Category Archives: Food

The meat of the issue: Bovril

Bovril is a beef extract made from boiled cow carcasses with added flavouring. It is consumed as a hot beverage or used as a substitute for stock in recipes.

John Lawson Johnston (1839 – 1900) was an Edinburgh butcher with an interest in military and medical provisions. He developed Johnston’s Fluid Beef, a beef broth product, in the 1860s. He won a three-year contract to supply one million tin cans of Fluid Beef to the French army in 1874. In order to be closer to his source of beef he established operations in Canada.

A caricature of John Lawson Johnston (1839 – 1900) by Spy for Vanity Fair (1897)

In order to lower distribution costs, Johnston began to produce a concentrated version of Fluid Beef from 1875. Whilst smoking a cigar he was inspired to name the product “Bovril”, combining the Latin “bo” meaning ox with “vril”, the mysterious life-force in the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871).

Johnston established premises at Trinity Square, London after his Canadian operations were destroyed by fire in 1884. Bovril was launched in Britain in 1886. Within two years it was distributed in 3,000 pubs and shops. The classic bulbous brown Bovril bottles were introduced in 1888.

The Bovril company was formed with capital of £150,000 and a new factory at Old Street, London in 1889.

Bovril was one of the first consumer goods to be advertised on a large scale. Advertising focused on its healthful properties. Pope Leo XIII (1810 – 1903) endorsed the product in advertisements, as he did for coca wine (a predecessor of Coca-Cola). An electric sign advertising Bovril was erected at Ludgate Circus, London from 1892.

The Bovril advertisement on Ludgate Circus, London (1918)

The lightweight and nutritious properties of Bovril led to it being taken on expeditions by the likes of Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton. Edmund Hillary stocked it on the Everest Expedition.

Bovril was sold to the financier E T Hooley (1842 – 1903) for £2 million in 1896. Privately, Johnston had believed even £1.5 million to be a ridiculous price to pay for the company. Hooley floated the company later the same month for £2.5 million. However he stripped the company of its working capital, and promised higher dividends than the company could afford. Hooley walked away with his profit, but Johnston, who remained as chairman, was forced to loan the company £150,000 just to keep it afloat.

Bovril was available in over 100,000 retail establishments in the UK, as well as most hospitals and infirmaries, by 1896. Virol malt tonic was introduced from 1889, soon followed by Stelna corned beef.

Following the death of his father in 1900, George Lawson Johnston (1873 – 1943) became the chairman of Bovril. Bovril was ranked 35th largest among British companies as measured by share capital in 1905.

An advertisement from the early 1900s. Bovril had Papal approval

Bovril was made from a 100 percent beef recipe. It was made from finely granulated dried beef powder imported from Canada. It differed from rival beef teas in that it contained bovine blood as a thickening agent.

The factory was hailed as the cleanest in London, and the company regularly invited doctors and chemists to inspect it.

After Bovril’s principal meat supplier entered into an exclusive contract with Liebig’s, its main rival, from 1906, Bovril acquired half a million acres of land in Argentina to ensure a supply of beef from 1908. It also acquired beef from Australia and New Zealand.

Bovril acquired Marmite of Burton-upon-Trent and Ambrosia, a Devon-based producer of milk-based desserts, in 1924.

The Old Street factory was capable of producing 57,600 bottles of Bovril every day by 1927.

Bovril, with 310,000 cattle, had the largest herd under single ownership in Argentina by 1930.

Bovril had a market value of £10.8 million by 1930, making it the 23rd most highly valued company in Britain. Stelna had been rebranded as Bovril corned beef by 1936.

Sadly, many of the company records were destroyed during the Second World War. The Old Street factory was hit three times during the Blitz, but only a total of four working days were lost.

The Argentine estates covered over one million acres with over 200,000 cattle by 1959. The cattle were descended from Bovril-bred pedigree bulls from Ampthill in Bedfordshire. The Santa Elena abattoir employed 3,000 skilled workers, and was one of the most modern factories in Argentina.

This slogan was introduced from c.1896. This advertisement dates from 1905

Bovril, Ambrosia creamed rice and Bovril corned beef were all market leaders in Britain by 1957. The Old Street factory broke a new record when 131,868 bottles of Bovril were produced in a single day in 1961.

Bovril instant beef stock was launched in 1966. The Ambrosia purchase brought with it dairies, and Bovril processed 42 million gallons of milk in 1966.

