The ABC tea shop was a ubiquitous part of early twentieth century London life, mentioned by T S Eliot and Virginia Woolf, and lambasted by George Orwell.
The Aerated Bread Company (ABC) was incorporated in London in 1862 with a nominal capital of £500,000. It was formed to manufacture bread using a new patented process which used carbon dioxide instead of yeast.
As a mass producer, the ABC had a large number of contracts with institutions such as schools and hospitals. It also had a number of retail outlets in London which sold bread and cakes directly to consumers.
Establishment of the ABC tea shop chain
In 1884 a manageress at a ABC bakery shop near London Bridge Station suggested to the directors that on-site sales of tea might increase revenues. This proved successful, and was rolled out across all outlets.
Competitors sold pre-prepared tea from a large container, and the quality was variable. ABC differentiated itself by preparing fresh tea to order.
The tea shops proved popular among clerical workers, who appreciated their affordable prices, and there were around 70 outlets by 1889.
Production at a centralised bakery in Camden Town from 1891 helped to keep costs low. The low-margin business received criticism for the low-pay of ABC waitresses, who worked a 62-hour week.
Increased competition from J Lyons
J Lyons opened its first tea shop in 1894. Lyons branches were more upmarket and better managed than the ABC shops, and had more central London outlets than ABC by 1911.
ABC served over 1.25 million customers in 1911. There were 150 branches by 1912. By this time the tea shops had evolved into cheap restaurants. A commentator in 1911 wrote that service was slow, but the quality of the tea was “beyond reproach”.
ABC was far better known for its London tea shops than its bread manufacture by 1913.
New management from Buszard
ABC acquired W & G Buszard, a London bakery chain with 140 shops, including the prestigious Criterion restaurant in Piccadilly, in 1918. ABC were attracted to the merger by the strong management team at Buszard. Buszard directors, led by Charles Cottier (1869 – 1928) and Frederick Hutter (1876 – 1927), quickly came to dominate the ABC board, with Cottier serving as chairman and Hutter as managing director.
Cottier was a forceful personality, and under his leadership ABC undertook numerous acquisitions from 1919. These were Bertram & Co (railway catering), James Cottle (Liverpool and Manchester restaurants), Cabins, JP Restaurants (with 80 outlets around London), Newberys (shop-fitters), Abford Estates (a large property development) and a controlling interest in W Hill & Sons (29 shops), at a combined cost of just under £500,000.
Frederick Hutter was described as the “Napoleon” of the London catering trade in 1921. Hutter had humble origins, beginning his career as a baker’s assistant.
ABC had a total of 200 to 250 tea shops and restaurants by 1922. Over two million people drank tea in either a Lyons or an ABC tea shop in London every week by 1925. The manufacturing site at Camden Town covered over four acres.
ABC had 156 branches across London in 1926. That year also saw the prim black and white “Victorian” waitress uniforms replaced by blue dresses.
ABC built the largest single tea shop in Britain, opposite Victoria Station, in 1926. The site was bought from the Duke of Westminster, supposedly for £500,000.
Hutter died in 1927, and Cottier died the following year. It appears that the business suffered following the loss of their strong leadership.
Following low profits, the well-known accountant Sir W H Peat was contracted to perform an independent review of the company in 1929. Peat argued that the numerous recent acquisitions did not tie in with the core ABC business, and as such, very few economies of scale could be made. He also argued that the company had paid excessive dividends, and had failed to update and modernise its shops, which had become run down.
The manufacture of aerated bread ended in 1954.
Acquisition by Allied Bakeries
ABC, with 164 tea shops, was acquired by Allied Bakeries, controlled by W Garfield Weston (1898 – 1978), for nearly £3 million in 1955. ABC was the second largest chain of restaurants in Britain. Allied Bakeries was motivated by the increase in outlets for its bakery products, and valued the ABC estate at between £1.7 million and £2 million.
Unprofitable branches were quickly divested, and new outlets opened at better locations. Allied Bakeries invested in the outlets to bring them up to the standard of their competitors. The changes worked, and the previously loss-making venture had become one of the most profitable subsidiaries of Allied Bakeries by 1959.
Allied Bakeries sold the Abford House subsidiary, which consisted of a large freehold property in Victoria, London, for over £500,000 to Spiers & Pond, a hotels and catering company, in 1959.
ABC reported a profit before tax of over £850,000 in 1962. A pre-tax profit of £735,000 was reported in 1966.
Decline of the ABC tea shop
Beginning in the 1960s and into the 1970s the trade of the tea shops declined. Rivals with no or limited seating had lower overheads. There were 200 ABC outlets in 1976, but the tea shops were being phased out in favour of take-away bakery shops.
Production of small, hand-finished cakes at the Camden Town site was ended in 1976, resulting in the loss of over 400 jobs. The Camden Town site was antiquated, and unsuited for modern production, and it was closed for good in 1982, with the loss of a further 200 jobs. The ABC tea shops also disappeared at around this time.
The Camden site was demolished a few years later, and a Sainsbury’s supermarket now stands in its place. Any residual ABC trademarks are held by Associated British Foods, the successor company to Allied Bakeries.