In decades past, shop-bought sandwiches featured extremely basic (and cheap) ingredients, were of stingy size and were often nearly stale. We’ve come a long way since then. A good shop-bought sandwich is now considered a healthy fast food option, and its popularity is helped by shorter lunch breaks often spent at the work desk.
The nation now eats 3.5bn packaged sandwiches per year, and the total market value is £7.5 billion a year. But how was such a huge market created?
From Accident to Billion Pound Industry
Surprisingly, it was created by accident. In 1980, an assistant at the M&S flagship store at Marble Arch wrapped up some leftover sandwiches from the in-store café and – without regard for health and safety guidelines – put them up for sale instead of binning them. Despite the questionable hygiene, they sold within minutes.
M&S liked this idea of ‘sandwiches to go’, and soon launched a trial of packaged sandwiches in five other stores (non-recycled this time). The first variety was salmon and tomato, which is long gone, but it was soon followed up in 1981 with prawn mayonnaise, which has been the bestseller ever since.
M&S pioneered not only the concept of packaged sandwiches but also the method of packaging. Sometimes called ‘sand-wedges’, the method of cutting the sandwich into two triangles with the long sides on display allows the filling to appear more generous, especially since the filling often doesn’t extend to the edges of the bread.
By 1987, the M&S sandwich range had grown to 25 varieties and was fully rolled out to all stores. Inevitably, other supermarket chains began to copy what had already become a multi-million pound formula, and this was when the industry seriously started to take shape.
The British Sandwich Association was established in 1990 to set standards for commercial sandwich makers. It runs an annual British Sandwich Week that culminates in an awards ceremony.
The UK is the the world leader in sandwich consumption and production, and here are the numbers to prove it.
- Over 62% of us buy a sandwich at least once a year.
- People in Yorkshire spend the most (average of £114/year).
- People in the south-west spend the least (average of £55/year).
- Sandwiches are the most expensive in London.
- 25–34 year olds account for a third of the market.
- Men account for 56% of the market.
- 55% of sandwiches are eaten at lunchtime.
- The industry employs over 300,000 people.
The Production Process
Each sandwich is one of millions produced in a factory (for example, Gunstones Bakery produces 18 million sandwiches a year for M&S and employs about 1,200 people).
The typical factory features a number of stainless steel production lines, one for each sandwich variety. Most of the time only some are in use, but during busy times (Christmas and the summer picnic season) all production lines work at full throttle and extra staff are brought in. You’ll also see large crates of bread, giant vats of butter and mayonnaise and large containers of meat moving around.
There is a strict hygiene routine upon entering a factory, including antibacterial hand wash for the hands that make the sandwiches. That’s right – all sandwiches are (mostly) handmade. A sandwich is assembled by many as ten pairs of hands along the production line, accelerating productivity to as many as 50 sandwiches a minute.
At the top of the production line is someone to open up the bread packets, place the slices on the conveyor belt and throw away the end slices to be eaten by pigs. Enzyme-enhanced bread is used to retain freshness for up to 3 days. The remainder of a production line might include:
- a machine to spread the butter (stops the ingredients turning the bread soggy)
- a machine to pipe the mayonnaise
- someone to carefully weigh the meat and add it
- someone to evenly spread out the filling
- someone to add the salad
- a machine to put together the two halves of the sandwich
- someone to ‘tidy’ the sandwich and ensure nothing’s hanging out
- a machine to press down the sandwich and cut it into two triangles
- a machine to package up the sandwiches
At the end of the production line, the sandwiches are loaded into trays to be dispatched around the country.
A typical factory will also contain a tasting kitchen, where a resident chef experiments with new flavours. Despite the ingredients printed on the packaging, exact recipes are kept a secret.
There are five main sandwich manufacturers in the UK, including:
- Greencore, Nottinghamshire (supplies Waitrose, M&S, Sainsbury’s, The Co-operative Food, Asda and Boots)
- Buckingham Foods, Milton Keynes (supplies Sainsbury’s) owned by Adelie Foods Group
- Gunstones, Derbyshire (supplies M&S) owned by Northern Foods
In 2015, some consumers were shocked when the Daily Mail revealed that factory workers at Greencore (which supplies 44% of the sandwich market) were not wearing gloves to prepare sandwiches, but Greencore insisted that it was hygienic and safe and strict hand-washing rules were in place.
1762 – John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, asks his cook to bring him something he could eat while playing cards. His cook brings him a beef, cheese and horseradish sandwich, although it wasn’t yet known as a sandwich.
1762 – Historian Edward Gibbon names the sandwich after the Earl.
1773 – The word ‘sandwich’ is first used in a recipe book by Charlotte Mason.
1840 – Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, invents the afternoon tea cucumber sandwich.
1910 – France adopts the sandwich in the form of the croque-monsieur (a hot cheese and ham sandwich).
1928 – The sandwich rockets in popularity when sliced bread is invented.
1961 – The sandwich rockets in popularity (again) when scientists at the Chorleywood Flour Milling and Bakery Research Association invent a way to produce softer, more uniform, longer lasting and cheaper sliced bread.
1980 – M&S invents the packaged sandwich.
1990 – The British Sandwich Association is formed.