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Less is more: fine foods in focus

Christel Trinquier

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Less is more: fine foods in focus

In a report originally published in the winter 2020 issue of our sister publication Formes de Luxe, we look at how the old adage of "less is more" rings true when it comes to fine foods packaging.

If there is one luxury segment in France where quality does not systematically involve marketing, it is fine foods. Yet when having to choose between hyper-marketed gustatory promises and truly exceptional products, it isn’t always easy to make the right choice. While in regions like Asia and the Middle East gourmet products borrow their codes from the beauty realm, Europe is in the midst of (re)developing the fundamentals with a concern for both traceability and ecology.

Between the École Militaire, the Invalides and the Eiffel Tower in Paris lies a veritable institution: fine foods boutique Rive Gauche. Covering just 45m2, the shop offers 2,000 skus from 230 suppliers. At its helm, Pascal Mièvre, who managed his first neighborhood supermarket at the age of 20 and has since actively participated in the rise of the gourmet offer in mass retail. Even early on in his career he didn’t adhere to the operating models of central purchasing centers, instead tracking down hardtofind gems by forging relationships with small producers.

“Establishing a fine foods shop calls for a curious mind,” he explains. “We are seekers, tasters, selectors, but also storytellers able to talk for hours on end about a single product.”

Indeed, the gourmet shop manager is not your run-of-the-mill retailer: “Between exceptional products and emerging products, terroir and foodtech, couture and startups, this is above all someone who seeks out the latest trend,” explains Xavier Terlet, CEO of Protéines XTC, a communication and innovation agency in the foods segment.

“I’d define this person as a recruiter of specialties who is wholly committed to the quality of what he is selling, and who therefore has real value to his customers,” adds Mathieu Pivaudran, CEO of French jam brand Au Temps d’Eugénie. The holy grail being a nearly intimate bond with each customer. “The hallmark of the gourmet shop,” sums up Mièvre, “is the advice factor: we listen to clients as we listen to the product.”

This tailormade advice, the prerogative of luxury purchases, is done differently depending on the retail format. Ferréol de Bony, Purchasing and Supply Director at La Grande Épicerie de Paris, works on a completely different scale: the rue de Sèvres and rue de Passy stores combined cover 6,000m2 with an offer of 30,000 skus, including nearly 5,000 online and 700 ownbrands.

“Regardless of the layout of the point-of-sale, advice remains essential in the high-end segment,” affirms de Bony. “Our strong architecture and signage, centered around storytelling, bear witness to this.”

Insta-food versus terroir

At the heart of this narrative, packaging plays its part. “There are several coexisting trends today,” continues de Bony. “For the new generation urban dwellers (the 20 and 30 somethings), packaging must be instagrammable. But these consumers, although disconnected from the countryside, are highly interested in terroir and are demanding when it comes to products’ transparency and traceability.” This was already the case preCovid, and the health crisis has only exacerbated the trend, no matter what the consumer’s age or background.

Another big trend is the market’s unbridled appetite for exotic specialties. Against a backdrop of local production and ethics, the democratization of tourism has had an impact. “After they come home from their travels, consumers want to find what they discovered abroad: gourmet products from around the world are seeing a consistent increase in demand with Asia and Italy taking the lead.” This trend was confirmed during the lockdown. “Food has hedonistic, spiritual, sanitary and political dimensions,” notes food sociologist and anthropologist JeanPierre Poulain.

Food is a symbol; it has meaning, and the health crisis has been a catalyst. “More concerned and more committed, the increasingly informed consumer has reclaimed his food,” Terlet continues. If, during the lockdown, food was less a demonstration of status— due to limited social interaction— it has reinvested its primary function of pleasure and reassurance. Sometimes even becoming regressive.

But not only: “A product with value in the food segment as elsewhere, luxury items are timeless, which can reassure consumers in an uncertain world,” adds Poulain.

So what were the star ingredients and products in 2020? Spices, with exceptional peppers coming in the lead; truffles in all its guises; beantobar chocolate; honey; spreads; meringues; nonnettes; ‘alternative’ flours and different types of citrus (yuzu or cumbawa)— which illustrate the dual celebration of the virgin product and its ‘culinarization’. “This is a lasting trend,” notes MarieÉdith Lecoq, President of French media Le Monde de l’Épicerie Fine. “Coffee pasta, porcini chocolate… we are no longer seeing innovation for innovation’s sake, but a refocusing on the product’s intrinsic nobility, its origins, its purity and the way it is processed. This marks a return to the authentic product with a consumer preference for qualitative simplicity.”

