As a leading producer of canned pâté, French company Hénaff has had to cope with the prevailing market trend towards chilled pâtés and spreads in many of its markets. Peter Crosskey spoke exclusively to Ginette Hénaff on how this established company is responding to the challenge.

Hénaff is a well known name in France, as the market leader in canned pâté and rillettes, but in many export markets the pâté and spreads sector has evolved in recent years, with chilled products capturing an increasingly larger share of the market.

This has represented a significant challenge to the family-owned Breton company, founded in 1907. Simply having its products correctly merchandised in-store is not straightforward as retailers struggle to grasp the positioning of an ambient pâté in today's marketplace.

"In France, Hénaff is a household name, but when I travel abroad to sell our products, I cannot take anything for granted," explains Ginette Hénaff, export director of the Breton family firm.

Store checks are an important part of her schedule. Once, having sold an entire container of canned pâté to an importer in Singapore, Hénaff went in search of her product in the supermarket aisles. "I couldn't find it anywhere, so I asked my importer. She took me to the nearest store and led me to the jams and spreads. Sure enough, there it was, alongside all sorts of breakfast items," Hénaff recounts.

Exported goods need both consumer knowledge and suitable meal occasions to succeed. The reputation of traditional English teatime fare has far outlived the sales it generates today, while British notions of party food have moved into higher-margin chilled products.

Put simply, eating habits and meal occasions do not travel in the same way as people, and a 26% market share in your home market does not guarantee export sales.

Hénaff encounters a wide range of responses to its canned products around the world. Ginette Hénaff believes it is important to get out into the export markets and find out what people are eating and how, in order to get the positioning right for the company's product range, which in addition to canned pâtés includes terrines in jars and tinned meat sauces, as well as pre-packed fresh salads and meat products. "Whenever I travel, I have to go and see for myself what the people around me are eating," she says.

Once sold alongside Shippams fish pastes and meat spreads, Hénaff's firm textured pâté was challenged by soft, spreadable Belgian pâtés arriving in the chill cabinets. These came with a lower meat content and were made at a fraction of the cost of Hénaff's 96%-meat product.

"We were able to get our product a fresh customs classification, out of spreads and into pastes. However, our national manufacturing regulations for pâté prevented us from bulking up products in the way the Benelux manufacturers could," Hénaff explains.

One area of the market which played to the company's strengths though was the hamper trade. Working with Parrish and Fenn, then with G Costa, Hénaff found a niche in the UK hamper sector. The opening came through an approach by Biscuiterie Nantaise, which was looking for a company to make an ambient pâté that it could sell with Melba toast as a hamper component.

Later Hénaff made contact with Eurofoods before getting listings with UK supermarket chains Morrison and Waitrose. But shifts in buying policies have since put pâté firmly into the chilled department and left Hénaff talking exclusively to canned goods buyers.

Hénaff export manager Harry Mooren recalls the growing incomprehension of most UK canned goods buyers during this time: "Their main task was to manage store cupboard purchases, such as tuna, or baked beans, and they could not place this compact, meaty product within the repertoire."

However, developing markets look more promising. This year, Mooren is busy visiting prospects in the new EU member states of Romania and Bulgaria. These are both countries where demand for meat is strong and where Hénaff's lightly spiced pork recipe is finding a receptive audience.

"Russia, too, is a strong market for us," adds Hénaff. Here the brand is listed by all the major multiples with the exception of French-owned Auchan. It is, however, a very tricky export market: "The entry price is very high," Hénaff observes.

In addition to seeking new destination markets for its canned goods, Hénaff has also looked towards the chilled foods sector. The firm is hoping that foreign retailers will embrace a growing range of premium chilled whole pork sausages, now being offered to export markets. Like the canned core brand, these contain only meat and seasoning, giving them a very firm and distinctive bite.

One country which Hénaff finds difficult is the US. "We've had ISO 9001 accreditation since 2002 and if the I of IFS stands for International then our International Food Standard version 4 accreditation ought to mean something. But apparently not for the USDA (US Department of Agriculture)," Hénaff says.

In the coming weeks USDA inspectors will be visiting the company's production unit in Finistère, which was given BRC (British Retail Consortium) accreditation requirements last year, and has worked to HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) principles since 1996.