A culi­nary gift to the world

Sam Knight un­wraps the cul­ture of the British sand­wich, an in­ven­tion that has its own mythol­ogy, is worth bil­lions, em­ploys thou­sands and aided pro­duc­tiv­ity across the work­force

The Guardian Weekly - - Weekly Review -

The in­ven­tion of the chilled pack­aged sand­wich, an accessory of mod­ern British life that is so in­flu­en­tial, so mul­ti­far­i­ous and so close to hand that you are prob­a­bly eat­ing one right now, took place 37 years ago. Like many things to do with the sand­wich, this might seem, at first glance, to be im­prob­a­ble. But it is true. In the spring of 1980, Marks & Spencer, the na­tion’s most pow­er­ful depart­ment store, be­gan sell­ing pack­aged sand­wiches out on the shop floor. Noth­ing ter­ri­bly fancy. Sal­mon and cu­cum­ber. Egg and cress. Tri­an­gles of white bread in plas­tic car­tons, in the food aisles, along with ev­ery­thing else.

Look­ing upon the na­tion’s £8bn ($10.7bn)-ayear sand­wich in­dus­trial com­plex in 2017, it seems in­con­ceiv­able that this had not been tried be­fore, but it hadn’t. Bri­tain in 1980 was a land of Formica coun­ters, flu­o­res­cent light­ing and lunches un­der gravy. Sand­wiches were thrown to­gether from left­overs at home, con­structed in front of you in a smoky cafe, or some­thing sad and curled beneath the glass in a British Rail can­teen. When I spoke re­cently to An­drew Macken­zie, who used to run the food depart­ment at M&S’s Ed­in­burgh store – one of the first five branches to stock the new, smart, ready-made sand­wiches – he strug­gled to con­vey the lost nov­elty of it all. “You’ve got to bear in mind,” he said. “It didn’t ex­ist, the idea.”

If any­thing, it seemed out­landish. Who would pay for some­thing they could just as eas­ily make at home? “We all thought at the time it was a bit ridicu­lous,” said Macken­zie. But fol­low­ing or­ders from head of­fice, he turned a stock­room into a mini-pro­duc­tion line, with stain­less steel sur­faces and an early but­ter­ing ma­chine. The first M&S sand­wiches were made by shop staff in im­pro­vised kitchens and can­teens. Prawns de­frosted on trays overnight, and a team of five came in be­fore dawn to start work on the day’s or­der.

And, oh, they sold. They sold so fast that the sand­wich ex­per­i­ment spread from five stores to 25, and then 105. In the Croy­don branch, a crew of seven was mak­ing a hun­dred sand­wiches an hour. The first of­fi­cial M&S sand­wich was sal­mon and tomato, but in truth it was a free-for-all. They sold so fast that staff made them out of what­ever was ly­ing around. In Cam­bridge, they made pilchard sand­wiches, and peo­ple wanted those, too.

With­out be­ing de­signed to do so, the pack­aged sand­wich spoke to a new way of liv­ing and work­ing. Within a year, de­mand was so strong that M&S ap­proached three sup­pli­ers to in­dus­tri­alise the process. (One of the world’s first sand­wich fac­to­ries was a tem­po­rary wooden hut in­side the Telfer’s meat pie fac­tory in Northamp­ton.) In 1983, Mar­garet Thatcher vis­ited the com­pany’s flag­ship store in Mar­ble Arch and pro­nounced the prawn may­on­naise de­li­cious.

Ev­ery su­per­mar­ket jumped on the trend. Up and down the coun­try, chefs and bak­ers and as­sorted wheeler-deal­ers stopped what­ever they were do­ing and started mak­ing sand­wiches on in­dus­trial es­tates. The sand­wich stopped be­ing an af­ter­thought, or a snack bought out of de­spair, and be­came the fuel of a dy­namic, go-get­ting ex­is­tence. “At Am­strad, staff start early and fin­ish late. No­body takes lunches – they may get a sand­wich slung on their desk,” Alan Su­gar told an au­di­ence at City Univer­sity in 1987. “There’s no small-talk. It’s all ac­tion.” By 1990, the British sand­wich in­dus­try was worth £1bn.

A young eco­nomics grad­u­ate named Roger White­side was in charge of the M&S sand­wich depart­ment by then. He had read that apart­ments were be­ing built in New York with­out kitchens, and he had a sense of where things were go­ing. “Once you are time-strapped and you have got cash, the first thing you do is get food made for you,” he told me. “Who is go­ing to cook un­less you are a hob­by­ist?”

