Sandwiches are a beloved staple of the British diet – so much so that the nation dedicates a week every year to celebrating them.

As we near the end of the annual celebration that is British Sandwich Week (22-28 May), we slice through the matters at hand affecting the sandwich market and take a bite into emerging trends:

A man eats a sandwich at a work desk while browsing the British Baker website

Source: Getty Images

Recovery continues

The sandwich market was badly hit by the pandemic, so much so that it has yet to fully recover.

Pre-pandemic it was worth around £8bn, according to the British Sandwich & Food To Go Association, which said it is ‘now back to about 85% of that’ but noted recovery had been affected by the switch to working from home.

However, the Association believes the evidence suggests that home-based workers were actually above-average food-to-go buyers. Furthermore, there were clear signs that many had returned to offices, offering a potential lifeline to struggling city centre sandwich shops.

“The sandwich industry is a dynamic market primed for growth as it continues to bounce back following the pandemic”

A 2022 MealTrak survey found just a quarter of consumers said they enjoyed sandwiches ‘al-desko’ at work, a marked increase of the figures from the previous two years and catching up with home dining numbers (29%), which was also on the rise.

“The sandwich industry is a dynamic market primed for growth as it continues to bounce back following the pandemic,” says Andy Parton, chief commercial officer at convenience food supplier Greencore. He points to the latest insights from IGD, which predicts the overall FTG market will be worth £19.8bn by the end of this year – 8% higher than pre-pandemic.

This trajectory is expected to continue with IGD figures pointing to an overall FTG market value of £23.4bn by 2027.

Costa's cajun spiced chicken pizza wrap

Source: Costa

Cajun Spiced Chicken Pizza Wrap

All wrapped up?

Sandwiches are undoubtedly the kings of the food-to-go scene, but wraps are increasingly giving them a run for their money.

MealTrak data shows that wraps increased their market share from 8.2% in 2022 to 11.1% now. Flatbreads rose slightly too, up to 0.9%, while subs, paninis, rolls, ciabatta, and bagels all lost ground in the sandwich carriers race. Classic sandwiches, meanwhile, gained marginal ground from 57.5% market share to 57.9%.

Operators are happy to cater for consumer desire for wraps with the likes of Tesco’s Fajita Chicken Wrap, Pret’s Curried Chickpea & Mango Wrap, and Costa’s Cajun Spiced Chicken Pizza Wrap among recent NPD to hit the scene. Meanwhile, Costco rolled out a range of filled flatbreads and just days ago Greggs unveiled its stuffed flatbread options including Mexican Chicken, Vegan Tandoori Chicken-Free, and Chicken Shawarma.

Roots from Urban Eat range

Source: Urban Eat

Plant-based options blossom

Tesco sales data recently produced a meat-heavy list of its top 10 best-selling sandwiches, topped by Sausage, Bacon & Egg and including Triple Chicken, Chicken Club, and Just Ham varieties. Nevertheless, opportunities for non-meat alternatives in the market are growing rapidly.

Charlotte Assinder, brand manager at sandwich supplier Urban Eat, says recent research shows that 65% of the UK population were open to reducing their meat intake, but were not willing to compromise on taste and quality meaning suppliers need to be creative with their ranges. “Being a ‘non-meat offering’ isn’t going to be enough to entice this audience,” she notes.

The company revamped its Roots from Urban Eat range of plant-based items earlier this year, aimed at creating a lunchtime offering full of flavour and variety. This includes two sandwiches (Cheeze & Pickle, and Falafel & Houmous), and two wraps (Tomato & Pesto, and Spicy Bean).

“Resonating with flexible meat reducers as well as devoted meat excluders increases our audience by 50%, which in turn offers a bigger commercial opportunity for us and our customers,” adds Assinder.

Elsewhere, Costa expanded its vegan range to include a Vegan Meatball Wrap and a Vegan Saus’ge Bap, while Greggs brought out a Vegan Chicken-Free Cajun Roll and a Vegan Southern Fried Chicken-Free Baguette.

