All posts by Thomas Farrell

I run this website as a hobby, but feel free to contactontact me for research and copywriting services.

The origins of the full English breakfast

The origins of the full English are more recent than you might expect.

Historically the classic English breakfast pairing was bacon and eggs. Bacon was the staple meat for hundreds of years, and eggs were available in most peasant homes each morning. As late as the 1950s, an “English breakfast” was shorthand for bacon and eggs.

Seemingly beginning around 1915, as wartime economy and rationing began to bite, the cold remains of the previous evening meal began to be added to bacon and eggs. As bacon and eggs became scarcer (and more expensive), the additions of these items bulked out the meal and prevented waste. Fried bread and potatoes were popular starchy additions. Sausages were not subject to rationing, and began to be used as a bacon substitute.

The earliest reference I can find to the phrase “full English breakfast” is in a 1956 edition of The Guardian. It’s probably no coincidence that this coincided with the end of rationing.

A 1978 edition of The Globe and Mail of Canada lists the meal as comprising “eggs and bacon, tomatoes, sausages, kippers and heaven knows what else”. It may be possible that the phrase is a foreign coinage: why would the English refer to their own breakfast as “English”? Similarly to how the Scottish never refer to their whisky as “Scotch”. The need to differentiate your native product only occurs in different countries from your own.

The phrase was first shortened to “full English” (minus breakfast) in the mid-1990s.

Today, a full English comprises of, more or less, sausage, bacon, eggs, some starch such as fried bread, toast, hash browns or sauté potatoes, and some vegetables such as tomatoes, mushrooms and baked beans. Black pudding is popular. Regional variations include white pudding and oatcakes.

A history of Slug and Lettuce

Slug and Lettuce is a British chain of bar restaurants with 70 outlets.

Originally a pub chain, Slug was founded by entrepreneur Hugh Corbett, who had a background in the hotel industry. Corbett brought a degree of trendiness and relative luxury to his pubs, with an increased focus on wine and food. His pubs were all given nonsensical names, which differentiated them from their competitors (eventually Slug and Lettuce became the standard name).

Corbett stripped out the carpets to leave stripped pine boards, removed the curtains and installed large glass windows. This meant that people could look into the pub from the street, and the new light and airy open plan design made the pubs more attractive to women.

Corbett cannily located the first Slug in Islington, which was beginning to undergo gentrification due to its proximity to the newly liberalised City of London.

There were nine outlets by 1989. The chain was considered by some commentators, such as Roger Protz, as an imitation of the popular Firkin pub chain. After the chain was sold to David Bruce in 1992, the female market was pursued in earnest, imitating elements of the upmarket Pitcher & Piano chain and with an increased emphasis on food.

In 1995 the chain underwent another rebranding, aimed at creating an English pub/Continental bar hybrid.

The rise and fall of the Little Chef empire

Little Chef was the largest restaurant chain in Britain. At its peak it boasted 433 outlets, but this has since been reduced to around 70.

The first Little Chef restaurant was opened in 1958. Sam Alper and Peter Merchant had been inspired by diner caravans they had seen in America, and brought the concept to Britain.

Alper had a background in caravan manufacturing, and the first outlets were portable prefabricated roadside snack bars. Outlets could be built, assembled and opened in a matter of hours.

Little Chef was acquired by Trust Houses, a hotel operator, in 1961.

Outlets began to be built from brick after 1965. The familiar Little Chef brand guaranteed consistency for weary travellers. There were twelve outlets in 1965, and 28 by the end of 1968.

In 1970 Trust Houses was acquired by Forte to form Trust House Forte, a large catering and hotels company. The new owner had the necessary funds necessary to roll out a rapid expansion of Little Chef.

As it was difficult to acquire roadside planning permission, Trust House Forte acquired a large number of existing transport cafes, and converted them to the Little Chef format. It was around this time that the “Fat Charlie” logo was introduced.

Due to this rapid expansion there were 174 outlets by 1976. Ten years later there were 250 outlets. By 1986 Little Chef was the largest restaurant chain in Britain, with more outlets than Berni Inn.