In the sand­wich depart­ment, he com­mis­sioned new pro­to­types ev­ery week, and de­vised an ul­ti­mately im­prac­ti­cal scheme to bake baguettes in west Lon­don each morn­ing and de­liver them, still crusty, to stores around the cap­i­tal. Baguettes go soft when they are re­frig­er­ated – one of a sur­pris­ing num­ber of tech­ni­cal chal­lenges posed by sand­wiches. White­side im­mersed him­self in ques­tions of “car­ri­ers” (bread), “bar­ri­ers” (but­ter, may­on­naise), “in­clu­sions” (things within the bread), “pro­teins” (tuna, chicken, ba­con) un­til they bor­dered on the philo­soph­i­cal. “What is more im­por­tant, the car­rier or the fill­ing?” he won­dered. “How many tiers of price do you of­fer in prawn? How much stim­u­la­tion do peo­ple need?”

In the early 90s, White­side de­vel­oped M&S’s first ded­i­cated “food to go” sec­tion, with its own tills and check­outs, in Manch­ester. The in­no­va­tion pre­fig­ured the lay­out of most con­tem­po­rary su­per­mar­kets, and was fab­u­lously suc­cess­ful. But it wasn’t suc­cess­ful enough for White­side. He didn’t un­der­stand why ab­so­lutely ev­ery­one in Manch­ester city cen­tre wasn’t com­ing in to M&S for their lunch.

One day, he went into a branch of Boots on the other side of the street. Like al­most ev­ery ma­jor re­tail chain, the phar­macy had fol­lowed M&S into the sand­wich busi­ness. But White­side was con­vinced that its sand­wiches weren’t as good as M&S’s, and that most cus­tomers knew that, too. He con­fronted the lunchtime queue in Boots and asked peo­ple why they weren’t com­ing to his store. “They said: ‘Well, I am not cross­ing the road’,” he re­called.

The an­swer struck White­side with great force. Mass-pro­duc­ing a meal that you could, if nec­es­sary, rip open and con­sume in the street was trans­form­ing peo­ple’s be­hav­iour. “In­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion and to­tal con­ve­nience and de­liv­ery,” White­side said. “If you are not there, they are not go­ing look­ing for you.” He re­turned from Manch­ester and tried to per­suade M&S to open hun­dreds of stand­alone sand­wich shops in Lon­don. “It was so ob­vi­ously an op­por­tu­nity.” M&S didn’t go for the idea, but White­side was con­vinced that the fu­ture would be­long to who­ever was sell­ing on ev­ery cor­ner. He saw Pret a Manger and Star­bucks and Costa and Sub­way com­ing a mile off. Dur­ing the 1990s, the sand­wich in­dus­try tre­bled in size. By the end of the 20th cen­tury, more peo­ple in Bri­tain were mak­ing and sell­ing sand­wiches than work­ing in agri­cul­ture.

If you have been eat­ing a pack­aged sand­wich while read­ing this, you will have prob­a­bly fin­ished it by now. One in­dus­try es­ti­mate says that, on av­er­age, they take 3.5 min­utes to con­sume. But no one re­ally knows, be­cause no one pays at­ten­tion. One of the great strengths of the sand­wich has been how nat­u­rally it grafts on to our lives, en­abling us to walk, read, take the bus, work, dream and scan our de­vices at the same time as feed­ing our­selves with the aid of a few small ro­ta­tional ges­tures of wrist and fin­gers. The pinch at the cor­ner. The sweep of the crumbs.

But just be­cause some­thing seems sim­ple, or in­tu­itive, doesn’t mean that it is. The rise of the British chilled sand­wich over the last 40 years has been a de­lib­er­ate, as­ton­ish­ing and al­most in­sanely labour­in­ten­sive achieve­ment. The ca­reers of men and women like Roger White­side have taken the form of a mil­lion in­cre­men­tal steps: of search­ing for less soggy toma­toes and ways to crispify ba­con; of pro­found in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the molec­u­lar struc­ture of bread and the com­pres­sional prop­er­ties of salad. In the trade, the small gaps that can oc­cur within the curves of ice­berg let­tuce leaves – cre­at­ing air pock­ets – are some­times known as “gob­lin caves”. The un­for­tu­nate phe­nom­e­non of a fill­ing slump­ing to­ward the bot­tom of a sand­wich box, known as a skil­let, is “the drop”. Ob­sessed by per­fec­tion and mar­ket share, the sand­wich world is be­set by con­di­tions of per­ma­nent and ruth­less com­pe­ti­tion. Ev­ery week, ri­val sand­wich de­vel­op­ers from the big play­ers buy each oth­ers’ prod­ucts, take them apart, weigh the in­gre­di­ents, and put them back to­gether again. “It is an ab­so­lute passion,” one for­mer M&S sup­plier told me. “For ev­ery­body. It has to be.”

