ProVeg’s Senior Market Research Specialist, Holly Doran, spoke to Derek Sarno, Chef-Director for Plant-Based Innovation at Tesco, about his work at Tesco, his widely successful brand Wicked Kitchen and other endeavours.
You currently hold the title of Chef-Director of Plant-Based Innovation at Tesco, the market leader for groceries in the UK and one of the largest supermarket retailers in the world. Can you tell us what this role entails and why you think it’s important that other retailers introduce a similar role?
I see my role ultimately as a chance to transform the way we eat, to innovate, and to lead the future plant-based food market in retail. Right now, I have two main focuses: developing our top-secret, all vegan, Wicked Kitchen products, and helping Tesco develop its own plant-based product range. Tesco and I share a commitment to plant-based initiatives, so we actually created my role together. This might seem unorthodox, but if you want to create high-impact innovations and lead the industry, you have to step outside the box.
My days usually see me working with different teams, affiliates, and suppliers, presenting plant-based innovation at the culinary level. We’re constantly challenging the norm in this white space, pushing boundaries, sharing insights, and creating amazing choices that constitute a whole new market space. Essentially, we lead the market by developing the tastiest, most compassionate options, all entirely free from animal products. And we’re doing good business – other retailers would be crazy not to get involved!
People often have an emotional connection to the food they eat and, for many, that connection is to animal products. But most of those who purchase and consume your Wicked Kitchen products aren’t vegan, which suggests you’ve managed to appeal to them on an emotional level with your plant-based creations. What is it about your product line in particular that you attribute this to?
Food can be such an emotional choice for people, but at Wicked Kitchen we just let the food speak for itself! We know that people eat with their eyes as much as they do with their bellies and minds, so we make our products look vibrant and filling. We play on the familiar with a bit of cheekiness.
It’s also not all about the label – it’s what’s inside the packaging that drives people to buy our products over and over again. Our customers have come to expect a certain great taste from us, and it’s a sign of our commitment to making delicious, innovative food that we can evoke those feel-good sensations and create emotional connections. We’re also all real chefs behind the brand. That really differentiates us from others on the market because we truly care about the mission and put love into what we do.
We’ve also purposefully kept the ‘suitable for vegans’ label small and on the back of packaging. This fits with our ethos of creating amazing food that everyone wants to eat!
Your Wicked Kitchen range by no means screams ‘vegan’. The language and design communicates taste, freshness, playfulness, and attitude. You incorporate devil horns and use words like ‘mighty’ and names like ‘hipster salad’ Why did you opt for this positioning?
Ultimately, we want to make the strongest impact we can and encourage as many people as possible to enjoy the delicious flavours of veggies done properly! Wicked Kitchen foods are crafted by chefs and guided first and foremost by flavour and taste. Each product is thoughtfully prepared, not just thrown together to make one group of people happy. We want to make plant-based foods tasty, convenient, and affordable for everyone. Vegan food for meat-eaters is what we’re striving for!
That said, we at Wicked are committed to being of benefit to people and animals. For us, it’s not just a trend or even just a job – it’s our life. We want to put ‘mighty’ plants and vegetables front and centre, without sacrificing naturalness.
I know you’re a big fan of mushrooms. What is it you like so much about them as an ingredient? Are there any other plant ingredients, specifically plant protein sources, that have potential in your eyes?
You’re not wrong – we really do love mushrooms at Wicked Kitchen! We’ve even developed specific Wicked techniques to get the most out of them. My favourite are the less common, slightly more exotic mushrooms that aren’t widely used. They have the most natural texture and are the closest thing to an animal product I’ve ever found. And what’s more, they require little to no processing!
There are lots of other fantastic plant-based meat alternatives on the market, with many more on the way, including the Beyond Burger, which we now stock at Tesco. We’re also working with lots of new companies as they emerge – these days I like to think of us not as being in the food business but in the food transformation business! Innovative plant-based proteins tend to be based on soya, pea, or blends of beans, and I’m sure we’ll soon see the rise of wheat-based proteins too. The opportunities are endless and new technology is paving the way for further innovation.
Where the challenges lie for some will be in avoiding allergenic ingredients in their existing manufacturing. Companies and their processes will need to adapt in order to remain productive and profitable in the future.
The plant-based market has exploded in recent years, particularly in the UK, in part thanks to your amazing work! What do you think is behind this shift in the UK? I believe your Wicked Kitchen range is currently only available in Tesco in the UK and Ireland. Do you have any plans to expand overseas?
The plant-based market will continue to expand as consumers become more informed and more connected to their food choices and the impact those choices have on their bodies and the planet. All signs suggest this shift will keep on gaining momentum in the years to come.
To meet demand, we’re expanding our Wicked Kitchen product range in the UK and will keep it exclusive to Tesco for the next few years, possibly longer.
The companies that impress the most are those with integrity, those that put effort into ensuring that their delicious products of the highest quality are not perceived of or experienced as a compromise. Lots of companies are being reactive rather than proactive and just jumping on the bandwagon, making food that won’t ever be bought twice. I won’t name names but I’ve tried lots of items that I’ll never buy again. This is what happens when companies’ intentions are shallow and giving customers what they want is not a core value. At the end of the day, all customers want is a range of tasty foods that are healthy, indulgent and affordable.
Follow the accounts below to make sure you don’t miss out on any mouthwatering content from Derek:
A new Youtube cook along/tutorial series: bit.ly/WickedKitchenEp1 Wicked Healthy Website: wickedhealthyfood.com Wicked Healthy Instagram: instagram.com/wickedhealthy Derek’s Instagram: instagram.com/dereksarno