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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Wysome

The most important meal of the day for London retailers



"To eat well in England you should have breakfast three times a day.” - W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)

For the last few months I’ve been working in London for 3 days a week, staying in a hotel fairly centrally.  Whilst outside of the day job I’m hardly running a packed social agenda, most weeks I’ll be looking to catch up with someone.  In those romantic youthful pre-Covid days the default expectation would have been drinks and possibly dinner after work; failing that a rushed coffee during the day.  However, right now I have to confess that my go to preference (and that of an increasing number of my friends and acquaintances) has become breakfast.

 

Why does this suit me?  Well I’m a middle aged father of two young children who is conditioned to waking up offensively early and drinking less than ever before.  Won’t expound but I would also admit that an evening of steak and red wine may impact on the quality of my (much prized) sleep and frankly if I don’t return from London to Shropshire in decent condition I know that my next 8 hour shift is several days off.  I’ve therefore found that the loner’s alternative (an M&S salad in the hotel library, Netflix, sleep) followed by taking my calories and drugs (caffeine) at 8am the following morning works very well for me.

 

I’m pretty certain I’m not alone either.  Currently there’s a spate of articles being written about how much duller London is becoming in the evening with numerous hypotheses (cost of living, the young not drinking, working from home etc).  All may be true - but allow me my additional theory  - when it comes to eating out these days, breakfast gives dinner a serious run for its money.

 

This certainly wasn’t always the case.  I am a child of the 80s who was brought up on a conventional British breakfast.  No - my mother didn’t get up every morning to produce the full English that 15th century shooting parties filled up on.  Instead we made do with the self-service delights of sugary breakfast cereal (thought then to be healthy - presumably relative to a full English), white toast (also thought then to be healthy) and Golden Shred marmalade (thought then to be politically correct).  It wasn’t uncommon for my brother and I to repeat the meal (at least the cereal part) in the mid-evening too.

 

Ifyou wanted to eat breakfast out in the 80s it was greasy spoon and a cup of tea all the way.  It is something to reflect on that as recently as the 1950s, 50% of Britain was starting their day with this near compulsory artery blocker (along in all likelihood with Benson & Hedges or two) and yet most were still thinner and nimbler than we are today.  Whilst the Full English numbers had declined substantially by the 1990s when I began working in London, the eat-out options hadn’t moved on all that far.

 

So I’m glad to report that in the last 30 years, much progress has been made - perhaps more than we sometimes appreciate.  As with our evening restaurants, our breakfast options now represent our own take on many of the best global inspirations and an ongoing raising of the bar.

 

The point of this article is not to provide an extensive food review but it is worth perhaps a quick look at where we’ve come from and to which is what I did recently in The Brunswick Centre in Bloomsbury.  In the 1990s I used to play 5 a side football here and in 2006 the Waitrose that anchors the centre opened as I joined the company myself.  One way or another I’ve been a pretty regular visitor for about 25 years.  Over that time I think I can now identify “4 or 5 ages of breakfast” - all of which are to some degree still on display.  Chronologically they look (to me) something like this….

 

1. The Catalyst

We have to hand it to them - Starbucks really started it.  In the late 1990s but they and their immediate emulators (Costa, Nero) did two things critical to this story:

 

  1. Created the mass coffee habit that gave us all reason to buy something in the morning

  2. Added a food offer that wasn’t a patch on the coffee - thus leaving an opportunity for others

 

Both are still on display in the Brunswick Centre today.  The edge they brought 30 years ago has long been replaced by consistency and simplicity, the coffee’s the same and sadly so is the food.  I’m still a user.

