‘We’ve taken a heavy beating’: is there any hope for the sandwich bar? | Pret a Manger

Will, a personal assistant working in London, used to avoid coffee shops before lockdown. But

Will, a personal assistant working in London, used to avoid coffee shops before lockdown. But since life started getting back to normal he has signed up for a subscription with Pret a Manger. “I didn’t buy much coffee out before lockdowns, but £20 for unlimited coffee has me popping into the nearby Pret every morning for a black filter and maybe a croissant,” he says. He’s back in the office full-time now. “I usually bring my lunch from home, but if I’m running late or forgot ,I’ll grab a sandwich with my morning coffee, too.”

Elsewhere in the capital, Daisy Baldwin, a 34-year-old communications manager, has also started buying food and drink during the working day. “I never spent money on lunch or coffee – or very occasionally as a rare treat – but now I am working from home I like to support my local cafes by buying a sandwich, juice or even an ice-cream one or two times a week,” she says. “Saving the cost of commuting means I can afford to splash out a bit more and I feel more connected to my local community than pre-pandemic.”

When she does go back into the office – which she expects to be for only part of the week – Baldwin plans to take a packed lunch as she did before. But on the days when she is home working she says she will continue to pop out and support her local cafe.

Daisy Baldwin supports her local sandwich shop, Ginger Bees, in Kingston-upon-Thames. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Will and Daisy are just two of the readers who responded to a Guardian call-out asking if people’s spending on lunch and coffees had changed since the start of the pandemic. After a tough year, those working in the industry will be heartened by what we heard, with many readers reporting they were fed up with making their own lunch and out buying again.

The sandwich and coffee industry was hit hard – and early – by Covid. While not every workplace has been closed, the shift to working from home across many industries has had a big impact.

The British Sandwich & Food to Go Association reports that the market was worth around £8bn a year before Covid. Now, says its director Jim Winship, it’s “really difficult to get a figure, but it may have halved … Our market has taken a heavy beating because so many sandwich bars are in areas where there are offices.”

The downturn started in mid-March 2020, as offices and other workplaces started to clear even before official lockdowns. On 16 March 2020 – a week before full lockdown – Pret a Manger said it had cut opening hours, and two days later it closed in-store eating areas. It was a similar story for other outlets dependent on office trade.

Data from consultancy firm Kantar shows that lunch sales slumped in the spring of 2020, to about a quarter of the level of the previous year.

In the City, Alfred, who has been running Alfredo’s near Moorgate for 17 years, says things are “still quiet. It’s not busy,” as his market is the workers who have still, in the main, not returned to the square mile. The shop has a website and delivers to offices, but although some of the regulars are back, many are not spending as much.

Alfred at the door of his shop in Moorgate in central London
‘It’s not busy’ … Alfred at the door of his shop in Moorgate in central London. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

But in Bristol, Camilla Kille, manager of a branch of the chain Philpotts, says business is bouncing back. The branch, which closed at the start of the first lockdown and only reopened this year, is next to the station. “Our clients are predominantly office workers but we get some footfall from the station, the station staff come down and there are construction workers,” she says. “As word got out that we were open, things got busier and busier.”

Regular customers have come back, and favourites remain coronation chicken and a turkey, bacon and emmental sandwich, but she’s seen a change in the way customers are behaving. “Some of them are still working from home some of the time and when they’re in they’re treating themselves a bit more, buying extra bits. They might have a breakfast and lunch, so they’re coming in twice a day, or we added some extras like cupcakes to the menu and those are selling really well.”

Kille says there are also signs that “people are more relaxed – previously we’d be really busy and people would be rushing back to the office, but there are more people stopping and eating here, and maybe having a coffee”. Things are not back to pre-Covid level, she says, but adds: “I think that will come.”

Lucy Chapman, strategic insight director at Kantar, says that the evidence so far suggests that “people have reengaged – they have gone back to eating out where they can”.

This isn’t true across the board, as some of our readers told us that they were done with spending money on coffee and sandwiches. One, Andy Ahmad-Walsh, 42, used to travel from Brighton to London for a weekly meeting at the distillery where he works as a salesman. “I’d be there at 9.30am until the end of the day,” he says. “Depending on where I was at lunchtime I’d either pop out to the local Co-op to get a sandwich or go to Pret or one of the other quick-serve places. I’d usually get a coffee – being a savvy northerner, I’d go for a filter coffee and use my own cup so that would only be 50p.” However, the spending mounted up and he reckons he was paying between £50 and £150 each month on food on the go. “It’s amazing how much money I haemorrhaged going about my working week,” he says.

Camilla Kille in Philpotts in Bristol
‘People are treating themselves a bit more’ … Camilla Kille at work in Philpotts in Bristol. Photograph: Sam Frost/The Guardian

“Now when I’m going in I make something specifically to take – sometimes a sandwich, but sometimes I’ll do extra dinner, or a nice salad or pasta with a separate sauce I can take in and heat up. You can’t take your own cup in for coffee any more because of Covid so I have one at home and then wait until I get into the distillery.” He says that since changing his lunch habits, “I get way more pleasure looking at my savings accounts”. He also enjoys cooking, “so it makes sense to carry on”.