Production of Bovril was relocated from Old Street to Burton-upon-Trent, in the English Midlands, from 1967.

Bovril was acquired by Cavenham Foods for £14.5 million in 1971. Bovril’s dairy interests, including three dairies in Devon and two in Ireland, were sold six weeks later to Grand Metropolitan for £6.3 million. The Bovril Argentinian interests were divested for £3 million in 1973.

Cavenham invested heavily in marketing for the neglected Ambrosia brand.

Cavenham had the tenth highest turnover of any British company by 1976.

Bovril advertisement c.1900

Bovril (including Marmite and Ambrosia) was sold to Beecham, a drugs and consumer goods company, for £42 million in 1980. At this stage Bovril employed 1,400 people in Britain, across sites in Burton-upon-Trent and Devon. Net assets were valued at around £18 million.

What was by now called SmithKline Beecham sold Bovril (including Marmite and Ambrosia) to CPC, an American foods giant which owned Hellman’s mayonnaise and Knorr, for £157 million in cash in 1990. The number of employees had halved to 700 since 1980.

Five million jars of Bovril were sold in 1998.

CPC (now renamed Best Foods) was acquired by Unilever in 2001. Unilever sold Ambrosia to Premier Foods for £105 million in 2003.

In the wake of an European Community ban on the export of British beef, Unilever changed the composition of Bovril from beef stock to yeast extract from 2004. The ban was lifted in 2006, and Bovril began to be made from beef again.

3.5 million jars of Bovril were consumed in Britain in 2009. Bovril also has a large export market in Malaysia, Singapore and China.

A tinned history of Crosse & Blackwell (1706 – 1914)

The Crosse & Blackwell brand rights are owned by various companies across the world. The brand is most closely associated with tinned soup in Britain. In America it is a specialist purveyor of English style sauces, pickles and chutneys. In South Africa it is the highest-selling brand of mayonnaise.

West & Wyatt was established in London in 1706. The firm had a sizeable trade in salted fish and held Royal appointments to George III, George IV and William IV.

Edmund Crosse (1804 – 1862) and Thomas Blackwell (1804 – 1880) joined West & Wyatt as apprentices in 1819. The two men soon struck up a strong friendship. Richard West had died in 1824, and upon the retirement of William Wyatt in 1830, Crosse and Blackwell borrowed £600 from their families to acquire the business.

Supposedly, Crosse sourced the ingredients and Blackwell created the recipes. There were 15 employees in 1835.

Under the name Crosse & Blackwell, the company gained a Royal Warrant from Queen Victoria in 1837. The following year there were 21 employees. The expanding business relocated from 11 King Street (now Shaftesbury Avenue) to 21 Soho Square in 1839.

Crosse & Blackwell became the first company in the world to mass produce jam from 1841. Previously jams had been made by local confectioners and private households.

Crosse & Blackwell had capital of £26,000 in 1844. The firm had a particularly successful export trade, and produced 75 different sauces and pickles and 25 varieties of soup, as well as potted meats, jams and honey. At this stage these were luxury foods, not the commodity goods that preserves would later become.

Crosse and Blackwell enlisted the two most famous celebrity chefs of the era, Alexis Soyer (1810 – 1858) and Charles Elmé Francatelli (1805 – 1876), to create recipes for them. Soyer branded sauces were sold with the chef’s face on the label. With Soyer, Crosse and Blackwell introduced the world’s first commercial brown sauce in 1848.

Crosse & Blackwell opened the first large-scale salmon cannery in the world in Cork, Ireland, in 1849.

The firm grew due to a rise in luxury food sales, and a steadfast dedication to quality. Standard practice among food producers at the time, pickle manufacturers boiled their vegetables in copper vessels in order to bestow a “fresh” green hue to their product. Esteemed medical journal The Lancet revealed that this was harmful to human health in 1851. Crosse & Blackwell led the way in the changeover from copper to enamelled iron vessels. C&B pickles subsequently appeared less appealing than those of their competitors, and sales initially suffered, but the firm’s dedication to consumer health was proven.

Crosse & Blackwell employed 126 people in 1851. A second Soho Square building was acquired in 1857.

Mushroom catsup (ketchup) ranked as the firm’s most popular sauce in 1857, with 17,000 gallons sold that year. 120,000 tins of sardines were sold in 1859.