The home­li­ness of the sand­wich has been able to mask its ex­tra­or­di­nary ef­fec­tive­ness as a com­mer­cial prod­uct. In 1851, the Vic­to­rian so­cial com­men­ta­tor Henry May­hew cal­cu­lated that 436,800 sand­wiches, all of them ham, were sold on the streets of Lon­don each year. That might sound a lot, but Sainsbury’s, which cur­rently ac­counts for around 4% of the UK “food to go” mar­ket, now sells that num­ber ev­ery 36 hours. “It is some­times hard to tell how much has changed with our sand­wich con­sump­tion, be­cause we feel re­ally nos­tal­gic to­wards them,” Bee Wil­son, the food writer, told me. “But ac­tu­ally, eat­ing sand­wiches five days a week, as lots of peo­ple do now, or even seven days a week – that is what has changed. They have in­vaded ev­ery area of our lives.”

And yet the sand­wich is not sat­is­fied. You might think that, in a na­tion that buys around 4bn a year, and in which you have been feel­ing bet­ter since you stopped eat­ing so much bread, that the mar­ket might be sat­u­rated, or even fall­ing off a lit­tle. But that is not the case. Ac­cord­ing to the British Sand­wich As­so­ci­a­tion, the num­ber grows at a steady 2% – or 80m sand­wiches – each year. The sand­wich re­mains the en­gine of the UK’s £20bn food-to-go in­dus­try, which is the largest and most ad­vanced in Europe, and a source of great pride to the peo­ple who work in it. “We are light years ahead of the rest of the world,” Jim Win­ship, the head of the BSA, told me.

British sand­wich-mak­ers are sought af­ter across Europe, and in­vited to places like Rus­sia and the Mid­dle East to ad­vise on ev­ery­thing from pack­ag­ing and pro­duc­tion lines to “mouth feel” and cress. “In Saudi Ara­bia they ab­so­lutely love the story of the Earl, the scoundrel,” one fac­tory owner told me. And dur­ing weeks of re­port­ing for this ar­ti­cle, I didn’t come across one per­son who doubted that the boom would con­tinue.

British sand­wich-mak­ers are sought-af­ter across Europe and in­vited to places like Rus­sia

“It’s big. We all do it. And we do it a lot, is our sum­mary of the mar­ket,” said Martin John­son, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Adelie Foods, a ma­jor sup­plier of cof­fee shops and univer­si­ties.

Part of what pushes the in­dus­try for­wards is the mad­den­ing fact that we con­tinue to make so many sand­wiches at home – an es­ti­mated 5bn a year. “The big­gie is still the peo­ple who aren’t buy­ing,” John­son told me. The prize that seemed so un­likely in 1980 – the in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion of some­thing as scrappy as the sand­wich – is now al­most a provo­ca­tion to peo­ple who ded­i­cate them­selves to the food-to-go con­cept.

Af­ter all, ev­ery sand­wich you make at home is one they have not sold. When you talk to peo­ple in the busi­ness, they will in­voke the in­ven­tory prob­lems faced by or­di­nary house­holds in sup­ply­ing enough va­ri­ety in sal­ads and breads. They are also aware that, bar­ring a dra­matic change in our cir­cum­stances (around 2009, fol­low­ing the fi­nan­cial cri­sis, there was a brief but no­tice­able fall in the sale of shop-bought sand­wiches), peo­ple who start eat­ing on the move don’t look back. When I dropped by the de­vel­op­ment kitchens at Sainsbury’s a few weeks ago, there was an Oak­wood smoked ham and ched­dar sand­wich – the su­per­mar­ket’s best­seller – sit­ting on the ta­ble. “Twenty thou­sand peo­ple a day used to make a ham and cheese sand­wich,” said Pa­trick Crease, a prod­uct de­vel­op­ment man­ager. “Now this is their ham and cheese sand­wich.” I don’t know whether he meant to, but he made this sound some­how pro­found and ir­re­versible. “There are 20,000 vari­ants that don’t ex­ist any more.”

More fun­da­men­tally, though, the sand­wich has proven it­self to be uniquely adapt­able to our time-pressed, late-cap­i­tal­ist con­di­tion. In her 2010 book about sand­wiches, Wil­son wrote that the best way to un­der­stand it was not to think about it as food wrapped in bread, but as a form of eat­ing – func­tional and tran­si­tory – that re­flects how we live now. “Sand­wiches freed us from the fork, the din­ner ta­ble, the fixed meal-time,” Wil­son wrote. “In a way, they freed us from so­ci­ety it­self.”

