Bringing Home The Bacon

Benugo has been at the forefront of innovation and excellence ever since the first sandwich bar opened in 1998. Now a vast empire, turning over £82m this year and enjoying massive growth, particularly since merging with Baxter Story, it continues to uphold those founding values. Nellie Nichols talks to co-founder Ben Warner at his newly-opened store in Hanover Street, London.

Benugo counter

It all started with the bacon cooking, closely followed by Kit Kats and then Marmite. As the story goes, once upon a time in the very early days of Pret, Ben Warner went into the Victoria Street shop and asked Sinclair Beecham, co-founder (at that time working behind the counter), if he would be interested in his deliciously crispy cooked bacon.

The answer was of course yes, and soon the supply included not only Ben’s mouth-watering crispy bacon but also tender and juicy Minty Lamb and spicy Coronation Chicken.

Benugo plateAs I recall, the Minty Lamb sandwich became iconic for the early Pret regulars, but in the years that followed and to this day it seems to have proved impossible to reproduce to the same quality anywhere in the land.

One thing led to another, as it often does in life, and before long Ben had two Pret shops in Whitecross Place and Islington … the very short-lived Pret franchise days were upon us in the early nineties evolution of Pret. It fell to me to try and keep continuity and quality standards consistent amongst them all, a simple enough remit you would imagine, and everyone was good as gold with the exception of naughty Ben.

First there were Kit Kats – apparently they sold like hot cakes. Then there was toast. With the toast came a selection of spreads. Marmite proved very, very popular. I think I recall many marmalades and jams.

Why, I recall Ben challenging charmingly each week he popped in to Head Office, were these high sellers not acceptable in Pret? You see, he had a nose for what was right and wrong in a customer offering and look where it’s got him now?

Fast forward to 2014. The days of toast and Marmite at Pret a distant memory for most of us, but Ben and I have kept in touch in the passing years through all sorts of change for both of us and here he sits before me, as charming as ever, a little older as I am, but without a line on his charismatic face.

It appears he simply doesn’t entertain any form of stress. Whatever the magic potion is I wish I could have some. I’m spending a fortune on potions and lotions and my skin isn’t within a country mile of his.

We’re sitting on stools in the newly-opened store in Hanover Street. Baby shuttered studio lights cover the low ceiling and the shelves are filled with giant cucumber tins (‘we use a lot of cucumbers’), a pet hate of mine, being a much over-used cheap decoration I think in sandwich shops and casual dining.

My latte is taken away from me and replaced with one in a proper cup, (‘the only china we have now’) and very nice is it too – the beans, I am informed, coming all the way from Nicaragua. There is a bit too much of a feeling of clutter perhaps for me all over the shop, in the way of newspapers, magazines and stuff but it all goes towards an overall warmth and friendliness.

Benugo wrapsThe Benugo empire, following the merger with contract caterer Baxter Storey in 2007, is now vast, turning over £82m this year and enjoying massive growth. Bursting onto the high street with the first shop in Clerkenwell in 1998, to a total of eleven today and counting, Benugo shops have been joined by public spaces in leading London museums including the British, Victoria & Albert, Science, Natural History, the Ashmolean in Oxford and National Museums in Scotland to name but a few.

Its in-house catering services provide for many leading banks, accountancy and law firms, along with advertising agencies including Nomura, Deutsche Bank, Ernst & Young, Pfizer, PWC and Deloitte. Their events business Clerkenwell Green provides high end catering.

An impressive number of restaurants add to the portfolio, spread across stunning London locations including the Serpentine, the Cellarium in the 14th century storehouse of Westminster Abbey, the Fields Bar & Kitchen in Lincolns Inn, the Riverfront Bar & Kitchen on the Southbank, Benugo Bar & Grill at the British Film Institute – the list is without doubt far beyond the realms of impressive.

Their Hanover Street shop opened a few months ago and will be joined by another in Victoria next week, along with being awarded the contract for Regents Park, and now there is even a charitable not for profit members only club in Soho, the House of St Barnabus, set up to get London’s homeless back to work where, Ben tells me proudly, Charles Dickens had an office and wrote The Tale of Two Cities.

Stepping back momentarily from the description of this vast domain requires catching my breath. To logistically maintain true good food across this empire surely needs an army, and this one is now 2,200 people strong.

Benugo even has its own learning centre which goes above and beyond the ever important health and safety. It also importantly teaches and innovates across the entire team; there are English classes, wine tastings, courses to teach how to cook, Barista training and latte art.

Ben is keen I mention names. He says he is nothing without his team: Guy Kellner his MD, with an impressive track record in Hilton Hotel, the Wardorf Astoria, and as Senior VP of Restaurant Associates in the US, has recruited the many excellent people to the team, including a fleet of operations managers. He believes Guy is responsible for picking up the pace and injecting the energy the group needed to forge ahead.

Food preparationAnd with Ben sitting before me is Peter Keeble, his Head of Food for the high street, with another track record of great repute as developer for food service and suppliers to Marks & Spencer. Peter, who I have worked with in the past is, in my estimation one of the best developers out there at the moment and one of Ben’s many secret weapons in innovation.