Crosse & Blackwell was the leading preserved goods producer in the world by 1860. Nearly one million jars of pickles were produced every year. 249 people were regularly employed, with hundreds more employed as seasonal workers. Over 100,000 gallons of vinegar was used every year. A contractor in East Ham employed 400 women to pick and prepare 12,000 bushels of onions every year.

Edmund Crosse died in 1862 with an estate valued at £140,000.

Crosse & Blackwell operated 38,000 square feet of factory and warehouse space in the Soho Square area by 1865. The firm employed nearly 400 people by 1867. The business was awarded warrants from Emperor Napoleon III of France and the King of Belgium in 1868.

Continued expansion resulted in premises at Soho Square, Sutton Place, George Yard, Denmark Street, Stacey Street, Dean Street and Earl Street by 1868.

In 1869 two million bottles of pickles were sold. 562 tons of English fruit, and over 500 tons of sugar were used to make preserves and jams. 800,000 tins of sardines were sold.

By 1870, depending on the season, between 600 and 1,000 people were employed by Crosse & Blackwell. Standards of freshness and cleanliness were paramount. The firm also had a reputation as a good employer.

In the 1870s, the partner’s sons joined the business, Edmund Meredith Crosse (1846 – 1918) and Thomas Francis Blackwell (1838 – 1907). In 1880 T F Blackwell became the senior partner upon the death of his father.

In 1880 around 1,200 people were regularly employed, around 400 to 500 of which were women. That year, 20,000 bushels of onions were pickled. The firm’s brewery produced 500,000 gallons of vinegar each year. 60,000 bottles of pickles were produced every week. Over one million tins of soup were sold annually; turtle, mock turtle and oxtail were among the most popular variants.

Crosse & Blackwell was described as “probably the largest employer of labour in London” in 1887.

Crosse & Blackwell became a limited liability company with a capital of £570,000 in 1892. T F Blackwell was appointed company chairman.

Crosse & Blackwell added glucose to some of its jams, citing public demand, from 1894. Jams were produced at Soho Square. Raspberries and strawberries were sourced from Kent, and greengages, damsons and plums came mostly from Cambridgeshire.

Crosse & Blackwell was one of the largest food manufacturers in the world by 1898. The company employed around 2,000 people, mostly unskilled labourers. There were factories at Soho Square; Charing Cross Road; Soho Wharf in Lambeth, Victoria Wharf at Millwall, a vinegar brewery on the Caledonian Road, a lemon squeezing factory at Vauxhall and a branch factory in Cork, Ireland.

T F Blackwell died in 1907, leaving an estate of £979,659 (£103 million in 2013).

Despite suffering from heavy import duties, Crosse & Blackwell had developed a leading reputation and taken a significant share of the United States jam market by 1913.

Read Part II of this history here.


A1: a history of Brand & Co

Brand & Co was a major branded food producer in Britain. Brand’s Essence of Chicken remains a major health supplement in Asia, and Brand’s A1 is one of the highest-selling English-style brown sauces in the world. How did this company become almost entirely forgotten in its native Britain?

Henderson William Brand (1805 – 1893) was born in Durham, North East England, the son of Thomas Brand, an innkeeper and brewer.

We can almost certainly surmise that the young Henderson Brand worked in his father’s kitchen, and that his precocious culinary talent soon became evident, because by the age of twelve he was employed in the kitchen of the Prince Regent  (1762 – 1830) as “under cook”.

Brand had an excellent opportunity to develop his culinary repertoire in one of the greatest kitchens in Europe. The Prince Regent was a confirmed gastronome who had previously employed Marie-Antoine Careme (1784 – 1833), the founder of modern haute cuisine, and one of the greatest chefs of his era.

The Prince Regent became King George IV from 1820. Brand was promoted to “Yeoman of the Mouth”, a position akin to that of sous chef, from 1822.

Brand was appointed head chef to Thomas William Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester (1754 – 1842) from 1826. Coke was a charismatic man, and regularly held large dinner parties to discuss his agricultural improvements. His magnificently-equipped kitchen at Holkham Hall in Norfolk boasted a fireplace large enough to roast an ox.

Brand published an updated version of Simpson’s Cookery, a popular cookbook, in 1834.