In 1986 the Competition Commission found that a significant proportion of customers were locals, not commuting drivers. Little Chef was innovative and forward-thinking, providing high chairs and baby food when most British restaurateurs regarded children as irritants rather than potential customers. Meanwhile, strict roadside planning laws preventing new buildings effectively worked to maintain the company’s monopoly.

Trust House Forte acquired Happy Eater, Little Chef’s only major rival with 90 outlets, in 1986.

Little Chef was acquired by Granada, an operator of motorway service stations, in 1996. Granada hiked prices, charging £7.95 for a full English breakfast in 1996! The high prices did not guarantee quality: even the omelettes were frozen and then reheated.

Granada described Little Chef in 1996 as “tired and neglected”. Management Today described the chain in 1997 as “perhaps the most neglected part of the old Forte empire”.

Under Granada the total number of restaurants expanded to 433 (68 of which were Happy Eater outlets) by 1999.  Granada also began to franchise Burger King in some of their existing outlets. Upon conversion, Burger King outlets would see double the turnover of former Little Chefs.

In 2002 Little Chef was serving 30 million people a year.

Little Chef was the first branded roadside restaurant chain in Britain, and had few competitors until the motorway service stations began to improve exponentially in the mid 2000s. They now offer a range of desirable high street brands such as Burger King, W H Smith and M&S Simply Food. Meanwhile McDonald’s have vastly extended their drive-thru presence and offer faster service and lower prices.

In 2013, a Kuwaiti private equity conglomerate acquired the company. In 2014 there were only 72 outlets.

Greggs in central London

Gregg’s is nationwide British bakery chain. Why are there so few Greggs outlets in central London?

There’s certainly no shortage of commuters looking for lunch, or tourists looking for a quick snack. McDonald’s, EAT, Pret and Starbucks all maintain a strong presence.

Living in the provinces, I have always been impressed by the sheer quantity of Greggs outlets. In central Leeds and Newcastle, large cities, one never need be more than one minute’s walk away from a steak bake or sausage roll.

So why so few outlets in central London? Yes, the chain has northern origins, but that didn’t hinder McDonald’s or Starbucks, with origins even further afield.

The chain is essentially a fast food retailer: largely calorific products served quickly and cheaply. And Burger King, KFC and McDonald’s are very successful in the capital. People clearly aren’t afraid of unhealthy food.

Is the rent too high to make the low cost retailer profitable? Greggs outlets have very limited seating, so I hardly see how this could be an insurmountable problem. In Bread: The Story of Greggs, Ian Gregg, the former chairman of the company, states that before the 2008 economic crash, rivals were overpaying for sites in central London. But if that is indeed the case, then what has prevented the chain from expanding in the area since the economic crash, now that rents are lower?

Lets look at the individual USPs of its rivals. McDonald’s offers seating, Starbucks offers comfortable surroundings, Pret offers speciality coffee. The Greggs proposition can actually be fulfilled through small supermarket concessions. In actuality, many small supermarkets in central London already offer a hot pasty/sausage roll selection. How does Greggs improve on their rival? Well the Greggs product will be fresher, as they bake their food throughout the day. So freshness, convenience and price are the USPs that need to be drawn upon. Greggs also needs to smarten up its existing central London outlets in order to place distance between itself and its reputation as downmarket junk food.

The marketing of Lea & Perrins

There are two key marketing strategies at work behind the almost mythic reputation of Lea & Perrins’ Worcestershire sauce.

1.) the “secret” recipe The website states that there is a secret recipe, known only to a “privileged few”. Heck, if the secret recipe tactic works for Coca-Cola and KFC, why not us? But the truth is, *every* corporate recipe is a secret. You don’t know the recipe for Walker’s Roast Beef crisps or Knorr’s Chicken Seasoning, do you?

So one of the products major differentials is hardly a differential at all. Okay, I hear you say, we don’t know what Worcestershire sauce is! Well that’s hardly a secret. In fact, the company have been quite open that the sauce is principally vinegar and a soy sauce substitute (acid-hydrolyzed vegetable protein). Also included are salted anchovies, tamarinds, chillies, shallots, garlic, onions, ginger, molasses, sugar, cloves and “various fruits”.

