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One morning in opposition t the conclusion of summer time I pay a consult with to London Bridge station. The day is heat and sunny and, despite the news, which is as unrelentingly grim as ever, I suppose hopeful; optimism rising inner me like mercury in a thermometer. The station, whose acclaimed £1bn remodelling by means of Grimshaw Architects has been shortlisted for the 2019 Stirling prize, is ethereal and spacious, inspite of the crowds it ought to accommodate, and the ribbons of wood that cowl the ceilings of its enormous concourse give it a Scandinavian feel, directly modest and grand. it's like some 21st-century cathedral: a rush-hour temple that for all its circulatory efficiency is decided to remind the harried commuter that there's extra to existence than work; that a second of contemplation is value, if no longer a neglected instruct, then as a minimum a dozen emails.

the brand new London Bridge is, to my eyes, Britain in microcosm; its heritage and its individuals. Its brick viaducts, for example, speak of its Victorian beginnings – the primary station to be inbuilt the capital, it dates from 1836 – whereas Grimshaw’s concrete arches subtly conjure postwar brutalism and the constructing boom of these years. there is an ineffable feel of self assurance right here, of a sort that many of us haven’t an awful lot felt due to the fact that 2012 and the Olympics. Western Arcade, which hyperlinks the mainline station to the underground, is committed to smart shops such as Kiehl’s and the shirtmaker TM Lewin, as well as to a breed of cafe that sells – a sight new to me – “pink velvet croissants”. but on account that ultimate December it has also been domestic to a branch of the a little much less elite Greggs, Britain’s largest and most beneficial-cost bakery chain, where a hungry traveller seeking a discount can nonetheless decide on up a Sir Francis Bacon bap and a cup of espresso for simply £

The company is adept in social media – 'a masterclass in public members of the family' observed PR Week of its vegan sausage roll launch

With Brexit looming, who is aware of how neatly Kiehl’s will do at London Bridge – and even Pret a Manger and Leon? If, as appears practically definite, food becomes extra high priced in Britain, and employees extra concerned about their jobs, individuals may quickly be reasonably less inclined to spend their cash on such quotidian luxuries as moisturising lotion, crayfish sandwiches and Moroccan meatballs. The crisis that currently afflicts the excessive road – retail outlets closing, premises standing empty, essential businesses posting profit warnings – may additionally now not be strictly relevant to the busy geographical regions of neatly designed transport hubs comparable to this one; in contrast to the decline of typical stores, the so-referred to as food-to-go market is determined to develop by means of £2bn over the next three years. nonetheless, chill winds blow from each side. within the 2d quarter of this 12 months, the economy shrank via an additional contraction within the existing quarter would sign a recession. in the meantime, self assurance ebbs away. client confidence fell sharply in August. closing month, Lloyds bank pronounced that companies are at their gloomiest because 2011, when the united kingdom turned into nevertheless recuperating from the fiscal crash.

If any enterprise can defy this temper, it appears likely to be Greggs. however then it’s already doing simply that. within the six months to 29 June, pretax profits on the enterprise rose to £ up from £ within the same duration closing year, an awesome fifty eight% upward thrust in first-half earnings, with earnings up practically 15% in total. When these figures have been launched, to a media fanfare that loudly contrasted such success with the distress elsewhere on the excessive street, its chief executive, Roger Whiteside, mentioned an “notable 12 months” on the company, a length that begun with the publicity attracted with the aid of the launch of its vegan sausage roll remaining January (23% of these paying for it had been new consumers – and as soon as they have been inner the keep they couldn’t withstand buying different issues too).

That, despite the fact, is infrequently the whole story. Greggs has been turning out to be regularly for years now, successful story mostly unnoticed by way of those who purchase their breakfast at Starbucks, their lunch at Pret and who are very keen indeed on avocados (Greggs, incidentally, now has a greater share of the united kingdom coffee market than Starbucks). It has had dangerous times, of path. Its worst yr ever became 2013, when it found itself at a crossroads (we’ll come back to that). nonetheless, it is still one in all only a few British corporations with an unbroken record of dividend payments to its shareholders (the business turned into floated on the inventory market in 1984).