Brand established a factory/shop on 11 Little Stanhope Street in Mayfair, London from 1835. His first product was Essence of Chicken, from a recipe he had allegedly developed for the convalescent king. It was manufactured by heating chopped meat inside a pot until it separated into fat, fibre and “liquid essence”, a clear amber liquid. It was recommended as a substitute for brandy in relieving exhaustion and nervous ailments.

Shortly afterwards, Brand introduced Essence of Beef at the request of a Dr Druitt.

Evidently a better chef than a businessman, Brand was declared bankrupt in 1843 and the company was acquired by a Mr Withall.

A British bottle of A1 sauce, manufactured for export to Singapore (2018)

H.W. Brand
Henderson Brand re-emerged on his own, trading as “H.W. Brand” from 1858. He was appointed Cook and Co-Manager of the Cuisine at the 1862 International Exhibition in London. It was at the Exhibition that he first introduced “Brand’s International Sauce”. At the Exhibition it was ranked “A1”, and thus became known by this name. A1 sauce was in use by the Royal household by 1868, and it was in use at the House of Lords and the House of Commons by 1879. H.W. Brand had been acquired by Brand & Co by 1886.

Dence & Mason
Withall sold Brand & Co to Thomas Dence (1840 – 1918) for £5,000 in 1873. Dence was born in London to a Kentish grocer. Dence was joined in partnership by John James Mason (1833 – 1896), who managed the business.

The Mayfair site proved too small for the expanding business, and a new factory was opened at South Lambeth, Vauxhall in 1887.

Brand & Co products received royal warrants from Edward VII, George VI, the Tsarina of Russia and the Empress of Germany.

Henderson William Brand died in 1893, a sadly forgotten figure, who warranted no newspaper obituaries.

Sales of A1 were such that Brand & Co struggled to meet demand, and so the firm never actively sought out export markets. Gilbert Heublein (1849 – 1937), a German-born spirits distributor resident in Connecticut, visited England and encountered A1 sauce. He was impressed, and after much effort he acquired the exclusive US distribution rights to A1 sauce from 1894.

A Heublein advertisement claimed that A1 held over 50 percent of the British bottled sauce market in 1895. It was described as a milder version of Worcestershire sauce.

Brand & Co had 200 employees, about 80 of which were women, by 1906. Facilities for the staff were excellent, with a canteen, a smoking room and a club room. The firm processed about six tons of meat every day.

Brand’s Essence of Chicken (2015)

Brand & Co was established as a private limited company to acquire the business from the partnership in 1907. The company continued to be managed by the children, and later grandchildren, of Mason and Dence.

Brand & Co struggled to meet increasing consumer demand, and Heublein established their own A1 sauce factory in Connecticut from 1916.

Thomas Dence died in 1918, with an estate valued at over £916,000.

Brand’s Essence remained the best known product in 1923. Brand & Co used no artificial preservatives. A1 sauce contained vinegar, Eastern spices, and dried fruits including raisins, sultanas, dates, oranges and tomatoes.

Public offering
Brand & Co became a public company from 1949. By this time Brand & Co employed 650 people, and the site in Vauxhall occupied 2.5 acres and 123,000 square feet of factory and office space. Net assets, excluding goodwill, amounted to £452,000. Brand’s Essence and A1 Sauce remained the principal products. 26 percent of production was exported.

Brand & Co was acquired by Cerebos for £4.1 million in 1959. Cerebos owned well-known packaged food brands such as Bisto, Paxo, Scott’s Porage Oats and Saxa salt.

Sales of Brand’s Essence of Chicken had been successfully established in Asia by 1961.

The British A1 sauce bottle label indicated that it contained “aromatic herbs from Old World gardens, rare spices from the Far East and sun-ripened fruits from the orchards of the world”.

Manufacture of A1 sauce began in South Africa from 1963, and was already underway in Canada.

All British Brand & Co production was relocated to the Cerebos plant in Greatham, County Durham from 1967. The Greatham site had ample space for expansion, and sales of Brand’s high quality tinned soups were growing. The Vauxhall factory was closed, and its sale netted Cerebos a windfall of £900,000.

Cerebos was acquired by Rank Hovis McDougall (RHM) for £61 million in 1968. That same year, Brand & Co won a Queen’s Award for Industry for export achievement.

An American bottle of A1 sauce (2016)

A1 Sauce sales were discontinued in Britain sometime between the late 1970s and the early 1980s, displaced by later rivals such as HP, Daddies and OK sauce.

