From its alleged beginnings as a clean and speedy way of eating meals devised by John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, who was loath to stop playing cards in order to feed himself, to the highly evolved luxury (and often somewhat overpowering) American deli sandwich of New York fame, the concept of consuming a meal contained within a bread framework has conquered much of the industrialised world. in 2010, Britain consumed some 3 billion sandwiches a year. By this year that figure has risen to 3.5 billion and the trend seems clear. Not only is the sandwich quick and, generally speaking, affordable. It has also caught the eye of high end supermarkets and speciality cafes alike, marketing their bready offerings as a new form of connoisseur experience with a never-ending and ever-changing range of ingredients.
In Britain, arguably the birthplace and spiritual home of the sandwich, where the average lunch hour has shrunk to a miserly 27 minutes among hard pressed and time-strapped high flyers and city workers, sandwiches have become a huge, and growing, business. And while some enjoy the idea of having a sandwich made fresh, in front of their inquisitive eyes, for many the supermarket sandwich is the most accessible and affordable fare on a daily basis. Many a consumer of these ubiquitous supermarket sandwiches probably hopes that they are made in bespoke facilities belonging to their chosen purveyor. The truth, however, is that 44% of all supermarket sandwiches in the UK are made by one company in one of its four factories.
Greencore Group, based in the United States and the UK, is one of the world's leading manufacturers of convenience foods, according to its website, with 22 factories in the UK and US employing around 12,000 people. At its Manton Wood facility north of London, 18 conveyor lanes churn out up to 5,400 sandwiches an hour and the factory as a whole can deliver up to 3 million units a week. It is the same machines, however, operated by the same people and the same hands working on the same conveyor belts that assemble a GBP 1.99 'value' cheese and onion sandwich on sliced white bread as those that create the cornfed free-range chicken with oak smoked ham on a bed of baby leaf lettuce creations that high end outlets will offer.
What is the secret behind the success of this multi-million pound industry chugging away in Britain's super-sized sandwich factories. It's laziness. As marketing manager Iain at Greencore's Manton Wood factory explains: 'People realised what a total pain it is.' According to him, the amount of planning and discipline involved in having the desired ingredients to hand at home and actually taking the time to make the sandwiches is often beyond the capacity of stressed and overworked professionals who prefer the fast and easy solution of buying their sandwiches on the day, as and when the need arises. Like much of the convenience food market, retailers and their suppliers have to be tuned in to trends and tastes. Thus, chicken & bacon is Britain's favourite combo, with cheese & onion, prawn mayo, ham & cheese and BLT following close behind.
Andrew Testa visited Greencore's factory, met some of the thousands of employees who put together the millions of sandwiches a year and witnessed food preparation on a gargantuan scale.