on the breadline

01 January 2000
on the breadline

Selling sandwiches may be described as one of catering's best-paid and toughest jobs or one of its worst-paid and easy jobs.

The person who said that is now in middle management with a national burger chain, and does not wish to be named because he has made a fresh start. He knows through first-hand experience that selling sandwiches successfully is far from easy.

"I struggled with my own sandwich bar for two years at the end of the 1980s," he said. Its location, within a neighbourhood row of shops in south-west London, was ideal, with shops, offices and an industrial estate all close by. "At first, trade was fine. All the sandwiches were made to order. I made sure that the bread was good quality and I filled the sandwiches generously."

Then the recession came. "Fewer and fewer customers came in. I dropped prices, offered free soft drinks, but still trade slowed.

"Looking back, I believe that sandwiches' total lack of image was a problem, and I failed because I did not know how to create an image for my business. From my present job, I've learnt a lot about marketing, and it now seems to me that sales are held back because there is no universal recognised brand for sandwiches.

"While I believe my sandwiches were excellent, I'm sure customers believed they could make them as well at home."

This customer attitude is perhaps the biggest of the challenges facing sandwich retailers. Marks & Spencer sandwiches have a quality reputation in line with that company's image as a whole, but otherwise sandwich standards vary widely.

Such a problem is relatively easy to identify, but much harder to address. In the absence of a national chain of shops selling sandwiches under a common brand name, it is up to individual cafés and sandwich bars to decide upon their own standards. Any independent business selling sandwiches has to compete against companies whose selling expertise they cannot hope to challenge. Yet the largest among these, Marks & Spencer, commands just 7% of total sales, according to market analysts at Stoy Hayward.


Professional sandwich makers agree that a generous amount of filling is among the best marketing tools.

"I make up sandwiches in front of the customers, and always put plenty inside the bread," says Ann Fort, who runs Annie's Sandwich Bar in Thames Ditton, Surrey. For her, word-of-mouth has proved the most effective advertising during her three years in business, and she says customers have remarked on the amount of filling she provides.


Yvonne Spence, of Shepherds Tea Rooms, Chichester, West Sussex, agrees that quantity is among the best ways of impressing customers. She finds customers are happy to pay £4 for a toasted club sandwich. This is a meal in itself. It is triple decker, using toasted Granary bread and chicken and mayonnaise filling in one layer of the sandwich, and bacon, lettuce and tomato in the other.

Stephen Bridges, who operates Sandwich Xpress, delivering sandwiches and packed lunches to offices across south London, tries to model his products on the type of "deli" sandwiches served in cities throughout the USA.

"Most of the sandwiches that people buy are too meagre. You get just a shaving of meat or a thin piece of cheese and some lettuce. I try to load the sandwiches down with filling." His office worker customers are happy to pay £1.50 - £2 for a sandwich, which he says is more than most of his competitors charge, because of the quantity of food he provides.

Knowing your customers' preferences and matching them well is another prime requirement. Fort's customers are a mixture of local office workers and students from nearby Esher College. This means, she says, that prices must be keen, and fillings familiar: "You couldn't sell them avocado sandwiches," she says. Chicken is the best selling ingredient, picked from a choice of 30 fillings offered. Most sandwiches retail at £1.10, with smoked salmon the most expensive at £1.40.

She uses 32 loaves in an average trading week, in addition to French sticks and rolls. Loaves are purchased from her local Sainsbury's supermarket, and customer preference is split evenly between white and brown bread.


Spence lists peanut butter and apple sandwiches as the most popular with her tearoom customers, with prawn a favoured choice too. "Anything perceived as healthy sells well." She charges around £3 to customers who eat in. Bread is purchased locally, from a branch of the Baker's Oven bakery chain, and nine out of every 10 loaves is brown.

"It really only seems to be parents who ask for white bread for their children which is odd, perhaps, considering the prominence of health issues," she says.


Sandwich Xpress offers a 20% discount for orders of over 15 sandwiches, and works to a minimum order of five sandwiches. Bridges wraps each one in kitchen paper and then in a food grade strong paper bag. "I hate those plastic, triangular boxes," he says. "They may protect the food, but they are expensive and tricky to open. They do not display the sandwich well. They are probably fine if you operate self-service, and I expect they are necessary if you have to refrigerate sandwiches."

Bridges provides a sachet containing a moist hand wipe and a large paper napkin with each sandwich.

Freshness proves a major sales advantage. All caterers contacted for this article were aware of growing competition from newsagents and petrol forecourt shops who bought sandwiches wholesale. They believed that, while such outlets posed a real competitive threat, most people bought from them purely because they were convenient.


There is also a legal incentive to sell sandwiches as soon as they are made.

Current food hygiene legislation is described by industry watchers as a "legal minefield", and requires that sandwiches should be chilled to 5ºC, unless they are to be sold within 24 hours of assembly. Confusingly, it is not permissible to refrigerate sandwiches displayed for sale in room temperature conditions, should they remain unsold.

The maker must either refrigerate them from the start, or throw them away after the 24-hour period has elapsed.

The potential for successful sandwich selling is undeniable. They are the UK's most popular fast food, with sales totalling £1.4b. They cost just a few pence to make, but sell for anything up to £3 in take-away form.

Selling sandwiches might seem a business opportunity too good to miss. And, given the huge appetite which exists for sandwiches as a cheap, filling lunch, or just as body fuel between regular meal times, there is no shortage of customers. Marks & Spencer has proved what can be done, achieving reported annual sales of £3m from a single, central London branch. The retailer has also tried out a sandwich drive-through at a branch opened in Cardiff last year (see Caterer, News, 11 November 1993).

It is estimated that some 43.4 million sandwiches will be bought this year, and nine out of every 10 will be purchased as a takeaway item. A further 20 million will be prepared at home for packed lunches.

Despite this volime, according to Stoy Hayward, sandwich sales have slipped since 1992, when the total sold stood at 47.6 million. Such a sales dip is best regarded as a challenge to sandwich makers and sellers to try just that little bit harder. o

The Caterer Breakfast Briefing Email

Start the working day with The Caterer’s free breakfast briefing email

Sign Up and manage your preferences below

Check mark icon
Thank you

You have successfully signed up for the Caterer Breakfast Briefing Email and will hear from us soon!

Jacobs Media is honoured to be the recipient of the 2020 Queen's Award for Enterprise.

The highest official awards for UK businesses since being established by royal warrant in 1965. Read more.


Ad Blocker detected

We have noticed you are using an adblocker and – although we support freedom of choice – we would like to ask you to enable ads on our site. They are an important revenue source which supports free access of our website's content, especially during the COVID-19 crisis.

trade tracker pixel tracking