Present day
As of 2018, Brand’s Essence of Chicken has annual sales of around £330 million in Asia, where it is valued for its restorative properties. A1 sauce remains popular in the US and Canada.

Premier Foods, the successor to RHM, still manufacture A1 sauce in England for export to Asian and European markets. English-made A1 sauce contains tomatoes, malt vinegar, spirit vinegar, sugar, dates, salt, carob gum (a thickening agent), ginger, caramel colouring, onion powder, nutmeg, black pepper and cayenne pepper.

American-made A1 sauce contains tomato puree, spirit vinegar, corn syrup, raisin paste, crushed orange puree, mixed spices, garlic powder, caramel colouring, onion powder, potassium sorbate (a preservative), xanthum gum (a thickening agent) and celery seeds.

Why can’t you get A1 sauce in the UK?

The leading brown sauce in Britain is HP. The leading brown sauce in the US is A1.

Broadly speaking, A1 is a cross between HP Sauce and Worcestershire Sauce. HP is sharper and thicker, whereas A1 is a little more fruity. You can find the imported American sauce in larger Tesco supermarkets in the UK (£5.50). It pairs well with beef, especially in casseroles and meatloaf.

A1 is a British invention, introduced by Henderson William Brand in 1862, when he was co-manager of the cuisine at the International Exhibition in Hyde Park. He submitted the sauce before the Royal Commission for use in the Exhibition’s restaurants. The Chief Commissioner reportedly declared the sauce to be “A.1.”

Gilbert Heublein (1849 – 1937), a German-born spirits distributor resident in Connecticut, visited England and encountered A1 sauce. He was impressed, and after much effort he acquired the exclusive US distribution rights to A1 sauce from 1894. He gained the US production rights from 1916.

A1 was phased out in Britain in the 1970s, forced out of a crowded brown sauce market which included HP, Daddies and supermarket own-label nationally, as well as OK, Heinz Ideal, Hammonds and Fletcher’s Tiger Sauce at a regional level.

The brand is currently owned by Kraft in the US. In Britain, the trademark is currently owned by the British food giant Premier Foods, who acquired the former owner Rank Hovis McDougall.

Roaring trade: a history of J Lyons (1894 – 1949)

J Lyons was the largest catering business in the world.

Barnett Salmon (1829 – 1897) and Isidore Gluckstein (1851 – 1920) established a tobacconist chain which undercut rivals by passing on bulk discounts to customers. With 140 shops, it was the largest tobacconist chain in Britain when it was acquired by Imperial Tobacco for £400,000 in 1902.

In the 1880s Montagu Gluckstein, a travelling partner in the firm, complained that pubs were the only place he could find refreshment. Gluckstein suggested that Salmon & Gluckstein enter into the business of non-alcoholic refreshment. A trial was established whereby the business catered for the Newcastle Exhibition of 1887. Contracts for other exhibitions followed.

J Lyons & Co was established as a public company with capital of £120,000 to pursue catering further in 1894. The original stakeholders were Montagu Gluckstein, his brother Isidore, brother-in-law Barnett Salmon (maternal grandfather to Nigella Lawson) and distant relative Joseph Lyons. The Lyons name was adopted to distinguish the company from the Salmon & Gluckstein business.

The first Lyons tea shop opened in September 1894 at 213 Piccadilly. It had 200 seats and a £30,000 lease. After a year the shop had made a profit of £11,400, and the company was able to pay a dividend of ten percent.

The first Lyons Tea Room was sited at 213 Piccadilly
The first Lyons Tea Room was sited at 213 Piccadilly

The early tea room exteriors were enticing and extrovert, and the interiors were often glamorous, and intended to evoke the great Victorian exhibitions and Parisian cafes.

The Lyons tea shop girls went on strike in protest against low wages in 1895.

Cadby Hall was opened in Hammersmith to centrally produce baked goods for the company’s 17 tea shops in 1896. By 1900 there were 37 tea shops in London, and expansion had begun in the provinces, with six branches in Manchester, four in Liverpool, and two each in Leeds and Sheffield.

Quality was good and prices were reasonable. The tea rooms were particularly popular throughout the daytime with lower middle class office workers. Cinema and theatre-goers patronised the chain on evenings.

