Posted: 24/01/2020

The best brands of 2019


For the ninth year, Fine Food Digest has surveyed independent retailers to uncover what the best-selling products are in the speciality food sector. Here are the results of our 2019 Best Brands Survey, along with some further detail on our findings this time around.

How does it work?

Every brand ranked in this section is here because independent retailers put it here. We asked buyers in delis, farm shops and food halls around the country to name their top-selling lines in around a dozen categories.

The survey was conducted by email and telephone during September, October and November 2019. The top scoring brands in each category – in other words, those most mentioned by FFD readers – are revealed here. Where brands achieved very similar scores we have given them a joint position.


Sweet & savoury biscuits

This category always sees a certain amount of jostling for position among the same names but Peter’s Yard reclaimed first place this year thanks to its Swedish-style sourdough crispbreads. 

Overall, the results featured more sweet (or at least sweeter) varieties than the assortment of crackers and biscuits for cheese that have come up in the previous surveys. 

Border and its Dark Chocolate Gingers, that are a mainstay for many respondents every year, was followed up by a host of returning names. Cookie brand Teoni’s, Farmhouse Biscuits and teatime specialist Cartwright & Butler have appeared in the survey results before, but were all absent from the top rankings last year.

All that said, another biscuit stalwart The Fine Cheese Co continues to enjoy success with its Toast for Cheese range, as well as other savoury lines.

1st – Peter’s Yard
2nd – Border Biscuits
3rd – Teoni’s Cookies
4th – The Fine Cheese Co
5th – Farmhouse Biscuits / Cartwright & Butler


Pickles & chutneys

As sure as night follows day, Tracklements will be at the top of this category – and the Wiltshire-based producer did so again by a distance. Chilli jam accounted for a slightly higher percentage of the votes than it normally does but onion marmalade also had a strong showing.

In fact, there was nothing particularly different or anomalous this year. Mrs Darlington’s and The Bay Tree, which were 2nd and 3rd last year too, both showed that some of their strength lies in the breadth of their offers, as well as the consistency of their products. These two are the only brands to rank in another category (see Jams & Preserves results on page 11) and a wide variety of products were namechecked by respondents.

Flavour-wise, there are no obvious trends with modern and traditional combinations all present. 

1st – Tracklements
2nd – Mrs Darlingtons
3rd – The Bay Tree
4th – The Cherry Tree / Bracken Hill Fine Foods


Chocolate

A traditionally unstable category in the Best Brands survey, chocolate has rendered an unusually steady result this time around. 

It’s safe to say that some eyebrows would have been raised – even on our team – at York-based Choc Affair taking the top spot in 2018 but the data clearly doesn’t lie. Here it is again in first place, garnering more than just local votes for a range of different chocolates, including plain milk bars and buttons.

Given their wide distribution, the presence of Divine, Monty Bojangles and Tony’s is expected.

But Summerdown Mint, which hasn’t been seen in the top confectionery rankings of Best Brands for quite some time, is a pleasant surprise. Many retailers clearly do well pitching its products as a quality alternative to other more ubiquitous after-dinner chocolate mints.

As always, it’s worth noting that this category throws up a host of local suppliers every year. It is heartening to see so many retailers backing a producer from their own backyard.

1st – Choc Affair
2nd – Summerdown Mint
3rd – Tony’s Chocolonely / Divine / Monty Bojangles


Coffee

Coffee is another category where there hasn’t been a huge amount of change, but the sector still seems healthy from the look of the data.

The field of results reflected independents’ local preference. Lots of retailers are doing very well by working with local roasteries and plenty are developing their own bespoke blends to serve in store and sell in bags.

Last year, the well-established Grumpy Mule came in first, as the only brand with a credible number of votes to be ranked. This year’s top spot was the same but a couple of other brands seem to be gaining traction beyond their regional sphere. 

Both Ethical Addictions and Dark Woods have strong brand values in terms of sourcing and they clearly offer the right balance of quality, variety and ethics to get them noticed. That’s no mean feat given the veritable sea of beans and roasteries in the UK at the moment.

1st – Grumpy Mule
2nd – Ethical Addictions
3rd – Dark Woods Coffee


Jams & preserves

As expected, there is a good deal of regional preference on display in this year’s responses for the sweet preserves category. 

The big news is that Mrs Darlington’s has won the tussle with Tiptree that is becoming an annual fixture now. Drill down further and it appears to be a battle between Tiptree’s expertise with strawberry jam and Darlington’s lemon curd, although both received votes for other varieties.

The Bay Tree is back in the rankings this year and it continues to go about its business on both the sweet and savoury side of preserving with a 3rd place that didn’t even account for its own label work, voted for by some.

It’s always interesting to look at the kind of flavour profiles doing well for retailers and traditional strawberry jams and lemon curds are in spread throughout. The trend of boozy preserves, many copying cocktail combinations, isn’t slowing up and many more retailers appear to be happiest with marmalades this time around.

1st – Mrs Darlington’s
2nd – Tiptree
3rd – The Bay Tree


Olive oils & vinegars

Seggiano is out in front, as it was last year, thanks to its Italian balsamics and its Lunaio extra virgin olive oil.

Honest Toil has established its reputation in the speciality retail market now and that is reflected in a 2nd place finish for the second year in a row. After a hiatus last year, Greek food specialist Olive Branch is back. All of these producers are proof you need strong branding to gain national traction for your EVOO in delis and farm shops.

There are still retailers declaring their local brand of rapeseed oil as the best-seller in this category but last year there wasn’t a single brand that made it into the top three – so Yorkshire Rapeseed Oil’s return to the top table is a welcome sign of life.

