It may be under threat from the increasing popularity of its competitors: soups, salads and sushi, but the humble sandwich is holding its own in the lunch world helped along by a healthy image and the continuing trend towards 'premiumisation'.
According to international research group Mintel, the UK sandwich market is worth a cool £3.6bn, a 28% increase on sales in 2000. And while growth has tailed off in the last two years, the inherent convenience of sandwiches still fits in well with our tendency to work longer hours and take shorter lunch breaks than our European counterparts.
However, although sandwiches have benefited from a perception that they are healthier than alternatives like hotdogs and burgers (they are even on the menu at McDonald's now), there is still evidence that the sandwich is losing out to other foods like jacket potatoes and soups, with just 15% of adults who buy lunch during the week believing sandwiches are healthy, according to Mintel.
So how are manufacturers responding to this? By encouraging consumers to spend more on premium options, says Mintel, and widening choice.
Richard Esau, marketing director at the UK's largest sandwich manufacturer, Greencore, says there is a "relentless trend towards premiumisation", with many of its customers upping demand for premium ranges (think Sainsbury's Taste the Difference and Somerfield So Good). This has filtered through into packaging, with more and more manufacturers following Marks & Spencer's lead and moving to cardboard skillets, which convey a more premium image.
"Premium comes into its own in the context of healthy eating, which is moving away from low fat and low calorie products and more towards products that don't have anything taken out, as premium ingredients are seen as more natural and positive," says Esau. And crucially, consumers are prepared to pay more for premium, especially if they are seen as environmentally friendly (ie in cardboard not plastic), says Esau. This is because premium ranges tend to be better quality, without being "too fancy" as used to be the case, adds Esau. "Also, sandwiches are not part of the weekly shop or budget so there is a tendency to push the boat out."
Furthermore, according to Jim Winship, director of the British Sandwich Association (BSA), the premium ranges are crucial to the sandwich market as a whole. "Innovative sandwiches drive the market and bring people into the stores," he says.
This is a sentiment shared by Tim Roupell, md of London-based contact caterer supplier Daily Bread, which is the only company with a royal warrant to supply Buckingham Palace. "It's true to say we are flying the flag, but it's easier for us to come up with new things compared to other manufacturers," says Roupell, whose company specialises in premium fillings.
"There was a time when new product development just meant the same sandwich in a different bread," says Roupell. "Now it is all about trying to break new ground without going too far. We are just about to introduce a new walnut bread sandwich with chicken waldorf filling and are also doing a smoked trout and celeriac sandwich."
Roupell adds: "We are very lucky with how the market has developed there are so many sauces, chutneys and relishes that we can work with now to add moisture rather than just mayonaise, so it's becoming easier to make a healthier sandwich."
Health is a major driving factor in the sandwich market, as Roupell explains. "The drive is towards healthier foods and there is a non-meat vent to that. People don't want overly fatty fillings."
Greencore's Esau adds: "It's not really happening yet, but at some point we will have to find a structured response to healthy eating. Consumers don't quite know what they want yet, but once they do we will have to come up with a new set of products."
Rise of the wrap
Rising up from the healthy eating trend are wraps, which are also born of people's willingness to try new things, says Russell Eley, business development manager at Freshway Foods. "Wraps have grown considerably over the last few years and there are now a lot of vegetarian options out there. People are willing to try something different the premium section has really pushed that with a lot of innovation," he says.
New on the market this winter are two new varieties of Ginsters' wrap range Mexican Style Beef and Southern Style Cajun Chicken wraps, which are aimed at boosting winter sales. Sandwich and fillings supplier Freshway Foods has also re-launched its branded range, which in keeping with the trends includes two wraps, as well as premium and healthy options.
With adventurous customers, endless innovation and such variety, you would be forgiven for thinking that consumers are shunning the mainstays of the sandwich market the blts, chicken, tuna and cheese, in favour of more exotic varieties. Not so, says Eley. "The core fillings still remain most popular, but chicken caesar is up and coming and oriental flavours like chicken tikka are becoming stronger."
Similarly, Roupell adds: "The mainstays are what keeps us going, they pay the bills and that will always be the case." And according to the BSA, chicken remains the most popular filling in the pre-prepared sandwich market, followed closely by tuna, prawns and cheese.
However, there are signs of a slight decline in the market for traditional fillings, warns Esau, except for egg mayonnaise, "because if there is nothing left on the shelf, people will always eat egg mayo. For now, he adds, there are years of growth left in the market, particularly for premium ranges, which will compete on recipe, leaving the basic sarnies to battle it out over price. FM