Sainsbury’s has taken a radical step with the opening of its new freshly-made sandwich bar format, Fresh Kitchen. Nellie Nichols went along to see how the new concept measures up against the very best.
Nearly twenty years ago, the walk from Temple tube station to Fleet Street used to be part of my daily journey to and from work.
The route took me through the myriad of ancient beautiful buildings housing the chambers of our legal great and good, past the oldest Mulberry tree I know, overtaking along the way the clerks on their way to Court, weighed down by their boxes of files. This series of paths made up of the oldest of paving stones, worn into marvellous crazy shapes by decades of legal treading, took all of ten minutes to walk and brought me directly to the door of Pret’s new second head office. The first had been irretrievably damaged by the Bishopsgate bomb.
Today I am walking this same walk again and little has changed: the Mulberry tree is still in fine fettle, the gardens as perfectly manicured, perhaps the clerks a little better off for their trolleys, and I can’t help wondering as I look up before turning onto Fleet Street, who may be sitting at this very moment in my old office on the first floor.
If you had told me all those years ago I would be coming today to visit the new Sainsbury’s concept of freshly-made-on-site sandwiches, I wouldn’t have believed a word of it, but, to be honest, I’ve recently thought it was only a matter of time before one of the retailers tried their hand at it.
After all, can it be that difficult to prepare an extensive range of handmade delicious, fresh sandwiches in an on-site kitchen delivered straight onto the shelves?
I have to say I’ve always been one for first impressions. Call me impetuous; I call it having good old fashioned gut instinct – instinct of right, wrong, good and bad. Am I loving it? Does it feel right? Do I want to be here, do I want to get in there and buy the products; will I be ripping open packets as soon as I leave? We’ll see.
I’m met by order, functionality and a good modern everyday design it’s hard not to like. Lots of black tiles, slate-like on the floor and shiny brick-like on the walls, with wooden panels to soften it all off and retro-style hanging glass lamps. Impulse purchases create the queue gangways. The counter is sectioned into a small efficient hot food area and another for display. Credit card machines line the glass shelf. There’s a beautiful big close up photograph of a bacon roll – very enticing. So far, so good.
The fridges take up an entire wall. There is a multiple choice in the drinks category, not just Sainsbury’s own label but many others are here as well. But this is clever stuff because the average price of the Sainsbury’s drinks is well below a lot of their competitors’. They are retailing 750ml of water for £1.19, versus £1.50 in many outlets. Their smoothies and juices are only £1.29 against the standard £2.00 mark. Even their bananas are 19p when probably half of Fleet Street is selling them for 50p. This is competitive relevant stuff which matters in these hard times.
I’m wanting to buy most of the range of sandwiches and wraps and I’m assuming, as it’s well after 9am, they would all be out and lined up on the shelves like soldiers. But many are still being made, and when I ask the lovely lady who has rushed from behind the counter to help me on how long it’s going to take, the worrying reply is half an hour.
She goes on to explain that all the sandwiches are made by hand, in large batches and they all take time. Perhaps this range is just a little too big and complex if it’s still being struggled with a few hours after opening, but the extensive shelf space is there and has to be filled. It crosses my mind to tell her how to fix it and then I stop because they are working to their system which is none of my business really and it’s not why I’m here.
What is apparent when I look at what’s already on the shelves is the totally different bread. Instantly I can see this is far from the norm – I’m sensing a more open texture to the sliced in the wedges, which are also sporting the most glorious caramel colour. I later discover there’s an extra nice surprise as its crusts are embellished with delicious seeds.
The bloomers, cut in half and packed one on top of the other, show a fluffiness and a freshness which looks too good to eat. Now I’m excited because, if we are completely honest, sandwich bread is without doubt one of the hardest components to get consistently right. Time and again I find it dry, misshapen and cored, and a sad and disappointing accompaniment to its filling. Here they are baking on site and making sandwiches with bread so fabulously fresh it must be close on impossible to match.
So what of the sandwiches I hear you cry? Well, there is an extensive roll call of choice and they are without doubt good value. All the ones I tried were under £3, with the exception of the duck wrap at £3.49, and even some under £2. The Egg & Cress is carefully made with a layer of sliced egg in it but the egg mayo seems to have no seasoning at all and is totally bland.
The Tuna Salad again looks nice but the tuna mix is sloppy and wet and again is crying out for some seasoning to lift it up. The King Prawn is a good attractive sandwich made with rocket but I would have liked some tastier prawns.
The bloomers are without doubt my favourites because of the wonderful bread. The Chicken Bacon and Avocado is as tasty as it comes and is made with some lovely baby leaves. Here is an opportunity to get away with using such fragile produce with no impending shelf life to break them down. The Mozzarella Tomato and Pesto is deliciously basil tasting and without doubt one of the best I’ve tried in a long while.
Onto the wraps and the Chicken Avocado and Bacon has some fabulous fiery salsa in it, but strangely, I can’t find any bacon in it which is weird. I love the Falafel Humous and Carrot one, which must be a top vegetarian seller. The Duck Wrap is filled to the brim with grated carrot and odd half-moon slices of cucumber with no middles, neither of which are for me. I’m not sure why there are two different cuts of cucumber, as there is also a whole sliced version in the Tuna Baguette, yet neither of them are visible so I don’t see the point. Surely this is adding complexity to the kitchen it can ill afford?
There are two bagels, a Smoked Salmon and the one I’m trying: the New Yorker made with pastrami, sliced gherkins and mustard mayo. A good blokey bagel, lovely and edible, not chewy as they so often are.
I’m curious as to why all the baguettes are out so early, knowing the temperature of the fridges will uncrisp them in no time at all. When I get mine home, a Tuna and Cucumber, it has become more than quite chewy – I wonder why they aren’t put out later in the morning.
At lunchtime the whole counter morphs into a hot food station and this is where Sainsbury’s, with their huge knowledge of hot food, comes into its own. Cottage Pie, Lasagnes and Curries, Hot Roasts which can be put in rolls or taken with salads, the range changes everyday, offering choice and value that’s hard to challenge. This is yet another strong point of difference and feather in their cap that’s difficult to match.
I have to say I’ve always been one for first impressions. Call me impetuous; I call it having good old fashioned gut instinct – instinct of right, wrong, good and bad. Am I loving it? Does it feel right?
So here’s what I think, and please bear in mind this is just my humble opinion, for what it’s worth. On many fronts I think Fresh Kitchen is a very clever concept offering great choice, value and convenience – without doubt a model that will expand across the city with great success. But is it a good copy of the freshly made on site sandwich King? I don’t think it even comes close..
The bread is well ahead, but the fillings for me seriously lack seasoning and that magic sprinkling of interest and deliciousness. Don’t get me wrong, they are nice enough sandwiches and there is undoubtedly something there for everyone.
But I was hoping for more generously filled packs, a little more bulging, perhaps an extra handful of leaf. There is more than enough room here for a shelf of guest appearances of special ingredients and recipes; some sandwiches and wraps of the week. Above all, I see an opportunity for far more flair, imagination and innovation.
Whilst there will always be a place for the tuna and egg mayos of this world, everyone likes a surprise or two and in the current competitive sandwich market that, in my view, is what the consumer now comes to expect. Get this right Sainsbury’s and you will be far closer on those royal heels.
77 Fleet Street, LONDON, EC4Y 1HY