The British Sandwich & Food To Go Association notes that over a third of purchase decisions are actively influenced by health or ethical considerations of various kinds, citing 2023 MealTrak research. It highlights a need to respond to health trends that have shifted since Covid, with the key being to innovate to play to the bigger, more mainstream health trends, which is ‘where the real prize is’.

Of the consumers surveyed during MealTrak’s research, 7.3% said they chose FTG products specifically because they were high in protein. Low calories was a deciding factor for another 6.8%.

Interestingly, ‘pure’ vegan was found to have become less influential as a consumer trend, with just under 3% of those interviewed putting it as their specific choice. This segment rises to almost one in six respondents if you included vegetarian, plant-based and meat reduction motivators.

Pret's Curried Chickpea & Mango Wrap

Source: Pret

Curried Chickpea & Mango Wrap

The spice is right

There remains a huge market in the UK for familiar sandwich fillings such as sausage & egg, chicken mayo, and cheese & onion. However, operators are pushing the boat out when it comes to limited-edition launches as they look to inspire more impulse purchases with innovative flavours.

Among the Pret NPD unveiled in April were options to appease both Western and Eastern palates, from the Veggie New Yorker Bloomer and the Spicy Salami Toastie, to the Curried Chickpea & Mango Wrap and the Korean-Style Chicken & Slaw Wrap.

“One constant in the sandwich market is the demand for new flavours, fresh ingredients and great variety, which is exactly what we tried to achieve with our latest spring menu,” said Katherine Bagshawe, Pret A Manger’s UK food & coffee director. “Inspired by global cuisines, our aim was to bring new and exciting products to customers here in the UK.”

Greggs and Costa both launched Cajun-style rolls or wraps, while the spice game played out at supermarkets too, with Tesco recently rolling out items including a Chipotle Chicken Sandwich, a Fire Pit Smoky BBQ Chicken Sub, and a Fajita Chicken Wrap.

Pret Made Simple value range of sandwiches 2100x1400

Source: Pret

A selection of low-cost sandwiches from Pret’s Made Simple range

Paying attention to value

The cost-of-living crisis sees consumers becoming increasingly value led and looking to minimise spend by trading down to low-cost retail options like sandwiches for lunch.

Price gained in importance as a purchase factor for consumers – up seven percentage points year-on-year according to Lumina Intelligence data – in particular for staple and on-the-go items.

Value-for-money initiatives included Pret launching its Made Simple range of low-priced sandwiches in January, and more recently extending its subscription service to offer a 10% discount on food items. Options for meal deals at Tesco were expanded earlier this week, with the supermarket also reintroducing its Premium Meal Deal (£5.50 compared to the standard £3.90 meal deal).

“With the cost-of-living crisis continuing to impact people across the country, another trend we’re seeing is a focus on value,” adds Pret Bagshawe. “That’s why we have introduced new products and deals that give customers more choice and value for money, whilst ensuring our freshly made food and delicious tasting products are not compromised.”

A girl gives her father a sandwich to bite into

Source: Getty Images

Sharing the sandwich love

Rather than being a purely solitary activity, MealTrak research revealed that almost half (47%) of food-to-go occasions were in fact shared with someone else, considered a huge part of the eating-out experience. This included those working from home, illuminating an ‘area which could hold real potential’, according to The Sandwich & Food To Go Association.

Another interesting trend was consumers becoming more promiscuous in where they purchased their food on the move.

“Shoppers are engaging more widely with where they get their sandwiches,” noted Greencore’s Parton, claiming the average number of outlets visited per month had risen from nine in 2020 to 11. “Whether it’s from supermarkets, convenience stores, coffee shops, or forecourts, consumers are becoming more open-minded.”

MealTrak data for the 52-week period to 20 March 2023 has Subway and Greggs as the top sandwich sellers, with both chains holding an 11.7% market share. They were followed by Tesco (9.9%), Costa (7.5%), M&S (7.5%), and Pret (6%).