But at heart we appear to be a nation of lunch grabbers. Maria Castroviejo, senior consumer foods analyst at Rabobank, who hails from Spain and is now based in the Netherlands, says she remembers “rushing downstairs and grabbing something” when she worked in London several years ago, and that this lunch culture is typical of Britain and northern Europe.

And our habits are not new, says Dr Annie Gray, a food historian and author of books including Victory in the Kitchen and Food for Thought. “The main meal for much of history was at lunchtime. People used to go home for it if they could, but if you were unable to you would take something substantial to eat.” This might be bread, a pasty or a pie, she says. “Largely grain-based solutions because they will go in your pocket.”

Gray, who shudders audibly at the mention of pre-packed sandwiches, says that although in the main “people went home for their lunch until after the postwar period,” street food was popular early on. “In the potteries in the 18th century you had things like the Staffordshire oatcake and the Derbyshire oatcake being sold,” she says. “Workers would get them either on the way to their shift or the way home.” In London, soups, eels and fried fish were all being sold to industrial workers in need of a snack.

It was in the early 1980s that the pre-packed sandwich we are now so familiar with hit the shelves. Now half the market is made up of big brands and supermarkets. The rest is independents and small businesses who, Winship says, face crunch time as landlords demand rents and other costs begin to kick in again. But he says he is optimistic: “If any go there are plenty of others that will step into their shoes – it’s an industry that attracts new businesses all of the time.”

This is the case in Swansea, where Adrian Critten is back in his workplace, Audio-T Hi-Fi. Before last year’s lockdown he was a regular at the local Marks & Spencer, but now he has switched his lunch-buying habits – and is supporting new independent outlets that have opened on his doorstep.

The experience of making his own food during lockdown has changed what he wants out of a midday meal. “I’m back in work now and I thought it would be nice to have something that somebody has made locally,” he says. Luckily, “a few places have popped up – a guy who was selling vegan falafel in the market now has somewhere nearby, and another two guys have opened up near to where the students are”.

A cup of coffee at Pret a Manger
Pret a Manger has announced plans for expansion into new markets. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Critten says their cheese and potato pie “is like something Mamgu [grandmother in Welsh] would make you – it’s huge and really nice,” he says. The falafel seller has moved into a cafe which closed during the pandemic. “There was a call centre round the corner but they’re now working from home – they just evaporated – so the cafe closed, but the new guy has moved in. He was always way too busy so now he has more space.” He adds: “Before this it would be M&S four days a week – I might go back there now and have a look, but I think I’ll keep buying from the local places.”

A survey for Rabobank carried out late last year found that in the UK many office workers expected a future where they would work from home maybe two days a week and go to the office for three. The survey suggested this would directly hit office canteens and sandwich shops, with workers predicting their use of them would fall by half in future.

Castroviejo says the look of the lunch market will change: chains will open outlets near to where workers live, do tie-ups with other retailers to carry lunch options, and there will be a “premiumisation” of what is offered.

This seems already to be starting: Marks & Spencer’s latest lunch offering is a range of filled ciabattas billed as “for sandwich connoisseurs looking for something extra-special”. Pret’s moves so far have been into markets and places that haven’t been affected by emptying city centres. Announcing plans to open 100 franchised shops, plus about 100 of its own outlets, it recently noted: “In some areas such as regional towns and parts of northern England our shops are busier than they have ever been.” Over the past year Pret has formed partnerships with motorway services operator Moto, opening branches in Cherwell Valley and Rugby, and with Tesco. The supermarket chain will carry its croissants and a granola range. Pret is selling ground coffee through a number of grocers, and has launched delivery in the form of ground coffee subscriptions and a partnership with Deliveroo to take its takeaway foods to people’s doors.

Chapman says that across the industry delivery has “changed from being just an evening thing to being throughout the day”. In the 12 weeks to 16 May 2021, a fifth of deliveries were for lunch, versus 8% in the same period of 2019. She says this may change as lockdown eases, but expects delivery to remain more important than prior to the pandemic.

The appetite, therefore, seems to be there: our readers, on the whole, expressed great enthusiasm for something – anything – that wasn’t a homemade sandwich.

Trevor, a senior manager at a university in London, is a case in point. He says he had a regular coffee routine before lockdown: “I used to stop at one of those mini-Waitroses with a Costa coffee machine – I’d get a coffee and a pastry and chat to the staff. It was in a petrol station; I don’t even know if it’s still there now.”

Since March last year he has been into work once, to clear out an office that is now closed, and is currently working from home all week. He has dusted off an old coffee machine and it “now works harder than me”, he says. Lunch is often a sandwich: “I vary it a bit with wraps or yesterday’s couscous if there’s some left over.” But he has started to block out some time on a Friday to leave the house/office: “As a break from the monotony of home working I do tend to go out at Friday lunchtime and get a takeaway as a treat – usually from Leon or Pret, sometimes KFC,” he says. “There’s also a bakery nearby so I sometimes cycle to get something from there.” He is desperate to get back to the workplace and see colleagues but for the foreseeable future he expects to be at home, and looking forward to his Friday lunch.