Well Bread

The Earl of Sandwich could be looking at “a big pot of gold” with his new London sandwich bar, if some of the initial teething troubles are sorted out.

Opening of the Earl of Sandwich Restaurant

Founders Robert Earl and the Earl of Sandwich and his son Orlando Montagu at the opening of the Earl of Sandwich restaurant in Ludgate Hill

‘Going into trade’ was apparently one of the worst things an aristocrat could ever do, along with “buying your own furniture” as the late Tory politician Alan Clarke, who lived in the family castle said of a colleague Michael Heseltine, who did not.

Trading on one’s family name was probably another, but not according to the 11th Earl of Sandwich, one of the few hereditary peers who won the right to keep their seats when most were evicted by the government in 1999. In an interview in the House of Lords he stated he no longer felt this was perceived as being derogatory.

Interior of the Earl of Sandwich restaurant

Interior of the Earl of Sandwich restaurant

So, in 2004, following an abortive attempt to start a sandwich delivery business called Earl of Sandwich, ‘cashing in’ on it is exactly what the family decided to do. Orlando Montagu, the Earl’s son approached Robert Earl of Planet Hollywood fame for possible funding with the slightly cheesy sales pitch that, according to Robert Earl, went along the lines of “My father is an Earl, you are an Earl, I am an Orlando and you live in Orlando, let’s go into business”.

What followed was a thriving chain of fourteen franchised Earl of Sandwich outlets across the States in Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Texas in a variety of Disneyland’s, airports and Planet Hollywood.

Let’s face it the Americans love a bit of history and tend to find it quite captivating. Being English helps too as they love the accent (as long as they can understand it) and in less than a decade a brand has evolved on the back of a story about an Earl eating a sandwich at the gaming table, now nearly as well known a tale as the one about Snow White and her dwarfs.

It was only a matter of time, I always thought, before they tried their luck again back in Blightly and sure enough, in April this year The Earl of Sandwich opened in Ludgate Hill, in the shadow of St.Paul’s famous cathedral.

Serving what is claimed to be ‘The World’s Greatest Hot Sandwich,’ there are plans afoot to open half a dozen UK stores within two years. The main concept, according to Alex Garland, CEO for Europe, is “a hot fresh sandwich, made to order, prepared very fast”. He has big plans to “get it absolutely right, then we’ll be moving very fast”. All good promising stuff.

The 11th Earl of Sandwich

The 11th Earl of Sandwich

So I am prepared to be very impressed indeed by this UK venture, which unlike the US operation which is franchised, is owned by Robert Earl and the Montagu’s. After all “The World’s Greatest Hot Sandwich” is something I have yet to globally encounter and I am very much looking forward to experiencing it.

A big open store with a dark red façade, I am greeted by several black and red dressed team members eagerly waiting to serve me. Making myself known (honestly it’s becoming easier that way) the Manager, Claire comes to meet me. For the first time in my writing career I am asked to give my name and then in no uncertain terms to prove my identity (I produce my trusted Food Writers Guild Press card, the 2011 version of which, as luck would have it, only dropped on the doormat the other day).

I’m beginning to feel like I’m experiencing the sort of intense inquisition you only encounter at Passport Control in a far-flung dodgy airport when faced with the prospect of possibly finding yourself back on a plane home again at any minute for no apparent reason.

The methodology of the thirteen hot sandwiches is very straight forward. Place your order on the left which is imputed into a computer, get your print out numbered slip and walk along the counter to collect your sundry items on the way. On the right you collect and pay. Three minutes from start to finish. Thirty seconds in the preparation, two minutes in the travelling oven and another thirty seconds to be cut and wrapped. Sounds a doddle but I’m concerned already. It’s late morning and my order goes through like a knife through butter, and, as things are relatively quiet, the three minutes are only slightly exceeded.

Sitting down to wait for my sandwiches grey walls face me with a ‘Sandwich Charter’ on one (this isn’t the easiest of things to read across the store) next to exposed brickwork. There are many frames, some empty and many with paintings of previous Earls, all very ‘stately home’ and attractive.

The chairs are red and black with an American saloon feel which don’t quite work for me with the very modern steel stools. All the tables have generous containers of condiments on them ketchup, Frenchies mustard, English mustard, HP sauce, Tabasco, all a little redundant I decide when I later discover there are no hot fries – well worth putting on the menu I think.