The first Lyons Corner House was opened on Coventry Street in 1909. The Corner Houses were much larger than the tea rooms, with a greater appeal to the middle classes. Live bands and an informal atmosphere helped to cement their popularity. The Coventry Street outlet became the Lyons flagship outlet, and seated 2,000 diners on multiple floors. It was the largest restaurant in the world. A second Corner House at the Strand opened in 1915, capable of seating 1,200 diners.

J Lyons was one of the largest caterers in the world by 1911. Half a million meals were served every day throughout 200 shops and restaurants. The company employed over 12,000 people, including 2,000 people at Cadby Hall. The Cadby Hall works covered ten acres and included sixteen bakehouses, five cold storage rooms and three butchers’ shops.

20,000 people were employed by 1913. J Lyons was the largest baker in London, the largest tea merchant in the world and the largest restaurant operator in the world.

Lyons also expanded into hotels, building the Regent Palace Hotel in London at a cost of £600,000. When it opened in 1915 it was the largest hotel in Europe with 1,028 bedrooms.

Lyons tea was far and away the market leader by 1915: five million packets were sold every week by 160,000 shopkeepers. The company accounted for one in four cups of tea sold in London.

Lyons had over £2 million in capital by 1917.

Tea, coffee, bread, cakes, ice cream and groceries which had originally been produced for the tea rooms began to be sold directly to the customer, all manufactured at the company’s Hammersmith site.

In 1918 Lyons acquired two leading packet tea companies, positioned second and fourth place in the market respectively: Horniman of London and Black & Green of Manchester. The acquisitions were intended to increase Lyons’s market share in the North of England: Horniman was strong in Yorkshire and G&B strong in the North West.

The company had a share capital of £3.5 million by 1919. By this time Lyons was likely the largest catering company in the British Empire. There were 182 tea shops by 1919, making it easily the largest chain of its kind in the country.

By 1919 Cadby Hall was struggling to keep up with demand, so Lyons acquired a 30 acre freehold site at Greenford, on the outskirts of London. In 1920 the company opened the largest tea packing plant in the world there. Coffee, cocoa and confectionery production were also transferred to Greenford. By the early 1920s the company was the largest food producer in Europe.

In 1922 it was calculated that seven million people drank Lyons tea each week.

Lyons opened the Cumberland Hotel at Marble Arch, which was the largest hotel in Europe, in 1922. The Coventry Street Corner House was extended in 1923 to create what was likely the largest restaurant in the world, with seats for 4,500 diners.

Ice cream manufacture at Cadby Hall had reached the mass production scale by 1923.

In 1930 Lyons was the 20th largest company in Britain, with a market value of £12.1 million and 30,000 employees. Over ten million meals were sold each week. Lyons held 14 percent of the packet tea market, with over 1.25 million packets sold every day.

The teashop chain continued to grow strongly until the onset of the Great Depression. Teashop losses between 1934 and 1938 totalled £374,000. Despite this, due to its manufacturing and hotel concerns, the company remained the largest catering company in the world in the latter half of the 1930s.

By 1937 there were over 42,000 employees.

In 1939 Lyons produced 3.5 million gallons of ice cream.

By 1939 Lyons had 253 tea rooms. Due to wartime labour shortages, self service was introduced at the tea rooms from 1941, and rolled out across the chain from 1945.

From the late 1940s the company’s catering arm supplied the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis tournament.

Part II of this post can be found here.

Viennetta: the first branded ice cream dessert

A look into the background of Wall’s Viennetta.

Viennetta is produced by Wall’s in Gloucester, who also sell the Magnum and Solero brand ice creams. Wall’s is in turn owned by Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant. Unilever is the largest producer of ice cream in the world, and also owns the Ben & Jerry’s brand.


Worldwide sales of Viennetta totalled £328 million in 2013, according to Euromonitor.

There are no imitations of Viennetta because the process by which it is produced is protected by patent. The product is actually an ice cream imitation of the French millefeuille cake. Unilever saved money by adapting the product from a Belgian Cornetto recipe. The packaging was based on a German Christmas log manufactured by Langnese.

A French millefeuille cake

Viennetta was first launched in the UK in 1982. Originally it was a Christmas-only special. However, it proved so successful that it was launched year-round in 1984. Unusually for Unilever, they did not have to lobby supermarkets to stock the product, instead, the supermarkets lobbied them. Unilever was consequently able to achieve excellent margins for itself on the product, which the supermarkets often sold as a loss-leader.