2.) the idea of “craft”, small-scale, “vintage” traditional production. There is no reason to assume that the methods are more traditional than anywhere else. For example, the ingredients are no longer matured in wooden barrels: plastic and metal containers have taken over. It’s hard to see it as a craft product when it’s just vinegar and soy sauce with some crazy ingredients thrown in for good measure. Although I do love it with chilli con carne… And in the US, it still comes wrapped in paper, as it has been since the 1850s. Although the paper is no longer necessary to avoid bottle breakages, the tradition has endured. It gives the original Worcestershire Sauce a USP. Understand that I don’t mean to do down the marketing tactics behind Lea & Perrins’ famous product. In fact, I think it’s all the more impressive that tried and tested marketing techniques have been utilised so effectively without losing its sense of authenticity or becoming a “me too” brand.

The false appeal of Waterstones

Outside of the mass-market, Waterstones has a stranglehold on British high street bookselling.

The Waterstones story is one of successful brand management. The basic concept is to take the appeal of an independent book shop, and monetise it with the professionalism of a large chain.

The chain introduced large American-style bookshops to the UK in the 1990s, in the style of Borders or Barnes & Noble, in locations such as London, Birmingham and Glasgow.

Being owned by WH Smith and subsequently HMV didn’t seem to harm their “independent” image. Neither did buying up their major competitors Dillons and Ottaker’s .

[Waterstones] has expanded rapidly since its launch in the early 1980s by combining the scale of a multiple retailer with the personalised service of a local bookseller.

Source: Financial Times (1997)

It is perennially portrayed in the media as some sort of charitable venture, a relentless underdog. This is characterised by the eccentric founder, Tim Waterstone. He constantly plays the role of scrappy underdog to whichever corporate entity currently owns the chain. As if after selling your company, you still have some sort of innate rights regarding its future.

Jamie Oliver’s Diner

Marketing genius at work here. Present a recognisable, un-intimidating celebrity chef “brand name”. Add a flurry of fast food favourites and dress them up as restaurant meals, with corresponding prices. Use a top location in London’s Picadilly. Warn that this “pop up restaurant” concept is here for a limited time only, and you’re onto a winner. Watch the profits flow in. As if American diner concepts needed celebrity endorsement to begin with. Heck, it worked for Planet Hollywood, and Hard Rock Cafe benefited by association with celebrity.

Oliver’s endorsement does not mean that the food is necessarily better than TGI Friday’s, just down the road, but I’m sure Oliver is earnest in his use of locally and ethically sourced food. Watch this space: “due to popular demand”, see the restaurant extend its stay.

Whitbread

I’ve noticed that, over the last 30 years or so, Whitbread can almost be considered as much a marketing company than a hospitality company.

In the 1970s through to the 1990s, the Whitbread Beer Company established Heineken, Stella Artois and Boddingtons as leading beer brands in the UK, thanks to innovative marketing campaigns.

This innovative approach to marketing is written in the company’s DNA. Beer throughout much of the twentieth century was dominated by the Big Six companies. As much the smallest of these, Whitbread was forced to advertise its products heavily: Mackeson Stout and Gold Label are examples that are still around to this day.

Another Whitbread brand, Costa Coffee, is as much a triumph of marketing over substance. Whitbread also developed Pizza Hut and TGI Friday’s in the UK. These restaurants offer an experience as much as they do food.

The marketing of Nespresso

The success of Nespresso, appears to me, to be an instance of style over substance.

The product is quick, and clean, but relatively expensive, and in my opinion, the quality of coffee that emerges from the collaboration between pod and machine is no better than, or even inferior, to cafetiere coffee, and even my regular Douwe Egberts (freeze-dried) instant coffee.

