Lootah GM Tony Colley said the distributor is seeing a major expansion in the formerly tiny niche market: “We’re finding for retail, the things that are happening more and the things we’re getting asked for are the free-from range – is it dairy-free, sugar-free, gluten-free, is it suitable for vegans? That’s the way we’re looking, and that’s what retailers are asking for.
“Two years ago when we first started dealing in retail, it was very much ‘what is this? Why sugar-free?’ Whereas now, retailers are asking us to actively look for non-dairy, non-sugar,” he added.
Free-from not free from market education
While awareness has improved, Colley said it was still critical to introduce free-from and similar products with a carefully-planned marketing campaign, to ensure they are not missed in what can be a challenging retail market.
“A lot of the more niche stuff we do now needs to be explained – it’s not a chocolate truffle, it’s a hand-made, vegan, sugar-free, dairy-free superfood that looks like a truffle. There’s one particular brand we’ve got a the moment – Sweet Virtue – that’s the first time I’ve seen a product where the more chocolate you eat, the better it is for you,” said Colley.
“That’s not a hard sell – but you need to explain to people that’s what it is. And you do this by tastings, by social media. So hopefully when it hits the shelves, a certain proportion of the market is familiar with it,” he added.
As a newer distributor, Lootah aims to be able to source and supply some products to supermarket chains such as Carrefour and Spinneys within as little as six weeks – although Colley said this varied depending on the product type.
Niche producers up export game
Speaking at a recent event to showcase Scottish food and drink products, he noted some smaller producers sometimes struggled with being prepared for the requirements of the Middle East market. But he said among the Scottish firms, awareness of things like Halal certification had dramatically improved.
Colley said there was significant variation in export ability between producers: “There are sectors like fresh fish – Scottish seafood has incredible producers. Sustainable farmed salmon – beautiful red-label quality, fantastic. That we would buy container after container, and sell it into retail and food service – and they’re geared up and ready for bulk volume.
“But for the other, smaller producers – still five or six pallets, or even two pallets, is a big deal. But it takes time to break a new product into the market, especially something a bit more unusual, part of the free-from range – it’s best to start small. Even a distributor like us will start with one pallet, introduce it slowly, build it up. It suits everyone,” he added.
Along with free-from products, Lootah has also had significant success with selling fresh organic fruit and vegetables, much of it sourced from the UAE. Colley said he takes great pride in establishing what he claims as the first daily delivery service of UAE-grown organic produce – even if it occasionally had a rocky reception.
“We would take samples into five-star hotels – the one I particularly remember, which shall remain nameless, the executive chef looked at me and said ‘I don’t know, organic… is it a fad, do you think?’ And I said it’s not a fad, it’s a massive movement! And it’s getting bigger! And he said let’s wait and see next year,” said Colley.
“And now of course, his customers are saying to him, we eat organic at home, we feed our kids organic – and we come to a five-star hotel and we can’t get anything organic,” he added. “Well you can – you just have to buy it from me.”