Sand­wich peo­ple seek to know more about us than we know about our­selves. They spend just as much time think­ing about our habits and frail­ties as they do think­ing about what we want to eat. Star­bucks knows you are more likely to have a salad on a Mon­day, and a ham and cheese toastie on a Fri­day. Sand­wich fac­to­ries know that our New Year’s res­o­lu­tions will last un­til the third week of Jan­uary, when the BLT or­ders pick up again. Clare Clough, the food di­rec­tor of Pret a Manger, told me that the com­pany can pre­dict years in ad­vance, if nec­es­sary, its busiest day for break­fast sand­wiches: the last work­ing Fri­day be­fore Christ­mas – of­fice party hang­over morn­ing – which this year fell on 15 De­cem­ber. “We can tell you now how many we are go­ing to do,” she said.

The most ob­vi­ous – and am­bi­tious – plot of the sand­wich in­dus­try is to make us eat them through­out the day. Peo­ple in the trade, I no­ticed, rarely talk about break­fast, lunch or din­ner. They speak in­stead about “day parts”, “oc­ca­sions” and “mis­sions”, and any and all of th­ese is good for a sand­wich. In 2016, the British pub­lic car­ried out an es­ti­mated 5bn food-to-go “mis­sions”, and th­ese are spread ever more evenly across the day parts. In re­cent years, the big­gest de­vel­op­ment in the sand­wich busi­ness has been its suc­cess­ful tar­get­ing of break­fast. (The best-sell­ing fill­ing of the last 12 months has been ba­con.) And the next fron­tier, logic dic­tates, is din­ner – or, as it was de­scribed to me at Adelie Foods, “the frag­men­ta­tion of the evening oc­ca­sion”.

White­side, the for­mer Marks & Spencer sand­wich man, is one per­son who be­lieves that the in­dus­try can take on the night. He left M&S in 1999, af­ter 20 years, and helped to found Ocado, the on­line su­per­mar­ket. In 2013, White­side be­came the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Greggs, the UK’s largest bak­ery chain, where he has over­seen a rad­i­cal ex­pan­sion and sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of the busi­ness – open­ing hun­dreds of new stores, drive-throughs and a de­liv­ery ser­vice. In Oc­to­ber, he told me that he sees the hot sand­wich as the key to mak­ing Greggs “more ap­peal­ing in the evening day part”. If you want peo­ple to eat a sand­wich on their way home, give them some­thing warm. We were sit­ting in a small meet­ing room on the sec­ond floor of Greggs’s cor­po­rate head­quar­ters, on the edge of New­cas­tle. “Think about it,” said White­side. “A burger is a hot sand­wich, isn’t it?” He seemed pleased by this, the in­ti­ma­tion of an­other day part to con­quer. “Sand­wiches,” he said, “never sit still.”

The revo­lu­tion­ary pos­si­bil­i­ties of the sand­wich have al­ways been well hid­den by its sheer ob­vi­ous­ness. The best his­tory, writ­ten by Woody Allen in 1966, imag­ines the con­cep­tual jour­ney taken by the fourth Earl of Sand­wich 200 years ear­lier. “1745: Af­ter four years of fren­zied labour, he is con­vinced he is on the thresh­old of suc­cess. He ex­hibits be­fore his peers two slices of turkey with a slice of bread in the mid­dle. His work is re­jected by all but David Hume, who senses the im­mi­nence of some­thing great and en­cour­ages him.”

Schol­arly at­tempts to iso­late the pre­cise mo­ment of in­car­na­tion – the first stack – mostly read like other par­o­dies. There is some the­o­ris­ing around “trenchers”, thick hunks of bread that served as plates in the Mid­dle Ages, while ev­ery­one ac­knowl­edges the long his­tory of flat­breads and their fill­ings in south­ern Europe and the Mid­dle East. For this rea­son, there is strong in­ter­est in the Earl’s tour of the Mediter­ranean as a young man in 1738-39, but un­for­tu­nately he made no men­tion of the pitta bread or the cal­zone in the de­tailed jour­nal that was pub­lished af­ter his death.

The first def­i­nite sand­wich sight­ing oc­curs in the di­aries of Ed­ward Gib­bon, who dined at the Co­coa Tree club, on the cor­ner of St James Street and Pall Mall in Lon­don on the evening of 24 Novem­ber 1762. “That re­spectable body af­fords ev­ery evening a sight truly English,” he wrote. “Twenty or thirty of the first men in the king­dom … sup­ping at lit­tle ta­bles … upon a bit of cold meat, or a Sand­wich.” A few years later, a French travel writer, Pierre-Jean Grosley, sup­plied the myth – beloved by mar­ket­ing peo­ple ever since – that the Earl de­manded “a bit of beef, be­tween two slices of toasted bread”, to keep him go­ing through a 24-hour gam­bling binge. This vir­tu­oso piece of snack­ing se­cured his fame.