The London Bridge branch isn’t huge and has no seating, but there are incredibly greater purchasers queuing interior it than at some other shop in the station and after a long time I join them. I decide on up a vegan sausage roll, which i will be able to road test later, and a Portuguese custard tart (a new line in London branches) that looks similar to those you buy within the overpriced deli close the place I live, but at under half the rate. I also ask for a flat white and a publisher 1st baron verulam roll (the latter is made to order, with the sauce of your choice). The bill comes to £

Minutes later, I’m backyard once again, sitting on a bench, individuals-staring at, roof-looking at and consuming: my very own moment of contemplation. I believe myself an aficionado of 1st baron beaverbrook butties and this one is stunning: the white roll, smeared with ketchup, is gentle with a pretty good crumb and the Bacon is crisp and not too salty. The espresso is also first rate, if a bit exiguous. This bap isn’t the first aspect I’ve ever eaten from Greggs, but it is by some stretch probably the most delicious, even though how much Grimshaw’s hovering edifice has to do with this, I wouldn’t like to say.

Greggs of Gosforth: the first Greggs shop, which opened in 1951. photograph: Greggs

Greggs begun life in 1939, when a person referred to as John Robson Gregg started selling eggs and yeast door to door on his bicycle round Newcastle upon Tyne. the primary bakery, Greggs of Gosforth in Gosforth high road, opened in 1951. today, with some 2,000 retail outlets and 20,000 personnel, its HQ remains in Newcastle, housed in an unprepossessing business park a 20-minute force from the centre of the metropolis. The business is neatly favourite for its publicity stunts and adept means with social media – “a masterclass in public relations”, stated PR Week of the launch of its vegan sausage roll – but when I ask to satisfy people that run it, there is a certain amount of what seems like foot-dragging. It seems that while the Greggs advertising crew is comfy about feeding reviews to the solar and the every day Mail, it’s fairly much less attracted to giving the Observer access to its secrets, though I could be imagining this, seeing that it’s additionally at the moment making an attempt quite difficult to change the manner individuals see it. in all probability I’ve simply caught them on the hop.

in the end, besides the fact that children, a trip is organized, which is how I emerge as sitting within the check kitchen at Greggs’ HQ one overcast morning with Kate Jones, its senior product construction manager. It turned into Jones’s team that developed the vegan sausage roll; the very merchandise that Piers Morgan greeted on Twitter with the words: “nobody was looking ahead to a vegan bloody sausage, you notebook-ravaged clowns” – cue the largest social media storm ever to hit the area of baked goods (“Oh good day, Piers, we’ve been anticipating you,” replied Greggs, easily). How directly did they are aware of it became successful? (It’s now a bestseller, though they won’t give me numbers – on this or anything.) “From day one,” says Jones. “We bought terrific coverage, there become Piers Morgan, and it snowballed from there.”

Did she have any doubts before? “It turned into very difficult. Rolling a new product like this out is complex since the complete deliver chain needs to be vegan: storage, transportation, the way it’s dealt with within the retail outlets. it might had been convenient to give up. but we knew there changed into a niche in the market for a hot vegan snacking product. a few years in the past, we had been working on a vegetarian sausage roll and it turned into well-nigh competent for launch. It became, notwithstanding, fitting very clear from consumers that as more americans are heading off certain meals – like dairy, say – vegan products are becoming a proxy for flexitarian diets.”

The vegetarian sausage roll was ditched and the company all started working instead on a vegan one. What’s inside it? Jones smiles and looks coy. “We work with Quorn after which we add our very secret savoury flavouring.”