 

HOW IT FELT IN THE EARLY DAYS: REVOLUTIONARY

HOW IT FEELS TODAY: ROUTINE

 

2. The Early Adopters

In the early 2000s my “on the move” breakfast choice was invariably Pret.  Again, it seems humdrum these days but Pret’s modest versions of Bavarian hotel breakfast staples (bircher muesli, granola, croissants etc) were an enjoyable new option at the time along with the more traditional options (porridge, bacon roll) and the lazy narcissist special (a hard boiled egg).   40 yards along is Leon - another who pioneered breakfast food around that time.  It’s always been Pret for me but both were definitely key in getting decent non-greasy breakfast food from trusted sources out there.  Both are still ticking over in the Brunswick - Pret having aged rather better.  However, in both cases their days of youthful innovation seem long gone. 

 

HOW IT FELT IN THE EARLY DAYS: FRESH

HOW IT FEELS TODAY: STALE

 

3. The Globalists

Since the early 2000s, the world really has come to breakfast in London.  Aussies with their avocados and Flat Whites.  Dishoom with their famous Bombay cafe feast.  Ole & Steen with their Scandi Bakery.  Daisy Green, Where the Pancakes are, the list continues.  Whilst none of these are anywhere near as ubiquitous as those listed above, together they are having a huge effect on the quality of offer available.  The unanswered question for me is are these the best the world has to offer or simply the advance force?

 

HOW IT FELT IN THE EARLY DAYS: NOVEL   

HOW IF FEELS TODAY: NORMAL

 

 

4. The Youthful Coat-tailers

My underthumbed Kotler university textbook was right.  Almost everyone who starts out exciting eventually makes it to cash cow status - to be followed and sometimes usurped by the next generation.  Let’s face facts - Roasting Plant and Grind make better coffee than Starbucks (or anyone else much) and Blank Street’s app beats the old guys hands down.  Sitting in Gail’s is usually much nicer than sitting in Pret or Costa or Starbucks or almost anyone else.  In most of these cases the innovation isn’t scintillating but there’s a niche or new channel there that is enriching the experience one way or another

 

HOW IT FELT IN THE EARLY DAYS: WE’RE STILL IN THEM


5. The Hope

1 minute from the Brunswick, In a classic London mews just behind Russell Square tube is Fortitude Bakehouse.  6 years old and created by owners who came from organic food and Monmouth Coffee it is billed as specialising in sweet and savoury craft baking.  My advice - just join the queue, take in the theatre of the production and eat.  The benches outside are usually populated by groups of cyclists - the simple reason being the quicker you can burn off the calories, the quicker your conscience allows you to ride back and join the queue again.

 

The breakfast options here are limited but magnificent, the coffee delicious and frankly there is nothing else to report.  It’s enough to ruin a million French holidays - two weeks of missing this for a daily croissant in the Dordogne would have you pining to get back to work.

 

So, all very tasty but is there a point to this ramble?  Well maybe?  What’s interesting about the progress above is that it’s arriving at a rate similar to Moore’s Law on microchips.  Everything is getting better at a faster and faster rate.  It took close to 20 years to get from catalyst to globalists but since then things have come on apace and may well continue….

 

..for in addition to the benefits of a market shifting from evening to morning it’s clear things aren’t yet optimal.  Despite being much happier with the choice I have, I still can’t quite get all my favourite bits together.  I confess I actually prefer Starbucks or Nero coffee to many other options but do I want to combine my Americano with faded decor and a food offer that still doesn’t really try?  I like sitting in a Gail’s or an Ole and Steen but in there I will pine for the freshness and activity of Fortitude.  And even though Fortitude provides food from the Gods I’m not especially keen on consuming it outside on a bench populated by lycra clad Mamils.  Dishoom and Daisy Green are great if planning ahead for a breakfast meeting but despite or perhaps because of their excellence it feels like there’s room for more.

 

So where does this go next?  Will coffee shops discover decent food, Gail’s offer up more varied  furniture, Pret swank up their upstairs and downstairs space, luxury hotels make it easier to pop in for a great start to the day?  Which part of the world will bring their breakfast to London next? 

 

This is a market to watch.  London is about to become a breakfast city and if (like man) there are 7 ages of breakfast, we surely have more to come.  I for one think that’s Grr-rrrr-eat!

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