The ev­i­dence for this, though, is weak. In his de­fin­i­tive biography, The In­sa­tiable Earl, pub­lished in 1994, NAM Rodger con­cludes that Sand­wich was hard-up, and never wa­gered much for a man of his rank. A large, sham­bling fig­ure, prone to break­ing china, the Earl ran the Ad­mi­ralty, by most ac­counts badly, for 11 years. The likely truth is that the en­tire fu­ture of the sand­wich – its sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship with work, its dis­re­gard for a slower, more so­cia­ble way of eat­ing – was present at its in­cep­tion. In 18th-cen­tury English high so­ci­ety, the main meal of the day was served at around 4pm, which clashed with the Earl’s du­ties at the Ad­mi­ralty. He prob­a­bly came up with the beef sand­wich as a way of eat­ing at his desk.

It takes a cer­tain type of mind to re­ally in­no­vate be­tween two pieces of bread. Is­abella “Mrs” Bee­ton ar­guably de­signed the first avant-garde sand­wich, in 1861, with her “Toast Sand­wich” – a piece of toast, sea­soned with salt and pep­per, be­tween two pieces of bread – but for most of the 19th and 20th cen­turies, the sand­wich was what it was. Crust­less fin­gers for the rich; what one cook­book called “mouth dis­torters” for the poor. In post­war Bri­tain, in par­tic­u­lar, the sand­wich – bread dry af­ter hours on dis­play, a sad mess in­side – came to ex­press a kind of culi­nary hope­less­ness. “It is by eat­ing sand­wiches in pubs on Satur­day lunchtimes that the

It takes a cer­tain type of mind to re­ally in­no­vate be­tween two slices of bread

British seek to atone for what­ever their na­tional sins have been,” wrote Dou­glas Adams in 1984.

The M&S break­through ar­rived on high streets pop­u­lated by mostly fea­ture­less sand­wich bars. Slow ser­vice. Bins of fill­ings of in­de­ter­mi­nate age. “It was a de­press­ing sit­u­a­tion,” Ju­lian Met­calfe told me. “Ninety per cent of them were de­press­ing places.” Met­calfe opened the first branch of Pret a Manger, at 75b Vic­to­ria Street, in Lon­don, dur­ing the sum­mer of 1986. He was 26 years old. He had been run­ning a del­i­catessen in Put­ney, but it had no kitchen, and Met­calfe was dis­mayed by what he was forced to sell. “We were de­liv­ered coleslaw with a 16-day shelf life,” he re­called. “I re­mem­ber think­ing: ‘Good­ness.’” With a univer­sity friend, Sin­clair Beecham, Met­calfe de­cided to open a del­i­cates-sen­cum-sand­wich shop in West­min­ster.

The first Pret was a mess of sal­ads, cured meats, cheeses and sand­wiches that Met­calfe made in the back. When I asked him how he came to set­tle on sand­wiches, he said: “Be­cause they sold bet­ter than ham. Slic­ing ham took for ever.” Met­calfe, who is by tem­per­a­ment im­pa­tient, con­cen­trated on try­ing to serve cus­tomers in a minute or less. “We started by sell­ing the ob­vi­ous sand­wiches,” he said. “Cheese. And I re­alised, why can’t we do leg of lamb with mint?” Met­calfe was un­leashed. He roasted chick­ens un­til 1am, and stripped off the meat by hand. A sup­plier pitched him a small freshwater lob­ster, called a cray­fish. He was mad about rocket. The for­mula didn’t come easy. It took the duo four years to open their sec­ond shop, in the City of Lon­don. When they did, they played opera at full blast to ac­com­pany the sand­wiches. “It was pre­pos­ter­ous,” said Met­calfe. “But it worked.” Two doors down from the orig­i­nal Pret, there used to be an­other sand­wich shop, called French Franks, which con­cen­trated on the filled crois­sant – it­self a dar­ing con­cept at the time. Frank Bolt­man, who is not French, watched the Pret boys with won­der. “It was make six, sell six. Lit­tle but of­ten. It is the same way it works now,” he said. “They were con­stantly sell­ing fresh prod­uct, which is beau­ti­ful.” Bolt­man had nine branches of French Franks by the early 1990s, but he could not keep up with Pret a Manger. Pret will open its 500th branch in 2018, and is val­ued at £1.4bn. (Met­calfe sold most of his stake in 2008.) But Bolt­man still knows a thing or two. He won four con­sec­u­tive sand­wich de­signer of the year awards – at the BSA’s fiercely con­tested “Sam­mies” – be­tween 2009 and 2012.

