Product development: putting a modern spin on traditional recipes

People are always asking me how we come up with the ideas for our products,” says Steve Walpole, Head Development Chef at famous Italian food and oriental noodle manufacturers, Ugo Foods, based in Borehamwood, not far from the famous Elstree film and TV studios. “The answer is quite straightforward, we are simply following in the footsteps of the company founder, Luigi Ugo. We’re always looking to find that certain product which will make the difference, not simply be another version of something that’s already out there.”

Luigi Ugo left his home in Tortona, northern Italy, in 1921 at the age of just 14 and made his way to London where he went to work in a grocery shop. With no wages, just board, lodgings and a daily supply of flour and eggs, he made fresh pasta by hand and was soon selling it to local hotels and restaurants. He was so successful that he opened his first shop in Soho in 1929 and never looked back. As well as being the first company to introduce fresh pasta to shops the UK, Ugo was also the first oriental noodle manufacturer in the UK and supplied noodles and dumplings to the oriental community. In 1932 Luigi was responsible for introducing potato gnocchi to the UK. From there his innovations continued. In 1967, Ugo was the first company to supply organic and whole wheat pasta in the UK, then, in 1995, gluten-free pasta.

Ugo is now owned and run by a third generation Ugo, Paul, Luigi’s grandson, and he still has the passionate interest in creating outstanding food that his grandfather had and he inspires his staff to go that extra mile in the company’s innovative product development.

So, just how does Steve come up with the new ideas? “They’re normally generated by internal discussions and workshops. We do a lot of research around trend watching and consumer/ customer requirements. A good example of this is our Beetroot and Goat’s Cheese Fiorelli. As well as being on trend with the rise in popularity of beetroot, this product was launched in conjunction with the Breast Cancer Care charity, being beautifully pink, and Ugo donate 10p per pack sold to the charity. It proved so popular as a product with consumers, however, that we transferred it to our main range and sell it all year round now. Finally, target markets are a big part of what we look at as this helps us to drill down into what these areas may want, need or maybe missing to capture a point of difference.

“We also take part in judging awards and visiting trade shows on both food service and retail to see how each area affects and influences the food market. Inspiration comes from all sorts of sources. Our team draws on their experiences from retail, manufacturing, culinary areas, as well as the Italian links and family heritage of the company. We actually do spend a lot of time in Italy and other countries sourcing the best ingredients and that in turn helps to inspire us to make exciting and innovative products.”

Once they come up with an idea, what’s the next step? “Recipe development,” says Steve. “Both new ones and tweaking existing ones. However, customers can be a fickle bunch when it comes to recipes that have been around for a while. They grow accustomed to a flavour or product profile, so even if you feel it can be improved or enhanced, it may not be well received! We do however always review our products, choice and range, as trends, choice and competition changes so we have to be honest and true to our range and change where necessary. Also, we always do our own recipe development. We might take inspiration and ideas from external sources, but all products, ideas and work is done internally. We do work with third party suppliers but we work with them to develop products to our specification. We’re very fussy about that.

“Generally, new recipes are first tested in-house by a selected team to give more diverse feedback. We then move selected products to a more focused lead group, which can be internal or external depending on the brief. We also run public focus groups to test the water on new or different projects to gauge the market opportunity.”

The critical stage then, how does a product with the required potential move to the production line? Steve explains: “This depends on the type of product and ingredients. It can be difficult to go from a development kitchen sample to main factory trial. But it’s about understanding the process change and how ingredients will change or need to be adapted to keep the end product as true to its initial or original recipe. There will always be sacrifices but it’s about being true to our business and what we want to produce. We want to be known for our quality and innovative products.”

Paul Ugo, the Chairman sums up their product development ethos and USPs: “We are always looking to differentiate ourselves and our recipes have to follow and fit into these guidelines. Our fillings are typically 10- 20 per cent higher than the competition, we only handle kitchen cupboard ingredients and British free-range eggs and, most importantly, our production machines are designed to fill pasta with particulates, NOT paste, so if the recipe doesn’t accommodate this, we won’t run with it. For me, it’s not about how Mama used to make, but how my Grandfather did it!”