Word of mouth: Sybil Kapoor meets the woman responsible for ceps in the supermarket

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Remember the days when you could buy a ready-to-bake pizza in a plastic dog bowl? "Huge fat dollops of bread brushed with a ton of tomato paste and covered in cling-film" is how Brigette Hardy, product innovations manager for Sainsbury's, describes them.

She cut her teeth on them as the company's buyer of pizzas and pork pies. An unlikely start for someone who has successfully introduced everything from tamarind paste to Charbonnel & Walker chocolate drink to the stores. "I was dispatched to the factory to design a new pizza. I had them sauteing fresh mushrooms, experimenting with new doughs, trying to create a recipe that was closer to a real Neapolitan pizza. It was fantastic, knowing that people were actually eating what I had designed."

Brigette Hardy is bursting with ideas, even if she's not very fond of pork pies. "I like to get my hands dirty, too much of being a buyer is sitting behind a desk, moving stock from depot to store and acting as a commodity broker. It is an amazing feeling, knowing you can change what goes into a pork pie, reducing the jelly, making better pastry." She switched to product development, where she was eventually commissioned by Bob Cooper, trading director of Sainsbury's, to set up its Special Selection. This began as a small group of "gourmet foods" - Cipriani pasta, dried ceps and such like.

Two years ago, she was given free reign to rampage across departments and challenge their preconceptions of their products. As she says: "How can they judge a Cajun ready-made meal if they have never eaten in New Orleans?" She immediately organised what she calls Search and Reapply trips, where she whisks up to 20 buyers and development chefs off on a whistle-stop tour of Italy, America or Australia and the Far East. These are not for the faint-hearted. Mike du Sautoy, category manager for ice cream and desserts, has experienced the Hardy phenomenon at first hand. "She organises everything. We visited 100 supermarkets and 30 restaurants in 12 days on our last trip to the States. Food is Brigette's passion and work is her play. She's so enthusiastic she could probably sell lawn mowers in winter if she wanted."

As part of a trip, Brigette ensures they visit about three restaurants a night for dinner. Notes are taken by a development chef, while photographs are discreetly snapped. "I will smuggle out a pudding in my handbag and photograph it on the pavement if I think that the restaurant is going to be upset," she remarks. "I just love the fact that I can buy olive oil with oranges from Alice Waters in San Francisco and laksa paste from Singapore, and sell it to millions of people. What was rare in Fortnum's 15 years ago is now commonplace." With the push of a computer button, she can see what is selling where and quickly respond. So if you like the idea of buying banana flowers at Sainsbury's, you'd better get out there and buy them Sainsbury's extended Special Selection will be introduced into a number of stores on 7 September.