Premium fresh pasta manufacturer Ugo Foods is preparing to expand into the free-from market with the launch of a range of gluten-free chilled pastas. 

The company, which supplies Waitrose and Ocado with its Dell’Ugo branded pasta, is preparing to launch a gluten-free line in the UK and is also in discussions with retailers in continental Europe, Ugo head of marketing Helena Jevons told just-food at this year’s IFE exhibition in London. 

“We are having talks with people in France, Spain and Italy. We are at various stages in those conversations but there is a lot of interest.”

While Jevons acknowledged the company hopes to cash in on the massive growth in demand for gluten-free products throughout Europe, she insisted the development of the product came from an “authentic” and need. Ugo owner Paul Ugo wanted to develop quality gluten free pasta because his wife is gluten intolerant. “They wanted to sit down and enjoy great quality pasta as a family,” Jevons explained. 

The development of a gluten-free pasta was a technical challenge that required a signifncant investment of time and resources, newly-appointed head development chef Steve Walpole added. “We have tried to get a gluten free product that mirrors the taste, look and feel of a regular wheat pasta. It took probably the last 18 months of solid development work to get that correct. We have finalised the gluten-free unfilled, but the filled we are still tweaking to make it spot on.”

Ugo is the fastest-growing chilled pasta company in the UK, Jevons emphasised: “The over all market is in sight decline. Within that market the only retailer in growth is waitrose and it’s branded growth with Dell’Ugo.”

The company has entered a new growth phase and is stepping up levels of product development and marketing. However, Ugo has taken a cautious approach to expansion and is mindful of defending its high-end positioning. To this end, Jevons and Walpole play down the likelihood that the group will expand distribution to the mainstream UK multiples. 

“We have the opportunity to grow in a way that is really right for us. We have a very clear idea of what the brand is about: really delivering Italian quality. We will go where there is a market for that. I would love everybody in the UK to stop buying the cheaper fresh pasta on BOGOF. But realistically we are very interested in the top end of the multiple trade and independant delicatessens, outlets where everything they stock is about quality and provenance,” Jevons explained.

Ugo is therefore looking to expansion into complementary categories to drive growth. Along with gluten free, Jevons revealed the company is mulling whether to look at developing a sauce line. 

“It is a very interesting area for us and we talk ourselves in circles about sauces,” Jevons said. “In Italy, they eat filled pasta with just some olive oil, maybe some parmesan, because they know that all the flavour is locked up in that pasta parcel… Consumers in the UK are almost trained that when they buy a filled pasta you buy it with a sauce. OK, we have to accept that that is the reality of how the British consumer is using this category. But oh my God, we would love them to realise that there is pasta out there that is so delicious that it really doesn’t need a sauce. I can’t give you a definite answer, but the question of sauces is one that comes up internally and one that comes up with buyers.” 

Walpole added: “We are trying to push development outside of the remit of what we have already been doing. We have a number of other products that we will be launching throughout the year with our key retailers. We are also looking at things outside of pasta. We are probably looking at a core range of about ten new innovative product launches this year. Not just filled or unfolded pasta.” 

Walpole revealed other areas the company is developing include arencini and chocolate pasta. But, while Ugo has a lot of new products in the pipeline, the group is also focused on growing its core lines. 

“We have a lot of new ideas in the pipeline but what we are also very cognisant of is growing the products that we have. At the moment because they still have quite small distribution we also have to look at where is the right place to get that core really strong as well as doing the right NPD,” Jevons emphasised. 

As a high-growth niche brand, it seems possible the group could become a takeover target for a larger food group aiming to develop a more personal connection with consumers. While this is something Ugo is aware of, Jevons said it is not part of the group’s strategic plan in the near term. 

“I don’t think that is in the short term planning. There has been a real shift in thinking around the business and brand to focus on how we can take it forward in a more strategic way, which is why there is so much more resource being put behind it… The existing team would probably want to take it to the next level before we let go of it, because it is also about getting the business to the size where everyone who is involved gets the right reward out of it.”