As a consequence, in packaging, sobriety is the champion. Case in point: the traditional Weck jar (Europe’s version of the Mason jar) is gaining popularity: “Its old-fashioned kitchen style inspires confidence,” notes de Bony. “Consumers also buy with their eyes: first comes taste, second comes beauty and the cherry on the cake is that it’s organic. That’s the winning gourmet equation!” Naturalness & authenticity “When it comes to food, pleasure is promordial,” insists Terlet. “Health can have an impact, but as an additional guarantee of pleasure.”

But pleasure also means breaking with habit. “We’re seeing significant demand for products with a strong flavor profile, be they smoked, fermented, infused and maturated. These tasting notes tend to be more divisive, but are the towards the farming dimension.” Here as elsewhere, the most outspoken products are not always the most qualitative. The absence of marketing in this segment could be a strategy in itself: nonmarketing marketing, a way to guarantee the exclusive nature of the product experience. “This goes even further,” points out Lecoq, “as for some purists, marketing is a counterguarantee of quality. As soon as a product is too well marketed, it loses face in finefoods shops—the first point of contact with the consumer.”

The same goes if the brand expands into mass retail, for isn’t the first virtue of luxury its rarity? That said, at the end of result of natural processes,” he adds. While pure organic is not (yet) gourmet products’ main selling point, naturalness and its ‘no’ claims (no dyes, preservatives, added flavors) are taking center stage for the content and the container: “The reduction of all things superfluous is a major trend in the food industry,” explains Terlet. “Overpackaging is shamed and there is a growing focus on recyclable and/ or recycled materials.”

While progress is being made, there is a still a way to go: “The health crisis has restored packaging’s legitimacy in terms of its safety, conservation, protection and hygiene functions, so Covid has, in a way, signaled the end of the ‘zero packaging’ fantasy.” “Let’s not forget that the main players in the fine foods sector, the producers themselves, are mostly SMEs and even very small businesses—companies who focus less on appearance than on their core business (the product) and who are generally not well equipped marketingwise.” Lecoq adds. “Two types of brands share the stage: those carried by a new generation of consumers versed in the codes of luxury and those of producers who tend more 2020, it was indeed wow effect advent calendars that performed best among consumers, with Comtesse du Barry in the lead. “The gourmet product has a gifting value and all the personalization offers we set up at La Grande Épicerie, with Chocolat des Français or Veuve Clicquot, for example, were a great success,” notes de Bony.

Focus on personalization

For caviar brand Kaviari, Karin Nebot, General Manager, invited a calligrapher to the rue de Sèvres branch of La Grande Epicerie this year to personalize each box of caviar with a phrase from Oscar Wilde’s canon. For the caviar house, which shook up the market in 2011 with its EnK concept (French agency De VOG), personalization is nothing new and in the B2B segment it has long worked with prestigious establishments, such as the Ritz.

Three years ago, Kaviari rethought its brand identity: “We called on designer Jeff van Dyck with the desire for something more raw, yet elegant. For our boxes, we decided on recycled cardboard ranges that combine craftsmanship and hotstamped gold. In store, we launched an isothermal tote bag in organic cotton. I don’t believe that sobriety excludes refinement. True luxury is all about refinement, the right tone, keeping in mind that in our segment, emotion must be both gustatory and visual for an overall experience.”

In addition, the house launched of its first deli: Délikatessen by Kaviari. The concept offers a tasting counter focused on seafood and fine foods. “We’re following the same logic as we did with the EnKs: the idea is to make caviar more accessible without impacting its nobility.”

Nebot is not a fan of the term “democratize”; when asked about the market’s current transformation— the acceleration of caviar production, which now comes exclusively from farmed sturgeon—she refuses to believe that ‘gray gold’, the bastion of ultimate luxury, could be doomed to the same fate as salmon. And yet, competing with the most pristine of farmed caviars, imperial beluga or osciètre, which fetch between 1,800 euros and 9,000 euros per kilo, caviars from Poland or Italy are sold at 500 euros per kilo at supermarket chains. “Everything is becoming banal,” says Terlet, “Kampot pepper, Himalayan salt, truffles… But the fine foods shop’s historic customer is an insider who has high expectations from gourmet products in terms of the price-benefit ratio. The more expert he is, the more he is ready to spend. But beware: this is a mature consumer, more and better informed, more demanding and therefore more challenging.”

A consumer who is more sensitive to pure origin than marketing claims, and for whom the nobility of a product must be mirrored in its aesthetic, free of the usual chatter. A beauty that is as evident as a delightful taste on the tongue. 

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