Can British Sandwiches Survive a No-Deal Brexit?

Chilled packaged sandwiches have become a staple of British diets

Source Johnny Scriv/Getty

Why you should care

Deal or no deal, Britain’s sarnie makers are trying to adapt.

Sandwich-makers are changing their recipes, stockpiling ingredients and lining up alternative suppliers to Brexit-proof Britain’s favorite lunch.

Greencore Group, which makes 3 out of every 5 sandwiches sold in the United Kingdom and supplies supermarkets such as Marks & Spencer and the Co-op, has prepared extensive contingency plans for a no-deal departure from the European Union.

“We’re trying to plan for port disruption and mitigate it by changing recipes and looking for local suppliers where they exist,” says Greencore Group CEO Patrick Coveney. “About one-quarter of our products would have a different no-deal Brexit recipe if needed.”

One-quarter of our products would have a different no-deal Brexit recipe if needed.

Patrick Coveney, CEO, Greencore Group

Greencore has looked into importing fresh vegetables by air from Africa. Meanwhile, Pret a Manger has been working with its wholesaler Reynolds to expand the list of approved growers it can turn to in countries such as Spain for fresh items, including lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and spinach.

Chilled packaged sandwiches have become a staple of British diets since Marks & Spencer started selling them in 1980, with $10 billion spent a year, according to the British Sandwich Association. But the simplest of lunch options relies on complex, just-in-time cross-border supply chains.

Bread is baked domestically, but many of the fillings, from cheese and ham to arugula and tomatoes, are imported from Europe by road — making them vulnerable to shortages and price rises if there are delays at ports.

 

Greencore alone makes 7,500 deliveries to U.K. retailers per day, while Pret a Manger operates more than 400 stores, each with its own kitchen. Like the entire food and drink sector, they rely heavily on workers from the EU.

Pret will try not to resort to air freight because of the environmental impact and quality issues. “I’d rather take the short-term pain of any disruptions than do anything that would not be true to our brand,” says incoming Pret CEO Pano Christou. “If there are shortages, the supermarkets will get first priority on stock, so we’re just trying to understand possible cost impacts and look at our distribution options.”

Companies across the food and drinks sector, as well as trade bodies such as the British Retail Consortium, have warned the government repeatedly in recent months that a no-deal Brexit would affect the availability of fresh foods. By early November, the British harvest is largely complete, so the country relies on imports for more than half of its food, especially fresh fruit and vegetables, which cannot be stockpiled because of their short shelf life.

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By Leila Abboud

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