength will depend partly on other independent food ideas to colonize the high street and account for consumer spending power.
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|Publication:||The Chronicle (Newscastle upon Tyne, England)|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2015|
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