Although apparently a 27 year old technology, the product only seems to have taken off in the last few years, spurred by an admittedly slick campaign fronted by George Clooney, gentleman cad. Seldom has a celebrity face been used so effectively in order to sell a product. But it should be borne in mind that Nestle thought it would be a good idea to market Nescafe in the early 1990s with suave and charming ladies man of the moment, Anthony Stewart Head. The Head associtation is now embarrassing. This is a potential problem if you (like Nestle have) invested heavily in your brand as a luxury product. Ten years from now, Clooney may well seem uncool. Hence, your brand seems uncool. Heavily associating your brand with just one individual (no matter how rugged) can damage your brand in the long run.

Another expert wheeze has seen Nestle severely limit the number of “boutiques” that sell the product. Scarcity makes the product seem special: never underestimate the stupidity of the crowd. The large Nespresso shop frontage on Regent Street is a work of marketing genius. Sell coffee pods as luxury product. with a corresponding premium price.

People may laugh at a monkey hand puppet being used to sell PG Tips, but Clooney is being used to sell a product that is frankly as much use as a chocolate tea pot, for triple the price of regular freeze-dried coffee.

The rise of “craft”

The notion of craft and premium quality food and drink did not arise from the ether. In this post I attempt to trace its roots in recent history.

With the end of post-war rationing in Britain, a range of super-premium restaurants with a focus on local provenance opened in the North West of England. Beginning with Sharrow Bay in 1960, they catered to a very small segment of the population, and furthermore, the occasional visit to a high quality restaurant did not equate to a national lifestyle change. But the growth did indicate a desire for authentic, quality food.

In the 1970s, the British public were enamoured with the wave of new packaged and processed products: Watney’s Red Barrel ale, yoghurt, frozen food etc. They were expensive, but people were prepared to pay a premium for it because it was new, and perceived as “better” (it had technology and science behind it after all!)

The late 1970s and 1980s saw the growth of the real ale movement, which advocated small scale production, localness and traditional production methods. But the provenance doesn’t even have to be your localness: just provenance in general seems to suffice. One had only to witness the growth of Whitbread’s Stella Artois in the 1980s and 90s, a beer marketed with French language advertisements, despite being brewed in the UK, and with origins in Flemish speaking Belgium.

Another interesting example is Jack Daniel’s whisky. With a monochrome label and adverts, the product was able to successfully foster a small scale image, “craft” image. This consumer “backlash”, as it were, stems from a new-found consumer cynicism. The consumer knows that most products they buy in their supermarket are owned by multi-national conglomerates. Many people do not like giving their money to perceived faceless corporate entities. Any product that seems to defeat or circumnavigate this system, and treat the consumer like an adult, seems to be on to a winner. People will pay far more than net worth for a perceived craft product because it makes them feel good for two reasons: supporting local or craft production, and avoiding the multinationals. I don’t think this applies to the whole population, but I think it applies to a good number.

The examples are endless, but I will give just one more: Yorkshire Tea. The name “Yorkshire” implies traditional craft methods and localness. The name isn’t faceless and bland like competitor brands PG Tips and Tetley Tea. The brand wears its provenance proudly, and isn’t ashamed of its local origins. The brand came from nowhere in the 1990s to becoming the third highest selling tea brand in the country by 2007. It wasn’t until 2000 that it became a nationwide supermarket staple. The brand has a surprisingly modern heritage: I doubt that many of its consumer base would estimate that the brand was only launched in 1977. Meanwhile rival brands such as PG and Tetley patronised the audience with television adverts that starred cartoon characters, chimpanzees and monkey hand puppets. The consumer goods advertising market has matured. Treating consumers like idiots works far less well than it used to. Consumers appreciate being treated like human beings.

The premium/provenance market shows little sign of slowing. Borough Market in London is now firmly established as a destination for quality food with provenance. The celebrity chefs have long promoted locality and quality. Farm shops are now ubiquitous in many English villages.

Craft brands need to be careful to maintain their image. Stella Artois sold for the same price as other premium lagers, despite its slogan of “Reassuringly expensive”. Consumers get wise to a brand that seems inauthentic, and it irritates them as an insult to their intelligence. Stella is now, frankly, a commodity lager, and its premium positioning has largely been given over to the Italian Peroni brand, which had spread largely through word of mouth.