Uniq posted a drop in first-quarter sales today (29 April) as the UK food group starts a search for sales or joint venture partners for its businesses in France and northern Europe.

Sales for the first three months of 2009 were down 4.9% on the same period in 2008, reflecting, Uniq said, a slowdown in its markets on the continent and the later timing of Easter.

Operating losses were "slightly lower" than the board's expectations and "similar" to the prior year, Uniq said.

UK sales were flat year-on-year with growth in desserts and salads being offset by a slight decline in the company's food to go business. The performance, however, was "slightly ahead" of expectations, the company said.

In northern Europe, sales were down 6.8% as a result of the Easter effect. In Germany, sales fell by 10.7% in the quarter, but the company said it has now "stabilised" the level of loss.

In Poland, sales growth continued but at a lower level of 4.2% and, in the Netherlands, sandwiches, the company maintained double-digit growth at 11.9%.

"Overall, northern Europe sales are slightly behind our expectation but this has been more than offset by better margins," the company said.

Uniq's sales in France were down 7.6%, which the company put down to a "highly competitive" market.

"As announced in our preliminary statement in March, we have commenced the processes to sell or find joint venture partners for all our businesses on the continent. We are running two separate processes; one for our French business and one for our northern European businesses. Both are proceeding in line with our plans," the company said.

The group's net debt at the end of the first quarter was GBP26.7m (US$39.4m).

Uniq yesterday announced that it will be the "major beneficiary" of Marks and Spencer's move to consolidate its sandwich supply network.

The move will raise Uniq's share of M&S's sandwich supply to 60%.