Then there is the massive support from the rest of the team, so vast they held their annual awards ceremony the night before to thank and reward them all.

Scour their menus and you will be hard pushed to find a time of day or a dish not catered for. Whatever your heart and stomach desires it’s here somewhere, a Willie Wonker smorgasbord of deliciousness from every breakfast known to man: the Florentine, the Benedict, porridges and granolas to the full English, a bacon muffin and delicious handmade smoothies. Salads, burgers, pies, wood fired pizzas, hot and cold sandwiches, small plates, tapas, charcuterie and cheese plates abound.

Everything from lamb shanks to suckling pig, haggis to fishcakes, casseroles to risottos, fillets of cod to fish pies. Delicious ingredients: acorn fed Pata Nagra ham, smoked duck, razor clams, roasted beets, spiced chicken wings and oh yum, a pint of homemade sausage rolls.

Then there’s brunch, and full afternoon tea with a huge choice of handmade cakes from their own bakery, I could blissfully eat my way to death around their menus for the rest of my days on earth.

The template for all this success is that the food that they sell is the food everyone will always want to eat. No pretentiousness here, no foams and dribbles and smears of sauces, just good value, brasserie style food with a magic sprinkle of just the right amount of imagination and style.

Peter is impatiently trying to show me some of the best sellers along with his new Spring products. There’s a Super Salmon Salad with broad, French and Edamame beans, peas, broccoli, radish, cucumber, quinoa and fresh herbs with a lemon dill and crème fraiche dressing. Good value at £4.95 and at least five of my five a day. I could have done with a little more Hot Smoked Salmon but aside from that, a lovely healthy lunch.

The New Yorker comes from the Deli Counter, one of the Benugo ever popular hot sandwich combos and Peter is describing in minute detail how a whole dark caraway ciabatta is toasted and then cut to reveal the turkey, bacon, gruyere, tomato and Dijon mayo tucked inside with what he disconcertingly calls a clinical edge.

What I’m loving more than anything is the bread, with the crispest thinnest crust I’ve ever come across, that shatters with every bite to reveal feather softness inside. In the vast and commercially driven food world we live in, it’s as rare as hen’s teeth to come across such a first class bread as this.

Benugo shopfrontThere are two wraps I’m trying: a Middle Eastern Meze packed with falafel, houmous, tzatziki, feta, chargrilled red and yellow peppers and rocket, a very tasty but possibly slightly busy eat; but the one I love the most is the Very Veggie Wrap. It’s a feat in itself to get not only chargrilled courgettes, red onions, Babaganoush, Harissa houmous and broccoli, as well as shredded carrot, red cabbage and fire roasted peppers, into a wheat bran wrap, ensuring each bite is as interesting as the next. One thing I hate about wraps is that halfway through you are often overcome with boredom and the dryness of it all, not to mention the lack of goodies … this one bucks the trend.

I’ve purposely left what I’m betting is the best till last: Marrakech Chicken Salad, which also comes in a wrap version. Maybe because I’m off there in a couple of weeks, but the bright jewel-like colours of the Ras El Hanout spiced chicken, the red pepper tapenade and the Piquillo peppers, decorated with raisins, mint, smoked almonds, cucumber and spinach are morphing me to the smoke, spices and smells of all the food stalls that pop up at night in Marrakech’s Jemaa El Fna market square.

Then, just to give it its crowning glory, it’s got the most delicious dressing made with lemon and cumin, well worth sticking in a bottle and selling on the counter.

And now I’m being more than encouraged to try the contents of the enormous box of cakes beside me on the table, even though I’m repeatedly telling Peter I have to go to a lunch meeting. But it seems a shame not to try and couple of them. So off I go with the Apricot and Lavender Tart (could do with far more lavender) and my favourite, Wild Berry treat, which is sweet and sugary with that fantastic cheek-sucking contrast of sharp berries to balance it.

So, now all I want to ask Ben is what he thinks he gets so right, and his answer is as surprising as his Wild Berry treat. Nothing, he says … because everything could always be better.

What of the future I ask: what is the five-year plan? His next answer I love even more. He says he could give me lots of strategy but to be completely honest, ‘we sort of make it up as we go along’.

He and the team have just been through re branding and let’s face it, the number of loyal customers is huge. But at the end of the day, it comes down to making everything easier, which is far from a pushover bearing in mind the business’s complexity.

It’s very difficult to make money when everything except the customer is against you, he says. Sometimes it almost feels like running a charity for the landlords, councils and utilities. From where I’m standing, if I might be so bold, I would want to see far more food marketing to highlight his many points of product difference: his own bakery making its own delicious cakes and tarts, his daily freshly-made smoothies and his bespoke breads. He is, after all, able to do what so many others simply don’t or even better can’t.

But the product is excellent, the staff are very good and Benugo has a great uniqueness. Ben believes the brand has immense character and is far removed from the blanket stereotypical chains on the corner of every street. He says he is very fortunate to be part of it and to have his own name in the title. Proud he says is not a word he likes to use.

Benugo website: