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The influx of Polish workers has swelled the market for Polish food in the UK. Having seen specialist Polish delicatessens tap into this rising demand, supermarket chains are now looking to get in on the act, which Catherine Sleep believes may actually help the independent retailers in the long run.

The arrival of as many as 300,000 Polish workers in the UK after Poland joined the EU in 2004 has resulted in a significant growth in the market for Polish foods. Specialist Polish delicatessens were the first retailers to address this growing market but now supermarkets are also beginning to stock Polish specialties.

While independent specialist retailers usually have cause to dread the arrival of supermarkets in their market niche, this development may not be bad news for the Polish delicatessens. So far, these specialist outlets have naturally catered for the ex-pat Polish communities but supermarkets could create a larger market for Polish products among indigenous British consumers, as has been seen with so many other international foods that have appeared on supermarket shelves over the years.

Sainsbury’s, Asda and Tesco have all introduced new Polish ranges. Goods stocked include traditional Polish favourites such as pickled cabbage and local vodka brands, as well as treat foods such as marshmallows covered in chocolate.

The Polish delicatessen sector is still taking shape and has so much to do in terms of generating public awareness of its products that the supermarkets may actually be giving them a shot in the arm. Consumers who are wary of entering a delicatessen full of food they don’t recognise or know how to prepare may have an easier initiation in the familiar surroundings of their normal supermarket.

However, once au fait with a few products, they are more likely to venture into the specialist shops that can offer a far wider range and, just as importantly, expert advice on how best to cook and serve the products available. And certainly, they will have more chance of coming across such specialist outlets today.

As the UK has had a significant Polish population for many years, mostly dating from immigration following the Second World War, there were already a number of Polish delicatessens operating in the UK. But the last two years have seen the number of such stores mushroom as a result of a post-accession wave of immigration, which mostly comprises young and skilled people who plan to improve their English and work hard for a small number of years before heading home.

Some have launched door-to-door services to avoid incurring the costs involved in setting up a permanent retail premises, or to help set up a loyal clientele base before they develop the business on a more permanent footing.

Others have been more daring. Barbara Straszewska recently opened a Polish delicatessen in Tunbridge Wells. Named Kujawianka, after the area in central Poland she left to move to England eight years ago, it sells a wide range of imported Polish food as well as traditional cakes made in London.

Typical of a new breed of Polish entrepreneur setting up small businesses in the UK, Straszewska said her inspiration came when she realised there was a gap in the market and demand for Polish food groceries was rising fast. “So many Poles here have asked me where they can buy Polish food that I thought it would be good to open a shop,” she said.

Polish stores have been slow to build custom from local residents, largely because the food they offer is unfamiliar to UK-born shoppers. Flaki, bigos and pierogi may be a welcome sight for homesick immigrants from Warsaw, but they leave local shoppers nonplussed. For the as yet uninitiated, flaki is tripe in broth, bigos is a stew made from sauerkraut, tomatoes and meat, and pierogi are stuffed pasta-like dumplings.

While non-Polish shoppers are not the target market of most of these small delicatessens, they would provide a welcome boost to trade and enable stores to expand both their range and premises. Some have sought to encourage new custom by joining forces with other businesses.

Just over the road from Straszewska’s delicatessen, for instance, a new Polish bar and cultural centre has opened. The licensee of Polskie Lane plans to establish a small library, internet and TV room and is mulling plans for language lessons and clubs. The proximity of the delicatessen and bar, as well as the similar aims of the proprietors, promises scope for plenty of cross-fertilisation between the two businesses.

It is interesting that in this instance a local businessman is behind the initiative. Polskie Lane is owned by Briton Peter Taylor, who spotted a gap in the market and took his chance. “There are up to 2,000 Poles in the West Kent/ East Sussex area, but until now there has been nowhere catering for them. This will be the first bar between London and Brighton,” he said. With an eye to building rapport with Poles in the area, Taylor teamed up with Marek Kargier, a builder recruited from Poland by an English company 18 months ago.

But both men stress that they are keen to cater to the local population, who are showing a growing interest in Polish food and culture. That in itself augurs well for the expansion of the Polish food category beyond Polish communities, as does the interest being shown by the major supermarket chains. Their involvement in the sector could give local consumers the confidence they need to seek out authentic Polish stores, and in so doing help these small businesses gain the critical mass of custom they will need to prosper in the long term.