Jones, a house economist through practicing, all started her career at M&S, the place she labored as a buyer for sixteen years; later, she led food policy on the Co-op. even so, moving to Greggs represents a “large” career alternate for her. “I’ve come out of retail and into meals-to-go,” she says. “and that i’m additionally working in a corporation this is wholly vertically integrated.” I ought to appear blank, as a result of she adds: “I suggest one that makes just about every thing itself, as opposed to purchasing the rest in.”

Her group develops all its products, first in this kitchen, in pots and pans, after which within the industrial stage (vats, rather than pans). an average Greggs shop has about one hundred fifty food items. Her team creates 50 new ones each and every yr, although this number contains objects the place best an ingredient has been modified or a sandwich filling tweaked. what number of individuals taste whatever thing before it goes out? “we now have an outstanding 30 to 50 americans who do manufacturing facility trials as part of their jobs after which we grasp panels with the broader Greggs inhabitants, people from finance or HR or wherever, who try them. We want individuals who are not always useless close to the product, who haven’t nursed it from thought, to claim in the event that they find it irresistible.”

Greggs’s bestselling vegan sausage roll. photo: Amy Fortune/Alamy

She takes me on a tour. First, we meet a baker, Fraser, who's icing new flavours of doughnuts that may also – Jones is somewhat reluctant to tell me – be launched subsequent yr: cookies and cream and honeycomb. Then we talk over with its sensory booths: booths that recall to mind those cubicles you see in television dramas wherein a prisoner communicates with their tourist via a telephone through a monitor. On one aspect of a divide someone from Jones’s group pushes whatever is to be tasted via a hatch. On the other is the taster. The cubicles are tightly controlled in terms of warmth and lightweight and no taster is able to see the reaction of their colleagues. To evade weariness, he or she simplest ever tries three products at a time.

What are the areas of increase for Greggs? “fitness,” says Jones. The company anticipates extra law round calorie reduction and believes it’s already neatly forward in its planning for this. What else? “hot meals – and low is huge.” How would she sum up the company’s ethos, meals-shrewd? “style and awesome cost for cash.”

Are perceptions of Greggs altering? It looks to me that in the event that they are, then the success of its vegan sausage roll is emblematic of the sort of shift. but what does she suppose? Are people nonetheless snobbish about it? Do they nevertheless think that it handiest sells greasy, stodgy foods to folks that want, and want, to replenish promptly for very little cost?

“Two years in the past, I might have said sure,” she tells me. “I’d have looked at my mom and taken her as absolute proof of that. however now it’s becoming rather savvy to get it – to know about our excellent.” This moment reminds her, she says, of when cut price supermarkets such as Aldi and Lidl got here along. “there have been Waitrose valued clientele who unexpectedly realised they could get awesome commodities at Aldi.” I bear in mind this too. “just guess where this smoked salmon got here from!” shouted the broke center classes, as if with one voice. however are the two things really the identical? She nods. “people are in reality delighted once they explore the latitude of our products.”

As I hearken to her, I take her words with a reasonably hefty pinch of salt. a number of weeks later, besides the fact that children, i will open a journal and there may be Nicky Haslam, the ancient Etonian society decorator who as soon as claimed to have had an affair with Lord Snowdon, proudly insisting that Greggs’ espresso is “the best”.

within the hope of bringing new customers – and a brand new variety of customer – to Greggs, the business has deployed a few stunts. Some are cheesy. A Valentine’s Day promoting provided “pleasant eating” in stores, where waiters wearing black tie served guests mini doughnuts in chocolate dipping sauce. Others are nifty and smart. remaining 12 months, for instance, it attended a meals pageant in Richmond, Surrey, where it offered guests its wares beneath the name Gregory & Gregory. When the signal changed into grew to become round to reveal the notice Greggs, americans might, says Hannah Squirrel, the business’s advertising director, “rarely consider it”.

Greggs at the Richmond food pageant.

