Coronavirus has devoured the great British office sandwich

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Sandwich impresario Max Halley hasn’t been posting many pictures of sandwiches lately on Instagram. Gone are the images of egg yolk dripping wetly from the crusty embrace of a heritage loaf; or a fish finger sandwich smeared thickly with ketchup. Instead, he posts pictures of country lanes and open fields, trees as far as the eye can see, and the occasional roadside patch of wildflowers.
“The truth is,” says Halley, “for a professional sandwicher, there is extremely little sandwich content on my Instagram lately. Bugger all! It’s a sandwich desert on there.” He is speaking from his parent’s house in Somerset, five minutes’ walk from the rolling countryside. He decamped to see out the pandemic after closing his award-winning north London sandwich shop on March 21. “It’s fucking heartbreaking,” says Halley of the closure. “But we’re not going to close down forever.” Halley is hoping to reopen Max’s Sandwich Shop in July, but nothing is confirmed. Until then, he dreams of sandwiches. “I think about sandwiches when I’m lying in bed,” he says, “sat on a desk, on a chair in the living room. I think about sandwiches all the time.”


Halley is one of the luminaries of the British food scene wondering what place, if any, the sandwich will have in our life post-Covid-19. Britain worships the sandwich like no other country: we invented it, we mastered it, and between those two wodges of bread lies as much ingenuity and invention as you’ll find in our entire culinary scene. Of course, for every artisan deli baguette there’s a pallid supermarket sandwich on flaccid white bread. But for now the good and the bad sandwiches are equally under threat, as Britain emerges from the coronavirus lockdown and lunch spots wonder what appetite, if any, the public will have for the to-go lunch market.
In the before times, the UK food-to-go sector was worth £18.5 billion, with sandwiches worth around £7.85bn of these sales. When coronavirus hit, the industry went into freefall, with commuter trade dwindling to nothing as workers stayed at home and made lunch with what they had in the fridge. Some of the bigger players, such as Leon, pivoted to serving key workers and providing free lunches for the NHS — a noble gesture, but hardly a money spinner. The government’s furlough scheme helped inure the industry from full destruction, but already the layoffs have begun. Adelie Foods, one of the UK’s largest sandwich manufacturers and supplier to Caffe Nero and Aldi, went into administration at the end of May. Administrators blamed coronavirus for the 2,169 redundancies. Further job losses appear inevitable: according to Nielsen, sales of sandwiches through convenience stores and delis in the four weeks to May 23 were down 57.7 per cent on their 2019 levels.
“The industry is on its knees,” says Jim Winship of the British Sandwich & Food to Go Association. “There is basically no or very little business. Some sandwich bars are doing takeaway, but the majority are hardly functioning at all.” Rents are a huge concern. “If landlords start demanding back rent as soon as people start going to work, vendors will struggle to meet that,” he says. He calls on the government to encourage landlords to offer rent reductions, until — if — things return to normal.
Even the big boys are struggling. “Like many in the sector, our business has been impacted by the challenges of Covid-19,” says Claire Clough, UK managing director of Pret a Manger. “Given that most people have been staying at home during lockdown, and our shops were temporarily closed, Covid has had a severe impact on sales in line with declining footfall.” The wider context for Pret is far from rosy: Pret has appointed retail property consultants to renegotiate its rents, as it struggles to right itself after the pandemic. “We anticipate it will be a long time before consumer demand returns to pre-Covid levels,” Clough concedes.


Pret stores began reopening in mid-May, although footfall remains low. The Financial Times reports that Pret is seeing footfall at a fifth of pre-pandemic levels as it reopens branches after lockdown. The lunch giant is pivoting to delivery to address this shortfall: the company’s successful Veggie Pret spinoff is now available for the first time exclusively on Deliveroo, and sales via Pret’s delivery platform partnerships are up 15 per cent over the last two months. Clough sounds a cautiously optimistic note. “While sales overall have been slow in some of our shops,” she says, “we know our customers have certainly missed our Chicken Ceasar and Tuna and Cucumber baguettes, which has been great to see.”
People who decide to flock back to buy up sandwiches will have less choice than before: streamlining Pret’s in-store offering to facilitate social distancing in their on-site kitchens has meant that not all Pret classics have made the cut. Stalwarts such as the cheese and bacon croissant and egg and bacon breakfast baguette (both veritable hangover classics) have been brought back, as has long-time favourite the Swedish meatball wrap. However less well-selling items such as the recently-introduced avocado toast and Asian-style veggie box are no more. “Menu decisions are driven largely by the ingredients that are readily available through our suppliers,” says Clough, “as well as ensuring we do our best to keep making our customers’ most-loved items.”
If coronavirus has been challenging for high street giants like Pret, it’s been murder for the independents. “We want to be hopeful,” sighs Michela Talin of Falkirk cafe The Wooer. “We’ll have to see how it goes.” The Wooer is located in central Falkirk: its customers are predominantly local professionals. The Wooer closed on the Friday before Boris Johnson announced the lockdown measures — everyone had started working from home, so there was no point in staying open. The government’s bounce-back business loan and furlough scheme has saved The Wooer from ruin for now, but the outlook is concerning. If consumers don’t start trickling through their doors soon, it’s hard to see how the vegan cafe — which only opened in Christmas 2019 — will survive. “There’s a bit of a question mark about the future,” says Talin.
As we come out of lockdown, the office lunch will bear scant resemblance to our pre-coronavirus habits. Queues outside lunch spots will become commonplace, with fewer consumers allowed in to preserve social distancing. “Service will be slower,” says Frank Loveday of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union. “Lunch spots will have limited products in a lot of places, and there will be social distancing in the premises.” In other words, our days of quickly popping out to buy a sandwich or soup will be gone: the experience of grabbing a to-go-lunch will be considerably more onerous. The Wooer plans to reopen for takeaway shortly; Talin is hoping that consumers will want something tasty to take home with them after months spent preparing their own food. “We hope that people will still use us as a takeaway, picking up food after going to the shops, or work,” she says.


Pret et al are banking on the fact that consumers will eventually return: first in a trickle, then in a flood. But has Covid-19 changed our food habits on a more fundamental level? It looks likely that remote working will become a far greater part of our working lives than before, as employers recognise that keeping employees chained to their desks doesn’t make for the most motivated, diverse, or productive workforce. “There’s a more permanent shift towards working from home for some businesses,” Clough acknowledges, “so in a post-Covid world we may continue to see fewer workers buying lunch in city centres.”
For those workers who do return to their offices, all those months spent at home making their own lunches may make buying a to-go lunch seem like an unnecessary frippery — particularly when you consider that the 80 per cent salary top up of the furlough scheme means that many workers will have less disposable income than ever before. Will they return to buying overpriced salads at pre-pandemic levels? “I don’t think making lunch at home is going to work in the long term,” says Winship. “People don’t have the ingredients to make the variety of choice they get when they go to shops to buy sandwiches. There is an underlying drive for variety and convenience that will survive coronavirus. But it’s just about getting it back in the volume the industry needs to make it viable.”
Halley hopes that when consumers do start buying sandwiches again, they’ll say no to over-processed bread and limp lettuce. “Wouldn’t it be nice if people stopped buying crappy sandwiches?” he muses. “The sandwich is a convenient form of food, but a lot of the sandwiches in supermarkets are more convenient for the people making them than for the people buying them, because they’re shockingly bad. If the general quality of sarnies we are all eating ends up being higher as a result of this, would that be a silver lining?” Halley pauses, hopeful. “Perhaps the sandwich could come out of this even stronger! Which would be excellent.”
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