How Greggs, a super-affordable bakery chain, became a British culinary icon

How Greggs, a super-affordable bakery chain, became a British culinary icon

For most of this bakery’s millions of devotees, the idea that its “Steak Bake” can be “leavened” falls somewhere between madness and heresy. It brings together the diced beef, sauce and crispy puff pastry in perfect harmony. It cannot be upgraded, improved, or strengthened. He has already reached his highest form.

Its popularity bears witness to this. Greggs bakery, a family chain founded in 1939 to deliver door to door pastries to the mining communities around Newcastle, England, sells hundreds of thousands of them every week, mainly to customers who visit one of its more than 2,300 branches across Britain and take them away in a bag in paper, to eat them hot on the go.

Mark Reid and Kieran McBride, of high-end department store Fenwick in Newcastle, decided this autumn to just play with it a bit.

Mr. Reid, the store’s head chef, and Mr. McBride, his manager, were given about two months to take Greggs’ menu and transform it into a sophisticated bistro experience that would fit easily into the slightly more refined from Fenwick.

Mr. Reid’s idea – pairing the Steak Bake with dauphinoise potatoes and a sheaf of thin green beans – was simple, Mr. McBride said. “I think most chefs would have done the same thing,” he said.

What mattered was the final touch: sprinkling everything with truffle shavings. “We wanted to go even further,” Mr McBride said.

At first glance, Greggs Bistro, a month-old pop-up restaurant in the flagship Fenwick branch, appears to be a difficult partner. While both companies have their roots in Newcastle, Fenwick opened its doors there in 1882 as a coat maker and furrier selling silks and furs, and now has nine stores across Britain – they occupy different ends of the market.

Greggs’ products are designed to be consumed quickly by the hungry: the chain sells, for example, 130 million sausage rolls (at the affordable price of 1 pound and 20 pence each, or about $1.50) each year.

Fenwick, meanwhile, sells brands such as Ralph Lauren, Victoria Beckham and Eileen Fisher, and has long been home to a restaurant with French-inspired silver service, starched linen tablecloths, waiters with ties and fine china.

Both, however, see a collaboration as an opportunity to blur the lines a little between what is perceived as high culture and low culture, to “play with form, to infuse a little irony”, as the ‘ said Mr McBride.

It turns out that the mixture is more natural than one might imagine. A Steak Bake, for example, works extremely well with grated truffles. Another Greggs favourite, the seasonal ‘Festive Bake’, filled with chicken, stuffing and cranberry sauce, comes with duck fat roasted potatoes, smoked pancetta, chestnuts and sprouts, and served under silver bells which are taken to the table. The sauce is washed down by impeccable wait staff.

More complicated, for Mr. Reid, were the desserts. The “Yum Yum,” a round of dough topped with a sugar glaze that is a Greggs specialty, is served with caramel sauce and macadamia brittle, an amount of sugar that might, admittedly, make one cringe in some people.

And the donut – well, the donut was a problem.

There is, Mr. Reid realized, no way to play with the innate structure of a donut. A donut is also a perfect whole. Instead, the chef tried to capture the essence of it. With the help of Mother Mercy, a local cocktail bar with a branch in Fenwick’s basement, he transformed it into a glass: raspberry, apple and “donut flavor”, garnished with Prosecco. “It really smells like a donut,” Mr. McBride said.

The results were spectacular. Reservations at the bistro are sold out and there has been a steady stream of walk-ins. The “Pink Jammy Fizz” cocktail has been such a success that Mr. McBride expects it to be on the menu at the basement bar once the bistro closes. “It will have to be,” he said. “Otherwise, people will ask for it. »

That Greggs has evolved so easily and so successfully into its own ironic version of fine dining should come as no surprise. After all, it has managed to conquer almost every other aspect of British culinary existence.

It now has more branches in Britain than any other fast food outlet. In many small towns, particularly in the north of England and Scotland, it is not uncommon to see two Greggs within walking distance of each other.

In addition to space, Greggs came to dominate time. Roisin Currie, its chief executive, proudly claimed that this year it had overtaken McDonald’s to become “number 1”. 1 for breakfast’ in Britain. It opened a number of branches with seating areas. “We are a food-to-go brand,” Ms Currie said. “But sometimes you want to sit down for a few minutes when you’re on the go.”

A growing number of outlets remain open in the evening, to appeal to consumers looking for a quick dinner. Greggs’ partnership with delivery service Just Eat accounted for 5% of sales in 2022. The ambition, Ms Currie said, is to meet customers “anytime, anywhere and anyway”.

In his eyes, this is just the beginning. Greggs may dominate the high streets, but there are other territories – airports, industrial and retail parks, hospitals – where it feels like it has barely penetrated.

Her goal is to expand further, but she is aware that this comes with a risk. “We realize there is a danger in appearing omnipresent,” Ms. Currie said, “but we don’t think we’re there yet.” »

Britain, as a whole, seems to agree. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the country’s transformation into sovereign Greggs territory is the extent to which the conquest was well received.

Most of the ubiquitous chains that clutter Britain’s declining high streets are at best tolerated, or at worst maligned. Although Greggs has been criticized for its high-calorie products when more than half of the UK population is overweight or obese, it remains popular.

Last year, Greggs launched several branded clothing ‘drops’ with retail giant Primark, and they all sold out. At least two documentaries have been commissioned to uncover the secrets of Steak Bake. And during the first Covid-related lockdown in Britain, the company shared the recipe online so that poor customers can create their own.

It is considered “a crutch, a support, an umbrella on rainy days,” according to journalist and author Joel Golby. wrote in The Guardian. “If you don’t like Greggs, you don’t like life.”

There are several explanations available. Greggs brand director Ian White puts this down to nostalgia. “People grew up with Greggs,” he said. “It reminds you of your childhood. You feel like you own it.

Ms Currie believes the “secret sauce” is Greggs’ staff – encouraged to build relationships with regular customers – and its prices. Greggs’ coffee, at around $2 a cup, is significantly cheaper than many competitors. With average food prices up 27 percent in Britain since 2021, this affordability is key.

The final ingredient is a self-aware sense of humor that the British love. It’s common knowledge that there are precisely 96 layers of dough in the company’s best-selling sausage roll – the 97th may well be an irony.

As a brand, Greggs has an almost unifying quality. “Our customers come from all demographic groups,” Ms Currie said. And because everyone looks to Greggs, expressing loyalty is a way of coding a lack of pretension. Actor Jake Gyllenhaal, who isn’t exactly a Yum Yum’s target market, once admitted indulging in her Greggs habit on trips to London.

Rather than resist the thrill, the company leaned into it. Mr. White described his approach as “not taking ourselves too seriously.” There is an awareness that Greggs is, for most, a “secret pleasure”, he said.

In 2019, work culture warriors reacted with fury to Greggs’ launch of a vegan sausage roll: TV presenter Piers Morgan coughed one up live on TV and described the company as “Clowns ravaged by PC” online. Unlike Mr Morgan, Greggs did not bite. “Oh hello Piers, we were waiting for you,” he wrote on what was then Twitter. A month later, the chain attributed a 10% increase in sales to the vegan roll.

The clothing line, the decision to award British rapper Stormzy a “concierge card” and the silver-service bistro all come with a similar wink and nod. They are seen not as a sign that Greggs is overstepping his stance, but as proof that he is in on the action.

“We know who we are,” Mr. White said. “We are part of the social fabric of the country.”

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Eric D. Eilerman

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