Others are downright cheeky. there's a department of Greggs opposite Fenwick of Newcastle, the Harrods of the north. closing year, simply as Fenwick’s Christmas windows were published to the public, a monitor that usually attracts a crowd, the business flipped the Greggs signal in order that it could no longer be returned to entrance when reflected in the glass. information of this coup is asserted to have travelled so far as Australia. Its missteps are rare, although there turned into an outcry in 2017 when it changed Jesus with a sausage roll in a nativity scene (the company soon apologised).

nevertheless it is a balancing act. Loyal, older consumers – the sort of people, possibly, who caused a selection of sausage roll-lined socks, umbrellas and iPhone cases to promote out at Greggs on the first day they became attainable – must be stored on side, too, for they're the bulk and still the greatest key to its success. To that end some retailers continue to stock regional objects, attainable simplest in certain ingredients of the united kingdom (stotties in the north-east, Empire biscuits in Scotland, Tottenham cakes in London; there are reputed to be 25 such food). For these consumers, service is extraordinarily crucial.

“individuals will tell us proactively that they left the shop with a smile on their face,” says Squirrel. “There turned into banter, it turned into right down to earth. Some americans say that our group of workers have been popular to begin making up their ordinary order even earlier than they’ve stepped in the door. They’re regulars, they’re regarded, and that they like that.” Are its northern roots nevertheless principal? “yes. because it has under no circumstances overlooked its normal values.” This filters down, she believes. It feels, she says, caring and warm.

Greggs began buying different bakeries in 1972, first in Glasgow and Leeds, after which in Manchester, London, Kent and East Anglia (via this time, John Gregg had died and his son, Ian, a lawyer who examine classics at Cambridge, became running the business; he's now a philanthropist). In 1994, it acquired Bakers Oven, a chain of bakeries in the south, shops that it rebranded as Greggs in 2008. The 1,five hundredth save, in York, opened in 2011.

no one leaves the residence hunting for a Greggs. They go away the condominium and then they feel hungry.

Roger Whiteside, CEO

In his 2013 booklet, Bread – a memoir-cum-enterprise-guide that contains recipes for bridies, parkin and bread desserts (otherwise referred to as white rolls) – Ian Gregg describes his fantastic pleasure and feel of relief when, on its flotation in April 1984, the business’s shares had been oversubscribed via a factor of ninety. but he also writes – he turned into at all times something of a reluctant entrepreneur – of the nervousness he felt. He involved about its “tradition”; that its “values” might no longer be maintained. Three years later, in 1987, he established the Greggs basis. so far this year, it has supplied breakfasts to infants in underprivileged communities.

Roger Whiteside grew to become chief govt in 2013, having first joined the business as a nonexecutive director. (After college in Leeds, he begun his profession at M&S; he then launched Ocado, worked for a private fairness company on the Thresher neighborhood and put in a stint at Punch Taverns.) Whiteside is the kind of enthusiastic, simple-talking leader you hear on Evan Davies’s Radio 4 enterprise programme, The bottom line (he lately regarded on the podcast of retail guru Mary Portas). It comes as no shock when he chooses to meet me for lunch in the department of Greggs nearest his office (once I say close, what I suggest is that if he chucked a hot steak bake out of his window, it could land backyard the store’s door). I’m embarrassed to confess that, at this element, I’ve by no means eaten in Greggs. however this doesn’t hassle him in any respect. It’s excellent. one more convert! “Have a sausage roll,” he says. Is that what he’s having? “No, I’ve already had one this week.” he will have a bird caesar wrap.

When Whiteside joined the enterprise he instantly favored what he saw: “corporations operate on a moral compass and Greggs is at the first-class end of that compass, as adversarial to the in basic terms tough-nosed conclusion. I opt for this conclusion: making an attempt to do business in nearly as good a means as you could, on account that there is at all times tension between attempting to make a earnings and behaving well.”