According to Professor Geoffrey Jones, Viennetta introduced the concept of the branded ice cream dessert. For the first time, ice cream was the main item of a dessert, and not just an accompaniment to something else on the bowl or plate.

Perhaps the product’s vaguely European-sounding name was considered sophisticated in the early 1980s. Viennetta’s star may be rising worldwide, but it is a reduced presence in its native UK. In 2014 value sales were far below what they were in 1990, not even accounting for inflation.

A slice of history: Bakers Oven

Bakers Oven was the largest bakery chain in the UK, before it was overtaken and then acquired by Greggs.

Greggs is a fast food chain with more outlets in Britain than McDonald’s. Specialising in value and convenience, outlets sell sandwiches, but remain best known for “treat” food: sausage rolls, pasties, vanilla slices etc.

Greggs’ dominance in the UK was established when it acquired Bakers Oven, its major rival bakery chain, in 1994. Bakers Oven was about 20 percent more expensive than Greggs, had more of a focus on in-store “baking” and typically offered substantial seating, which Greggs usually lacked.

Bakers Oven was a concept developed in 1976 by one of the largest British bread makers, Allied Bakeries, itself a subsidiary of Associated British Foods, owners of Twinings, Silver Spoon sugar and Ryvita. Allied Bakeries also owned other bakery chain fascias, with names such as City Bakeries, Martins and Strathdee, and boasted of operating a store on almost every British high street. ABF owned many prime high street sites; a legacy of acquiring local bakeries. They had first attempted to create a nationwide bakery chain in 1968 with the Lite Bite shops.

The claim that the first Bakers Oven was located in Barnard Castle, Durham is untrue. The location was previously operated by Carricks, a Newcastle upon Tyne bakery chain. and it was not rebranded to the Bakers Oven name until 1989.

Bakers Oven rode the rise in demand for healthier bread in the late 1980s, although it never matched the quality of genuine bakers’ produce. It became the largest bakery chain in the UK, however by the early 1990s it began to consistently lose money, and around 100 stores were divested. Bakers Oven blamed the rise of supermarket bread sales for its struggles (ignoring the fact that Greggs continued to grow).

The UK’s third largest bakery chain, Three Cooks, was also owned by a large British bread manufacturer, RHM (formerly Rank Hovis McDougall). The acquisition of Gladdings of Coventry took RHM to 300 outlets by the early 1990s.

Greggs differentiated from its two major rivals in being publicly listed from the 1980s onward, whilst maintaining a large family-owned stake.

A Bakers Oven Outlet in Willenhall in 1995
A Bakers Oven Outlet in Willenhall in 1995

By 1993 Bakers Oven operated over 500 shops and employed over 5,000 people.

In 1994 Greggs acquired Bakers Oven, with 424 stores and two main bakeries, for £18.5 million in cash. This took Greggs to a total of 929 outlets. Greggs was interested in expanding into the South East, where the majority of Bakers Oven outlets were based. Greggs was strongest in the North, particularly the North East, where it had a 40 percent market share in some areas. Greggs was also interested in learing about in-store baking and seated catering from the chain. As a combined group, Greggs was able to lower central buying costs and increase profitability. Greggs also announced plans to lower the pricing of Bakers Oven, which it regarded as excessive.

By 1995 Greggs had steered Bakers Oven into profitability by decreasing the focus on sliced white bread (in which they were undercut by supermarkets) and emphasising higher margin items such as sandwiches, savouries and pastries.

By 1996, 241 Bakers Oven outlets had been converted to the Greggs brand, mostly the units without in-store bakeries and seating and in less desirable locations. The Greggs model was to drive high volume value sales. However, new Bakers Oven outlets continued to be opened, and the chain was regarded as the company’s “premium brand”. In the late 1990s the chain was revamped, and items such as filter coffee and salad rolls were added to the menu.

By 2004 there were only 220 Bakers Oven outlets remaining. By 2006 the brand had been withdrawn from Scotland and the North of England, with all former outlets converted to Greggs. In December 2008 it was announced that the remaining 163 Bakers Oven outlets would be rebranded as Greggs.

How to make Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce

People are increasingly sceptical of advertising claims these days, but Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce really does stand head and shoulders above its competitors. Chef Nigel Slater praises the “piquant richness” that it can add to a dish. Heston Blumenthal and Gordon Ramsay use it, and Marco Pierre White loves it.