Usually, you would expect to see at least one cider vinegar brand in the rankings but retailer success with vinegar seems to have broadened to other styles and a wider selection of brands available.

1st – Seggiano
2nd – Honest Toil
3rd – Yorkshire Rapeseed Oil
4th – Olive Branch


Soft drinks

Fentimans continues to pull off the masterstroke of appealing to consumers and retailers in all channels, which is a testament to the liquid inside those bottles. 

Many independents will be pleased to see a boost for Devon-based Luscombe, up from 4th to challenge Nestlé-owned San Pellegrino in joint 2nd. 

It is also good to see the game of musical chairs in this category disrupted with some different names. Folkington’s, Cawston Press, Breckland Orchard and Fior Fruit Merchants are all new or previous entrants that didn’t make the cut last year.

Many of these names reflect the continued popularity of fruit juices, especially apple varieties.

Don’t be surprised if a kombucha pops its head above the parapet in the next couple of years, with mentions for the fermented drink (admittedly from an array of producers) continuing to grow.

1st – Fentimans
2nd – Luscombe / San Pelligrino
3rd – Folkington’s / Cawston Press
4th – Belvoir Fruit Farms / Breckland Orchard / Fior Fruit Merchants


Beer, wine & spirits

The 2017 result that saw us gain a result in this category looks increasingly like an anomaly, as the most recent survey failed again to produce enough votes for any brand in particular. And again, this result should not be viewed negatively.

Yes, there are plenty of “n/a” because many retailers don’t have a license, but the difference this year was the results were not solely dominated by the myriad of British gins.

Alongside the ubiquitous Mothers’ Ruin, were votes for craft beers, Continental house wines from old school merchants and vineyards, British wines, and even the odd cider.


Savoury snacks

Pipers may be in 1st place yet again but there is lots of movement in this category, which is becoming increasingly less dominated by the old guard of ‘hand-cooked’ potato crisps.

For a start, Tyrrell’s is the only other one left in the rankings and the new potato brands that have come in this time are a different breed.

Both Brown Bag and Two Farmers have all the requisite provenance and flavour profiles but they also have strong eco credentials. The former places a strong emphasis on the recycling of its packaging, even offering to take old bags on itself, while the latter’s bags are 100% compostable – that includes at home.

As noted last year, Torres (and its famous truffle flavoured crisps), Eat Real veggie snacks and corn chip brand Manomasa continue to take a share of the votes away from the usual names.

1st – Pipers Crisps
2nd – Torres / at Real
3rd – Brown Bag Crisps
4th – Tyrell’s / Manomasa / Two Farmers


Wholesalers

There was no movement in the rankings for distributors with The Cress Co coming out on top of the pile.

While buying from catalogues and using distributors is not for every retailer (and the odd one still makes that very clear), there was perhaps a little more positivity from respondents this year. 

Some of those that do use them went further than just pitching a name and also cited factors like flexibility of delivery and reasonable minimum orders in their decision-making. So, it’s safe to say that all the names here are getting it right for their current customers.

There were also a lot less “n/a” and blank spaces than last year, with lots of retailers opting to nominate individual suppliers in this spot – reflecting their preference for dealing directly with producers.

1st – The Cress Co
2nd – Cotswold Fayre
3rd – Hider
4th – Holleys
5th – Carron Lodge / Springvale Foods


Tea

Yorkshire Tea is virtually a brand in its own right. In fact, Taylor’s of Harrogate consider it to be. And it is those ever-present bags that keep the Yorkshire producer in front of the other competition in the tea category.

It was certainly tight across the rest of these rankings, with plenty even on votes and only the odd vote or two separating each place. Brew Tea and English Tea Shop are new entrants this year but there’s no one in this Top 4 that you could call new to the market.

Although it normally makes the rankings, Somerset-based Miles is this year’s biggest riser and 2nd represents its best-ever placing.

When it comes to the bestselling brew, it is more on the side of traditional everyday and breakfast blends as well as Earl Greys, rather than herbal infusions

1st – Taylors of Harrogate
2nd – Miles
3rd – Teapigs
4th – Pukka / Joe’s Tea / Brew Tea / English Tea Shop


British cheese

Snowdonia’s Black Bomber continues to transcend all geography and demographics. Almost every independent FFD visits has it in their counter, bearing this result out. It is one of those rare things in cheese, a product with broad appeal and well-executed branding.

Although it is more traditional in every sense, Colston Bassett is just as interesting a case study because it is a well-known name within the sphere of a famous cheese, Stilton. Many makers of protected varieties, especially on the Continent don’t enjoy this level of recognition.

The other two names on this list, Baron Bigod’s maker Fen Farm Dairy and East Sussex-based Alsop & Walker, are a good omen for all producers of modern British artisan cheese.

1st – Snowdonia Cheese Co
2nd – Colston Bassett
3rd – Fen Farm Dairy
4th – Alsop & Walker


Continental cheese

As if you needed this survey to tell you, British retailers and their customers cannot get enough of Brie De Meaux. 

This year, though, there wasn’t a clear brand name winner (last year Rouzaire had enough votes on its own to take the top spot). It’s a similar story for all of those varieties that racked up votes. The Alpine titans, Switzerland’s Le Gruyère AOP and France’s Comté both received plenty of mentions but often without a specific maker.

The one branded cheese that did come up several times was German producer Kaserei Champignon’s enduring blue (and a former World Champion no less) Montagnolo Affiné but on the whole this is a category where the cheese’s brand trumps the maker’s.

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