In certain, he favored the income share scheme, which he believes contributes “massively” to the atmosphere on the business and to its success (10% of its earnings are shared with every member of team of workers, provided that they have been on the business for a yr). “We look after our people and they reply by way of giving better service,” he says. How does he know this? “We do rigorous engagement surveys and the ratings are always high. And be aware once we had snow? A Greggs lorry acquired stuck and the motive force took it upon himself, figuring out he become no longer going to get to the shop, to distribute his goods, free, to those at the back of him. He didn’t ask for permission, as a result of he didn’t need to.” Did this please him? “i used to be over the moon!”

A Greggs start driver hands out free cakes and pastries to snowed-in drivers in March final 12 months. picture: Les Goff/PA

all of the same, in 2013, he had his work cut out. “Greggs’ worst year ever. It turned into dropping market share in bakery, the place it had been competing with supermarkets for many years. To compensate for that it had been developing a presence in food-on-the-go, but it surely changed into also losing share there too, as a result of there were so many new entrants to that sector: Costa, Subway, Tesco express, M&S quite simply meals… We additionally had a espresso shop theory.”

Whiteside determined that the company could not compete on three separate fronts and that it could henceforth concentrate on meals-on-the-go. Its “present” become absolutely revamped, with greater focal point on the becoming breakfast market in addition to on more healthy and hot foods, its outlets had been refitted and, to support all this, its 12 factories were consolidated, with those final focusing on the manufacture of just one item. (Its cream cakes are now all made in Leeds, as an instance, and its rolls in Enfield.).

in the meantime, Whiteside contemplated Greggs’ areas. americans like Greggs, he believes, for the freshness of its goods; the supermarkets sell a wider option of sandwiches at similar prices, however unlike Greggs, theirs are made in factories and kept for 2 or three days (Greggs makes its sandwiches in store and they're no longer stored in a single day). although, there is also the question of comfort. “no person leaves the apartment attempting to find a Greggs,” he says, with some honesty. “They depart the condo and then they consider hungry.” where are they likely to be when this raging starvation strikes? With footfall on the excessive highway in decline, Greggs begun opening branches in office parks, on garage forecourts and different out-of-city areas.

“We open one hundred fifty stores every 12 months and ninety% of those could be non-high highway and we close 50 every year, and those are all excessive street. in the past six years, we now have closed 300 excessive road stores, but we now have opened a lot more in other places.” Opening hours are being extended in some outlets in the hope of luring in evening diners. As Whiteside boasted this summer season, “We need to try and do the same for night as we did in breakfast.”

in the next 5 years, the enterprise will open one hundred retailers each year, within the technique growing 1,000 new jobs each year. And after that? “every of our shops at present has just one queue: the stroll-in queue. We need to construct three: we are looking to add click and bring together and beginning, each of which we’re trialling.” Does he discuss with his outlets incognito? “I don’t announce myself. however in nowadays’s video age, a lot of people recognize me. With ears like this –” he features to the aspects of his head – “I haven’t bought an opportunity! I’d want a toupee and Sellotape.”

Perceptions of Greggs are altering, he says. americans like me – a wide smile – have outdated views about it. despite the fact, this takes careful administration. When the company ceased to be a normal baker, americans had been upset. “I’ve bought a drawer crammed with letters from shoppers who were indignant they might not purchase their loaf. The consumer is always appropriate, but you should say to those that are striking on to the previous that you simply don't seem to be there for them from now on.”

How posh would the business go? “We’re no longer posh now.” Would he put, say, hummus on the menu? “We’re now not going to do issues which have restricted enchantment. We democratise issues that have a growing attraction. we will from time to time take things we see in London, just like the flat white. other issues we’ve tried [to copy] most effective have enchantment in London, like protein pots. Two boiled eggs on a mattress of spinach. Even at half the cost, no person desired it.”

As Whiteside talks – at moments, he is unstoppable – I feel about Greggs and its lengthy historical past. Its metamorphosis says so a great deal about British consuming habits and all of the ways through which they’ve changed (and, equally, not modified in any respect – for don’t we nonetheless crave pastry, although it is freed from animal fat?). The business has reached its zenith, additionally, at the identical time as the main political experience and capabilities catastrophe it truly is Brexit. Its Britishness, its success, and this historical moment seem, by some means, to be linked, notwithstanding it’s tough to pin this down precisely. Does Greggs have a position on Brexit? “No,” says Whiteside. “It’s too divisive. Our consumers are cut up. We’re now not going to take sides.”

nevertheless, Britain’s leading purveyor of Empire biscuits (two rounds of shortbread stuck together with jam), emphatically does not aid a no-deal Brexit. “We’re preparing for the worst and hoping for the most suitable. If there is disruption at the port… We could go short of salad. We don’t develop enough right here and you'll’t keep it. What if we’ve got no lettuce? will we nevertheless make a sandwich devoid of it? Would spinach be an appropriate substitute? Or would we should discontinue certain sandwiches?”

He appears at his hen caesar wrap as if it carries half the mysteries of the world.

Kshitij Patel outdoor the superb Portland highway branch of Greggs. graphic: Anita Sethi

Kshitij Patel, fifty three, IT engineer (high-quality Portland road department, London)It’s a great rate – somewhere else in primary London the fees are bonkers. I’m from Luton however I commute to Soho to work and prevent via right here particularly. It’s quick service and first-rate for vegetarians. on account that they brought within the vegan roll it’s been incredible. occasionally, I get the tuna bake. I’m an everyday right here nonetheless it’s not my day by day movements – it might be too fattening to return every day! It’s my treat for the week. today, I’ll be having two vegan rolls.

Jay Reed, forty four, Builder (exceptional Portland road department, London)i like the incontrovertible fact that the price is first rate and the food tastes fantastic. I work simply around the corner. I’m a builder and an everyday right here. i love the breakfast – 1st Baron Verulam baguettes, sausage rolls and steak bakes are my favourites. We’re lower back at lunchtime too for considered one of their sandwiches. every time I see a Greggs I pop in and get some thing – i can’t face up to.

Fiona Mayle, 62, works on the international and Commonwealth workplace (Westminster branch, London)Greggs raises my health in the morning. I are living in E13 however work on the FCO. i really like that the provider is very brief and also the fantastic meal offers, which I regularly get – a roll with sausage or Viscount St. Albans and a espresso. nowadays, i will have a gorgeous sausage roll with tomato sauce – a great delivery to the day.

Andrew Koumis, 30, analyst (Westminster department, London)Their sausage rolls are my absolute commonplace and superb price for cash. I’ve been coming to Greggs always on the grounds that this department opened [last year]. several of my colleagues and chums also come – it’s so good to have a branch in the enviornment.

Sheena Mal, 29, commerce advisor (Westminster department, London)i like Greggs – it’s inexpensive and tasty. The pasties and the breakfasts are astonishing. nowadays, I’m having the creamy porridge. I’ve been going to Greggs for years, together with the one in the enviornment the place I grew up in west London. There’s always some thing i admire and infrequently some thing new on the menu.

Eleanor Lisney, 60, incapacity campaigner (Westminster branch, London)I live in Greenwich however I’m here for a meeting. It’s extraordinary to locate Greggs here. I come for the vegan meals. i like the vegan rolls. I’m a wheelchair consumer and in terms of accessibility eating places are variable but I’ve under no circumstances discovered any Greggs inaccessible. It’s respectable to discover a department on the actual tube station.

Prav Gupta, 35; Steve Agate, 45; Masoud Bayat, forty two, IT consultants (Westminster branch, London)We’re colleagues and infrequently come here collectively – we love how the scent hits you when you get off the escalator first thing within the morning. The breakfasts really set us up for the day, together with the omelette and sausage rolls, and nothing beats a pretty good espresso from Greggs to get the day began.

Aamna Mohdin, 27, news reporter (Westminster department, London)i really like how cheap it is. I grew up in east London and went to the Greggs there however stopped going for a long time. It’s the vegan rolls which have introduced me returned!

Interviews by way of Anita Sethi


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