Convenience foods have been around a lot longer than we might imagine. By their nature they reflect work practices of a given time as they’ve always been about keeping productivity going. As a barometer of resilience, there is much that convenience foods can tell us.

The sandwich was famously invented by the 4th Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, in the 18th century. He allegedly asked his valet to bring him two slices of bread with meat in between to keep him going whilst playing cards. That way, he could keep playing, didn’t need cutlery occupying his hands, and didn’t get the cards grubby from the meat on his hands. His friends, acknowledging a smart idea, then requested the same as Sandwich and the name was born. Of course, bread and meat had been stuck together as convenience food before that, but the sandwich name stuck.

The sandwich then got a significant boost in the 1920’s with the widespread production of sliced bread. Sandwiches quickly became a mainstay of workers sustenance in industrial workplaces across Britain. Other traditional British foods are equally derived from the workplace. The Cornish pastie was seemingly created as a ready easy-to-hold meal for workers in tin mines who didn’t have to, therefore, surface during the working day but could eat where they worked. The Scotch pie was similar – leftover cuts of meat encased in pastry. Its popularity grew from shipyard workers in Dundee working on a Saturday morning in the early 20th century wanting something to keep them going before heading to the football on a Saturday afternoon. To this day, pies are still synonymous with the working man’s fayre at football matches.

As a child growing up in 1960’s/70’s Britain, a sandwich would be what your mother gave you to keep you going till dinner time. Usual conserves, jam, or marmalade, with cucumber or tomatoes in the summer. Food had a greater seasonality then.

The humble sandwich, though, really took off as an industry in the 1980’s. Pre-made sandwiches before this had been available – pubs and railway stations come to mind – but were roundly ridiculed by a public critical of curled up edges and hardening bread slices. The working reforms brought about by the Thatcher government provided a boost to the city and more employment for female workers. They now didn’t have the time to be making lunches for others and the sandwich shop took off. Many sandwiches manufactured in those days started off in somebody’s kitchen, but these quickly required sizeable factories. Pret a Manger in London or Greggs, if you lived further north, grew from this.

The industry was further boosted early this century with the influx of Eastern European workers willing to work longer hours and at lower pay. By 2020, people in the UK were eating £8bn of sandwiches every year with a penetration of 84%. That is, 84% of all UK citizens bought at least one sandwich per year, among the highest of all food staples.

Now, though, the industry is down to around £6.4bn – around 20% less than before the pandemic and it doesn’t look like recovering to previous levels anytime soon.

So, what happened? Obviously, the pandemic had an impact with no workers, or much reduced, in the office seeking lunch. Pret’s model had been built on following the office space and that drastically dried up.

And now there are inflationary pressures on many foodstuffs brought about by global supply issues – vegetable oils, bread, cheese – all the things that make up a sandwich. Inflationary pressures, of course, are affecting all our convenience foods. At the recent Resilience First event on the hospitality industry, UKHospitality’s CEO, Kate Nicholls, warned us of the threat to that other great British staple, fish and chips, with fish and oil prices rocketing.

Labour shortages in the UK food and drink sector are now chronic. A recent report by Grant Thornton showed average vacancy rates in the sector to be 13% and an older age profile meaning an estimated one third of food and drink sector workers will leave the industry in the coming 10-15 years. COVID, combined with Brexit, has seen 1.3 million foreign-born workers leave the UK. Other difficulties, such as a negative perception of the work in the sector and the introduction of IR35 (affecting pay levels of contracted workers) haven’t helped. All this in a sector that employs some 13% of the UK workforce and contributes £120bn to the UK economy. Add this to the recent announcements from the Bank of England forecasting recession and reduced consumer spending and it makes for grim reading.

What does this tell us, though, about the resilience of the present market? Well, firstly, the need for resilience planning has never been more evident. The sandwich trade – and wider hospitality – coped admirably on the whole during the pandemic. Partly, this was due to government support and no matter who becomes the next Prime Minister, that person is going to have to quickly communicate what future support to business and the consumer is going to look like if we are to restrict the duration of a recession.

But survival during the pandemic for many was around adaptability and being able to quickly adjust to unpredictable and rapidly changing circumstances. Going forward, one would hope that changes will be less dramatic - albeit probably still hard to predict - but trading conditions, for all the reasons set out above, look like they will be less favourable than pre-pandemic for a good while to come.

What does adaptability look like for the sandwich industry? Well, already there are some signs of reduced choice and smaller portion sizes. Also, people making their own again. And some manufacturers are starting to diversify more, away from just sandwiches to attract new custom.

More importantly, what resilience learnings might there be for the wider business community, if convenience food and lunchtime offerings are a proxy? Here’s some pointers that we are seeing or could see:

  • Higher wages to attract or keep labour and improved working conditions to make the workplace a more appealing environment
  • Developing skills resulting in a better qualified workforce with more automation of less skilled jobs
  • Greater competition for fixed premises from technology such as delivery apps and a movement towards local communities and less in cities as remote working becomes more normalised. These factors bring about closure of premises with some new ones opening but overall there is a net loss

Not quite the end of the humble sandwich yet but it might have to find its new placing in a changing market. Intriguingly, if we are going to eat less sandwiches, could it lead to a move away from larger factory units, mass producing sandwiches to be transported in lorries the length of the UK towards more locally produced fayre? Given the sandwiches history of following work trends we should watch and learn from our lunch with interest.