Packing a punch

Imagine life without the takeaway sandwich? Three billion are sold each year but 30 years ago it was a new idea that might not catch on.

When Marks & Spencer bosses introduced packaged sandwiches on a trial basis in five of its stores 30 years ago, little could they have imagined what they were starting.

The retail sandwich market is today worth £6 billion, with British consumers munching our way through three billion shop-bought sandwiches each year.

So what are those three billion sandwiches – and where do we buy them? According to the British Sandwich Association (BSA), Britain’s favourite sandwich is chicken salad, followed by prawn mayonnaise.

Marks & Spencer, which started it all, reports that its prawn and mayo sandwich has been its bestseller for all those 30 years. “Over six million prawn mayo sandwiches are sold each year, using 390 tonnes of prawns,” says M&S Sandwich buyer Lisa Oaten.

The biggest sandwich retailer in the UK is now the Subway franchise chain, with 1,432 stores. The firm is ahead of Tesco, Greggs and Marks & Spencer in the value of sandwiches its stores sell, although Tesco outsells Subway in terms of volume.

Smaller sandwich shops and franchise chains tend to make their sandwiches on the premises, but large retail chains, convenience store groups and petrol forecourts will source theirs from companies such as Greencore, which delivers 320 million sandwiches a year from its four UK factories. “We make 45,000 deliveries a week to convenience stores alone,” says chief executive Patrick Coveney.

The manufacturing process is highly automated. Bread is buttered automatically and robots deposit mayonnaise-based fillings, but more intricate tasks are still done by hand. “No robot can put four thin slices of tomato in a sandwich,” Coveney adds.

And with 300,000 employees, the sandwich-making industry is a bigger employer overall than the nation’s agricultural sector.

Thirty years ago it was the concept of a pre-packed sandwich which was the catalyst for growth. The packaging innovation continues, ironically now making the large retailers’ takeaway sandwiches look as though they have been bought from a local delicatessen.

And the British Sandwich Association reports that the recession has had little effect on the market, with sales growing by 3.6 per cent over the past year. “There has been a surge in the premium end of the market, which balances out losses at the lower end,” says BSA chief executive Jim Winship.

The contentious recent proposal by the government to impose VAT on all hot snacks (not just those prepared to order as previously) is causing concern, though.

At Earl of Sandwich, a chain run by the heirs of the famous earl, chief executive Orlando Montagu says: “Our delicious hot sandwiches are made to order and pretty good value. They would be even better value if we didn’t have to charge 20 per cent VAT on them just because they are hot!”

On a more positive note, this year’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics will see special “themed” sandwiches go on sale. For example, Tesco will be launching some fillings under a “British Limited Edition” banner, including scotch egg and pickle. Marks & Spencer will also be celebrating, with the launch of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and even pork pie sandwiches.

Thirty years on, the sandwich revolution continues.