“Food Fit for All”: Modified Foods as a Market Opportunity

Recently I was catching up with a friend who had just come back from holiday in the USA. After describing the highlights of the sightseeing and natural beauty, she told me about an unexpected highlight from here trip: going to a “Cat Café.” That’s right: a café that serves coffee drinks with the ‘added value’ of customers getting to hang out with cats.

Not for everyone, you may say. But at some point, it occurred to folks who love cats & coffee that that two could go together. Whether they created the demand or simply met a demand that was already there, their concept of a “cat café” unlocked a market opportunity in their context.

Which brings me to a second (recent) conversation about cafés & market opportunities – not a ‘cat café’ but a café / food enterprise that serves “food fit for all.” Let me explain.

Part of Co-operative Futures work within the USE-IT programme is about developing local food enterprise in Ladywood, Soho and Smethwick. So when Kate Palser emailed me that she had some ideas about food-related enterprises around City Hospital – which is bang in the middle of the patch – I was all ears.

Soon after meeting Kate, who works in the Speech & Language Therapy Unit, I realised that I was talking to an NHS worker who thinks like a social entrepreneur! In our conversation, Kate was long on ideas, all of which came to back to a basic observation: food enterprises needs to think more broadly and creatively about supplying modified diets. The catch-all term she uses to describe this market opportunity is “food fit for all.”

As Kate explained, most people are familiar with special dietary needs, such as gluten-free, low-sugar, high calorie, low-salt, vegetarian and vegan, etc. As a speech and language therapist, Kate also recognises a growing need for TMDs (texture modified diets) for people with chewing and swallowing difficulties. There are different categories of TMDs, and each category has different requirements related to varying chewing and swallowing needs. Whereas it has become more mainstream to request /offer vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free options at cafés, there are few cafés or catering enterprises that consider TMDs.

Which brings us back to the interesting and circular relationship between supply and demand. In the example of the “cat café” (mentioned above), My cat-loving friend paid around $10 for a coffee served with 50 minutes of feline presence…and she enjoyed every minute of it! For her, a perfectly fitting example of “good value.” Or to take a more well-known example, Starbucks has created a brand identity around custom-made coffee drinks, such as “Double Frapp Caramel Mocha” (or just fill in the blanks with your favourite combination). The reason people people pay £4 for a coffee drink at Starbucks is not because the coffee is better, but because people are willing to pay more to get exactly what they want…

Now imagine going into a café, and instead of ordering a “Double Frapp Caramel Mocha,” you are able to order a “Fork-mashed Veggie Curry” with “Puréed Fruit Smoothie w/ Thickener.”   That is not a million miles away from a traditional veggie curry and mango lassi, for example. In fact, Kate’s point is that without changing the flavour, you can modify the texture in order to unlock a new market opportunity.

For local food enterprise, there are a range of opportunities to explore:
•     integrating a broader range of TMDs onto hospital menus;
•    opportunities for local social enterprises and community businesses to provide stalls and markets within the hospital;
•    catering opportunities for people going home or coming to clinics with special dietary requirements.

According to hospital ‘insiders’ like Kate Palser, the demand around area hospitals  for “food fit for all” enterprises is already there. And if people want “food fit for all,” then the question is: Who will supply it? Will large franchises and chain come in to deliver, or will local social enterprises and community business step into the gap?

That’s food for thought…


Written by Sam Ewell on behalf of Co-operative Futures for the USE-IT Programme