Spotlight on Waitrose Sandwiches

Self-confessed Waitrose groupie Nellie Nichols checks out the sandwich offer and finds that the expanding quality chain is ‘missing a big trick’.

The Scottish must be in seventh heaven. Firstly smoking is banned and now after thirty three years of John Lewis trading in Scotland, Waitrose is to open there, initially with two shops in Edinburgh. I can remember not so long ago when you could only find a Waitrose store in London and if ever I told anyone living outside of town I shopped there there would be a sigh of resignation laced with envy.

But Waitrose have consistently continued their move into new trading regions and now, with the acquisition of stores from Somerfield and Morrisons, are opening as far North as Derby and Scotland in support of their strategy in becoming a national supermarket brand. These stores, opening in June will bring their total number to 179. I have to confess I am a Waitrose groupie. If they didn’t exist I would refuse to go to a supermarket at all.

Their quality is exemplary; their range of products is innovative, seasonal, exciting and forever changing, and their own label is not some dumbed-down cheapie version of another brand. Sad though it is, I am well known in my local branch, where I greet so many of the staff by name and shopping there each week is a pleasure. Recently it became a serious challenge when for several weeks the layout was changed every single Saturday in a bid to redesign the shop and improve efficiency.

Trolleys crashed at every turn with pushchairs as bewildered shoppers cried out to be redirected to where the yoghurt and frozen peas were now located. There was even mayhem in the wine department, a particularly hazardous trolley turning area. In amongst this disruption the only thing that appeared to be rooted to the spot was the sandwich fixture. I have to say the sandwiches at Waitrose have never attracted me in the same way as everything else. No provenance, no beautiful packaging, no umph. I have always believed it better to leave well alone when surrounded by so many other goodies. But there’s always been a bit of a doubt in the back of my mind – perhaps they are totally in keeping with the Waitrose ethos?

The Perfectly Balanced range claims less than 3% fat and no compromise on taste, portion size or ingredient quality – a tall order in sandwich terms. The Tzatziki Chicken, £2.10 and 270 cals, sounded interesting and promising but the bread was badly cored around the edges and should never have got as far as the production line. The cucumber, tomato and red onion had been shredded into shrapnel and were all very dry as if all water had been sucked out of them.

Everything was in the middle of the bread. Most worryingly there was a strange burning sensation the sandwich left you with I couldn’t identify. The Wiltshire Ham and Tomato, £1.80, 255 cals, is a difficult one to get wrong and the ham is very good. But still there is far too much bare bread around it; even when they do hit the mark they still miss the edges. Under the Half Fat claim I tried the Prawn Mayonnaise, £1.40 and 310 cals.

The prawns were juicy as described but again concentrated in the centre of the bread leaving bare edges and the mayo was unnecessarily sweet. Under their Delicatessen Range are a couple of triple packs I tried. These are without doubt very good value. Cheddar & Tomato, Cheddar & Red Onion and Egg and Cress is £1.90 and Prawn Mayo, Tuna & Sweetcorn and Red Salmon & Cucumber, £2.20. All these were tasty enough. I do think the cheddar could have been a little less bland but aside from that all nine pieces of it in the red onion version were, yet again, right on the bull’s eye in the middle. Moving on to the Bistro range in its strikingly wasp coloured packaging of ochre yellow and black.

The Greek Salad, £2.10, is made with very tasty strong Feta and a delicious Yoghurt & Mint mayo, sadly though it contains the same tomato, cucumber and onion shrapnel. This doesn’t need shredding. The Spicy Honduran King Prawn Naan, £2.90, has huge potential. The prawns are delicious, the mayo made with mango, lime and chilli is very good indeed but the Dolly Mixture diced pieces of Mango were falling out everywhere which was a real shame and a waste. It was a very inspired idea to think of fitting a naan into a skillet but sadly this was not a naan as I know it and was bone dry.

The Mozzarella and Roasted Tomato Wrap, £2.70, I thought was a little pricey for a vegetarian wrap. It tasted good though. The Sweet Chilli Chicken Wrap was strangely cheaper at £2.50. The construction of this one was such that you need to have a very large mouth indeed to be able to get all the flavours in one bite. Also very over complicated in its makeup, it involves not only Sweet Chilli Sauce, a Coconut and Lime marinade, a Thai Green Curry mayo and a Thai Green curry paste but also Soy sauce. I guarantee it’s possible to achieve exactly the same taste result, but more likely a better one, with half the ingredients. The Roast Chicken and Pesto with roast garlic mayo on a tomato and basil bloomer, £2.70, was very good and definitely the most enjoyable and simplest of all the products I tried.

The sandwiches I tried are unexceptional and I am predictably disappointed. Spreading ingredients to the edges and not dolloping them all in the middle is an issue I see again and again and just needs everyone’s focus. Slower line speeds and more QA is the only antidote to bare dry crusts. Simpler recipes with fewer sub recipes benefit everyone from the guys in Prep who have to put them all together, to the very important bottom line where they will result in lower labour. Less ingredients and less complicated development naturally translate into cleaner labelling with fewer stabilisers and preservatives.

There appears to be a move to more complicated products which isn’t working in tandem with the growing desire by most customers to sell clean label sandwiches. I think my gut feeling was right and Waitrose are missing a big trick with their sandwich range. At their door are some inspiring and wonderful ingredients, ripe with provenance and imagination and all with a quality you know you can rely on. Yet for some reason this isn’t reflected in their sandwiches which stand apart, disjointed, an appendage. With a little fairy dust these could be so envied in the market, forever linked and intertwined with all their growers and producers, seasonality, and great British food. Here’s hoping they take up the challenge and change.

Download this article as a PDF HERE (2.1Mb)