“My idea of re­lax­ation is to write down five new sand­wiches,” he said when we met re­cently at his lat­est baby, a vaguely hip­ster­ish place called Trade, on Es­sex Road, Is­ling­ton, north Lon­don. The quest of the sand­wich in­ven­tor is a mostly piti­less one. The in­dus­try has its own 80:20 rule: 80% of sales come from 20% of the flavours. Th­ese are of­ten re­ferred to as “the core” – the egg may­on­naise, the BLT – and they are as fa­mil­iar as our own blood. Pret’s best­selling sand­wiches (the top three are all baguettes: chicken cae­sar and ba­con, tuna and cu­cum­ber, ched­dar and pickle) have not changed for seven years. M&S’s prawn mayo has been its No 1 for 36.

The art of the sand­wich de­signer is to think in­wards, to find vari­a­tions within a known and de­lin­eated realm. “It is a ques­tion of us­ing tenac­ity, knowl­edge, know-how, flair,” said Bolt­man. Peo­ple in the in­dus­try talk about sem­i­nal new com­bi­na­tions – Pret’s cray­fish and rocket; M&S’s Wens­ley­dale and car­rot chut­ney – like Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night Dream, or Zef­firelli’s Romeo and Juliet. The story comes alive again. Some­one finds a new move in chess.

Bolt­man has been round the block a few times. He had a McDon­ald’s fran­chise for a while. He ob­served that, even as sand­wiches func­tion as an ac­cel­er­ant of our har­ried, grind­ing lives, they also of­fer a mo­ment of pre­cious, pri­vate es­cape. “Peo­ple want to eat,” he said, lean­ing close. “They want com­fort. They want so­lace. I’ve had a shit morn­ing. I’ve fallen out with my boss. I’ve had a fuck­ing hor­ri­ble jour­ney in. A poxy let­tuce-and-what­ever con­coc­tion in a plas­tic bowl is not go­ing to do it for me. I want a cup of tea, a choco­late bis­cuit and I ac­tu­ally want to cry. I am go­ing out for a fuck­ing sand­wich.”

On a grey Oc­to­ber morn­ing, I was in­vited to see the sand­wich assem­bly lines at Adelie – a £300m food-to-go man­u­fac­turer – in north-west Lon­don. Like many whole­salers, Adelie is re­luc­tant to name its clients, for fear of end­ing the il­lu­sion that most su­per­mar­kets still make their own. The fac­tory man­ager was Azzed­dine “Ab­dul” Cha­har, a 48-yearold for­mer po­lice de­tec­tive from Al­giers, who fled the coun­try’s civil war in 1993. Cha­har some­times gets funny looks when he tells friends back home what he does. Al­ge­ri­ans, like many peo­ple around the world, re­gard the sand­wich as in­fe­rior fast food, be­cause it is cold. “Even to­day,” he shrugged.

We put on welling­ton boots, white coats and hair­nets, and washed our hands three or four times. Dress­ing to en­ter a sand­wich fac­tory is a bit like pre­par­ing to per­form surgery. Cha­har showed me cor­ri­dors stacked high with spe­cialised brown bread (which must be per­fectly square), cold stor­age with six days’ sup­ply of cheese, and a room with 22 dif­fer­ent may­on­naises. In 2010, Raynor Foods, a small fam­ily-owned fac­tory in Es­sex, in­tro­duced the In­tense tomato, a plum tomato with thicker cell walls that help re­tain mois­ture. It has be­come the in­dus­try stan­dard. The tomato was orig­i­nally de­signed by a sub­sidiary of Bayer, the Ger­man phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals cor­po­ra­tion, for use in pizza top­pings, and has dra­mat­i­cally re­duced the in­ci­dence of soggy sand­wiches. But it is some­times hard to come by. Cha­har spot­ted a crate. “The sup­pli­ers were strug­gling to find them last week,” he groused.

In the main pro­duc­tion hall, a cou­ple of hun­dred work­ers lined seven con­veyor belts. Cha­har took me to the mid­dle of the room, where around a dozen women were mak­ing one of Adelie’s new­est lines, a chicken tikka and onion bhaji sand­wich, which is popular among stu­dents.

In post­war Bri­tain, the sand­wich came to ex­press a kind of culi­nary hope­less­ness

The belt was go­ing at about 33 sand­wiches a minute, so the woman at each stage – ar­rang­ing the 40g of chicken, dol­lop­ing and spread­ing out the bhaji paste, sprin­kling on 3g of co­rian­der – got less than two sec­onds be­fore they went past.

Over the years, Cha­har has tried to get un­em­ployed British peo­ple to join his sand­wich lines. “They come here. They do half day. They never come back,” he told me. (Adelie has also made sim­i­lar, largely un­suc­cess­ful at­tempts with ex-con­victs.) The work is too cold, and too repet­i­tive. Pay at the Wem­b­ley fac­tory starts at £7.50 an hour. As a re­sult, most sand­wich fac­to­ries have re­lied on im­mi­grant labour for at least a decade; in 2014, the news that Green­core was re­cruit­ing in Hun­gary prompted an in­fa­mous Daily Mail headline, which asked: “IS THERE NO ONE LEFT IN BRI­TAIN WHO CAN MAKE A SAND­WICH?” Ac­cord­ing to the BSA, about 75% of peo­ple in the sand­wich and cafe sec­tor in the cap­i­tal are from over­seas; in the rest of the coun­try, it’s 40%. For Cha­har, who dreams of in­tro­duc­ing the sand­wich to Al­ge­ria, it is a baf­fling sit­u­a­tion. “The British peo­ple needs to get into this job. It is the sand­wich,” he said. “They should be proud.”

The de­ci­sion to leave the Euro­pean Union, then, is prov­ing ex­tremely awk­ward for Bri­tain’s na­tional cui­sine. In the­ory, the coun­try’s freshly made sand­wich sec­tor, with its world-lead­ing tech­nol­ogy and ex­per­tise, could be on the brink of spread­ing lu­cra­tively around the world. In fact, since the ref­er­en­dum on EU mem­ber­ship last June, it has been as­sailed by ris­ing food prices and un­nerv­ing ques­tions about who – or what – is go­ing to make the damn things in the fu­ture. “Brexit has fucked ev­ery­thing up,” one chief ex­ec­u­tive, whose firm re­lies heav­ily on eastern Euro­pean labour, told me. “On the day af­ter the vote, on that Fri­day, peo­ple are walk­ing up to me and say­ing, ‘Do I go home now?’ Th­ese are the peo­ple who dug us out of a hole when the indige­nous pop­u­la­tion failed.”

When I met Jim Win­ship, of the BSA, he sketched an un­happy pic­ture of the na­tion’s sand­wich in­fra­struc­ture fall­ing apart. “You take the work­force away and the Costas of this world can’t func­tion,” he said. “If they start clos­ing down and re­tract­ing, that is go­ing to have a knock-on ef­fect.” The sand­wich in­dus­try, Win­ship pointed out, doesn’t merely sus­tain hun­dreds of thou­sands of jobs, it also pro­duces bil­lions of pounds of added pro­duc­tiv­ity through­out the econ­omy. “It al­lows peo­ple to carry on work­ing over lunch,” he said.

At Adelie, the CEO, Martin John­son, n, who worked at BMW and Ford ear­lier in his ca­reer, was more cir­cum­spect. But he ob- bserved that Brexit is likely to has­ten the ar­rival of ro­bots on the sand­wich line. “One of the things you can do is be less de­pen­dent on labour,” he said. Down on the fac­tory floor, Cha­har showed me a new high-tech fill­ing de­pos­i­tor – a shiny metal­lic cone – that the com­pany ny was try­ing out. “The idea is to move to au­to­ma­tion as much as you can,” he said. d. Blobs of egg may­on­naise dropped pre­cisely on to slices of white bread from about 30cm above the con­veyor belt. A lone woman spread the sand­wich mix with a spat­ula in each hand. I looked up and down the line. There were only four peo­ple on it, com­pared to eight or nine on all the rest. The com­pleted sand­wiches seemed to travel a long time on the belt with­out any hu­man in­ter­ven­tion. At the far end, the stacker read­ied them for the slicer. She caught my eye and smiled.

The steady, re­lent­less ex­pan­sion of the sand­wich em­pire – the coloni­sa­tion of new day parts – is not a phe­nom­e­non that draws at­ten­tion to it­self. Over two days in late Septem­ber, I at­tended Lunch!, the food-to-go in­dus­try’s an­nual trade show in Lon­don, and the sand­wich was con­spic­u­ous by its ab­sence. In­stead there were 300 or so ex­hibitors hawk­ing fruit crisps, tofu from Devon and chick­pea puffs. A graph sup­plied by the or­gan­is­ers more or less ex­plained why. To­gether, sand­wiches, wraps and baguettes ac­counted for more than a third of all the food we bought at lunchtime in 2016. Add burg­ers and the pro­por­tion rises to 40%. The only other items that came close were crisps, chips and choco­late bars. Sal­ads made up 3.5% of lunches in the UK. Sushi didn’t make the top 10.

The sand­wich has noth­ing to prove. Whether it wanted to or not, pretty much ev­ery­thing else at Lunch! – the nut shots, the sun-dried ba­nani­tos (small ba­nanas ban from Thai­land), the gluten­free, dairy-free, da su­gar-free chai lat­tes, the co­conut coco teriyaki jerky and the cac­tus wa­ter wa – was vy­ing for the chance to be picked up as an ac­com­pa­ni­ment to the main event. The pack­ag­ing stands sta were the same. A man called Ewald Ew showed me a new, lightweigh­t Ger­man Ger baguette wrap­per that zips off half­way h down and is sell­ing like crazy in the Benelux coun­tries and Ar­gentina. “It’s a wow ef­fect, ja,” he said, strip­ping off the top half of a seeded bun.

In the cen­tre of the hall, I came across the Soho Sand­wich Com­pany, an up­mar­ket sup­plier, which, I learned, pro­vides sand­wiches to the Guardian can­teen. Dan Sil­ver­ston, the manag­ing di­rec­tor, showed me its new TLT – a vegan BLT made with to­furkey. “That’s cool,” he said. “That’s on point. That’s on trend.” Frank Bolt­man am­bled up. He gazed at the stands of pitta breads, ex­otic botan­i­cals and pre-mixed sal­ads sur­round­ing us. “Take away the food,” he said, “and it’s just a war.”

On the Fri­day morn­ing, a huge crowd gath­ered for a talk by Roger White­side, the for­mer Marks & Spencer ex­ec­u­tive now run­ning Greggs. When White­side took over, the busi­ness was strug­gling. A high-street baker for 70 years, Greggs hadn’t found a way to adapt to the fact that 80% of its cus­tomers wanted some­thing to eat im­me­di­ately. Over the last four years, and in his mat­ter of fact way, White­side has turned Greggs from a baker that also sold sand­wiches into a pure food-to-go com­pany. Prof­its have risen by 50%.

A few weeks later, I trav­elled up to New­cas­tle to see him. When I asked White­side to ex­plain the rise of the sand­wich that he has wit­nessed through­out his ca­reer, his an­swer ac­knowl­edged in part the pres­sured lives of the pop­u­la­tion it feeds. “When you talk to peo­ple, if they are hon­est, a large num­ber of peo­ple eat the ex­act same sand­wich ev­ery sin­gle day, all their life,” he said. Even as it fa­cil­i­tates a faster and more soli­tary life, the sand­wich pro­vides a kind of se­cu­rity. We seek it out be­cause we have enough to con­tend with as it is. “Peo­ple don’t want to be dis­ap­pointed,” said White­side. And in a way, that is the very British se­cret of a very British in­dus­try. The sand­wich is a na­tional pas­time of modest ex­pec­ta­tions, re­morse­lessly ful­filled.

Be­fore I left, White­side wanted to tell me about the hot sand­wiches that he hopes will break open the evening day part. In their way, the new evening sand­wiches, which Greggs is call­ing “street food”, sound as un­likely as the M&S pack­aged sand­wich did in 1980. “There are a high num­ber of sand­wiches eaten at night, ac­tu­ally,” White­side ob­served. “If you talk to cus­tomers, a lot of them eat sand­wiches when they get home be­cause they can’t be both­ered to make any­thing else. It’s what they’ve got. So they make a sand­wich.”

A few min­utes later, I was taken to Greggs’s “food zone”, on an in­dus­trial park a short drive away. Kate Jones, the prod­uct de­vel­op­ment man­ager, showed me three flavours of the new street-food sand­wiches un­der a heat lamp. I took a bite of one of the new sand­wiches: bar­be­cue chicken with a Korean bar­be­cue sauce, served on a baguette. The fill­ing was warm and sweet, and it stuck to my teeth. Greggs has de­vel­oped a new ba­con-flavoured may­on­naise as a gar­nish. “Strate­gi­cally,” said Jones, “we are go­ing to make sure we have the ap­pro­pri­ate of­fer for any time of the day.”

Sand­wiches, wraps and baguettes ac­count for more than a third of all the food bought at lunchtime

Earl of Sand­wich … opin­ions vary as to how he came up with his epony­mous culi­nary cre­ation

Sand­wiches never sit still … new va­ri­eties are tried but 80% of sales come from 20% of flavours

Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg via Getty

Fill­ing sta­tion … a sand­wich pro­duc­tion assem­bly line

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