In a British supermarket, Lea & Perrins is the only Worcestershire sauce. Its competitors include soy sauce and Maggi seasoning. In the Yorkshire region there is also Henderson’s Relish, a kind of poor man’s Lea & Perrins.


Cheaper Worcestershire sauces are sold to the catering trade. These tend to be thin and watery, overly sweet and without much of the characteristic Lea & Perrins spice or tangy character.

Here’s how to make your own Worcestershire sauce:

Always use the finest ingredients you can find, and for best results, ferment in wooden barrels.

1. Pickle 18kg of shallots, unpeeled heads of garlic and unpeeled red onions. Meanwhile, salt down 11kg of Spanish anchovies and leave to break down into a paste.

2. After your vegetables and anchovies have aged for three years, blend and add the following: 2.3kg of fresh raw green Fukien chilli peppers from China, 6.4kg of black tamarinds from Calcutta, 1kg cloves, 36 litres of soy sauce (Lea & Perrins have used hydrolysed vegetable protein since WWII, but previously used soy), ginger and “various fruits” (understood to include 225ml of essence of lemon). Blend and ferment together for three months.

3. Before bottling, add molasses, sugar (15kg), salt (4.5kg) and 82 litres of malt vinegar. Add water to get to the desired consistency.

Sure, you can pare down the scale, but the time involved means it’s much easier to just buy a bottle of Lea & Perrins than to make your own!

The history of Dunkin’ Donuts in the UK

As Dunkin’ Donuts makes its third attempt on the UK market, I explore its previous attempts.

The broadsheets such as the Daily Telegraph report that this is the chain’s second attempt at the UK market, but this is incorrect.

The first outlet opened in the UK at Ludgate Circus, London on October 1965. The UK operation entered liquidation in 1968. At the time, the Economist described the attempt as a “flop”.

The second attempt began in 1988. Rather frivolously, its UK head office was at 48 Carnaby Street, London. Four outlets were opened in the Birmingham area, with a bakery at Leamington Spa. 6 DDs (including a 24 hour outlet in Glasgow) and a bakery in Livingston were opened in Scotland. As with now, the plan was to open 100 outlets, with a focus on the London area. The outlets and bakeries were all closed down in 1999, after continuously losing money.

When it failed the (second) time around, DD was actually owned by a British company, Allied Domecq, which has substantial knowledge of the UK property and catering markets, as the owner of J Lyons (including the Wimpy burger chain) and 3,500 pubs.

Clearly the present owner feels that the success of Krispy Kreme in the UK since has cleared the way for another doughnut retailer to enter the fray. The chairman and chief executive in America is also a Brit. But Krispy Kreme clearly presents itself as a premium priced “treat”, whereas the Dunkin’ Donuts model is more of a value proposition akin to Greggs. It’s foolhardy to take on an established competitor such as Greggs in its home market.

Dunkin’ Donuts enters the UK market

So Dunkin’ Donuts has entered the UK market, with two locations so far, and plans for expansion to 100 outlets in five years. The locations of the first two outlets, Harrow and Chelmsford (with plans for a third in Cambridge) make me feel confident about the chances for the chain’s future success in the UK. Not too flashy, with low rents. The mistake of many US food chains has been to occupy high profile central London outlets, with very high rents, and this rarely works out. This lack of arrogance on the part of DD may seem refreshing, but their humility stems from the fact that this is their third attempt to crack the UK market.

Harrow Dunkin' Donuts outlet
The first Dunkin’ Donuts site in the UK, in Harrow

Despite media claims about the “battle of the donuts”, Krispy Kreme will not be DD’s major rival in the UK. DD will compete primarily with Greggs, supermarkets, McDonald’s, and to a lesser extent the likes of Costa and Starbucks. Greggs is the company that has the most to fear from DD’s expansion, although Greggs is a wily competitor. Greggs did not emerge as the sole national bakery chain by falling asleep at the helm.

DD’s main customer base will be commuters, particularly during the lunchtime period. I haven’t been a DD either in the UK or elsewhere, so I can’t comment specifically on the food quality, but as it looks to be similar to McDonald’s and Greggs standard. If this is a case, it will be difficult for DD to succeed without matching their competitor’s prices. Due to its obvious initial cost disadvantage to its competitors due to its lack of scale, DD’s American parent company will have to be prepared to absorb sustained losses for at least a few years before the chain becomes profitable. The question is, how badly to DD want to gain a slice of the UK market?