My sandwiches arrive. They are attractively tightly wrapped in gold foil and sealed with a label. At first glance they look like a cross between a gold bar and a doorstop.

The three restaurant chain founders

The three restaurant chain founders

They feel substantial and look exciting. With the same expectation, it’s like unwrapping a Christmas present, only the ribbon is missing.

I’ve chosen to begin with The Original 1762. Claire, when I ordered this wanted to be quite sure I knew the relevance of the name. I suppose it could easily be read as being a little obtuse if you don’t know ‘the’ sandwich story.

Delicious rare and tender roast beef, mature cheddar and horseradish in an oblong roll which is part-baked and finished in the oven as the sandwich is heated. The roll has a thin crispy crust but I’m finding the overall texture is a little dry and a bit of a disappointing one.

The next I try is the Veggie: feta, lettuce, Roma tomatoes, cucumber and red onion with roasted red peppers and Mediterranean dressing. I’m envisaging experiencing warm and wilted lettuce and cucumber; this is a very brave move indeed to attempt to heat cold produce and I am hugely impressed that this works as well as it does. It’s a stunning hot take on a typical cold filling. The lettuce and cucumber remain unscathed and delicious, the feta gently melting.

I have to try The Earl’s Club, like The Original 1762 another of many registered and protected names. Roast turkey, smoked bacon, Swiss cheese, lettuce, Roma tomatoes and a sandwich sauce (I’m expecting something great but not really tasting this) here is a good and substantial eat for the very hungry appetite.

I have no idea of the calorific value of any of these and this information is not available in store or on the website which, in this day and age it should be.

They are enormous sandwiches and quite frankly I would be happy with a half. There is a good choice of fillings, though only two of the thirteen are vegetarian and only one fish. I think a better balance is needed.

When the store opened in April the sandwiches were £3.95 but since then some have risen to £4.45 and the rest have hiked up to £4.95. This is an expensive sandwich before you’ve even thought of buying a drink and a packet of crisps.

To increase the pricing so close to opening is again a brave move, and the reason given is VAT, though this was clearly payable right from the start.

From a marketing point of view I’m finding some of the names quite confusing. There is a thread that makes complete sense with the background of it all: The Original 1762, The Full Montagu, The Earl’s Club and so on, and yet there is no synergy with names such as Caribbean Jerk and Cannonballs, which go straight over my head anyway. Yet isn’t there is an opportunity with the Hawaiian BBQ – wasn’t Hawaii once called the Sandwich Islands?

Hot Sandwich from the Earl of Sandwich

A hot sandwich from the Earl of Sandwich

Lunchtime is getting closer and customers are arriving. This will be the acid test as to whether in my mind at least, this concept has legs for a UK roll out of the sort of calibre in mind. The first few go through and wait patiently for their sandwiches; they pay and are on their way in not much more than the three minutes. Behind them come more and wait, followed by even more and in no time there are quite a few customers waiting expectantly with their numbered order slips.

Possibly not factored into the process is some element of indecision. The time it takes to gaze at the menu board and decide on what to have; the time it takes to choose a drink, perhaps a dessert as well.

The queue to order is getting longer and the waiting area is fast resembling the mass of people in front of an easyJet ticket desk when a plane has been cancelled and no one is going anywhere. There are bottlenecks everywhere and no sign of the flow that is desperately needed to make customers happy and get them back again.

The team member on the ordering desk abandons it and resourcefully resorts to a pad of paper. He walks the queue patiently taking orders, returns to the computer, prints them all out and re-delivers them. Good on him but this system looks like it needs a re- think. Why not have two or three ordering points? The waiting area is getting full to bursting point and I can’t bear to watch anymore.

So here’s my synopsis. A great idea, a lot of teething problems. Slicker better and more efficient product make up is needed along with more ovens, more ordering points and more staff to cut and wrap. Anyone can work out that’s going to be painful on the labour side. The customers waiting need to be looked after, not left like lost souls, perhaps offered a free drink if the sandwich takes too long.

So it’s down to simplification of what goes into and how the sandwiches are made. When all this happens the Earl could be looking at a big pot of gold.