Packaged Sandwiches: US vs. UK

In the US, packaged sandwiches – and by this, I specifically mean those that come in the triangular boxes – are the lowest form of cuisine there is. People typically only eat them if there are no other food options. It’s the kind of thing you’d eat if you’re stuck in an airport at 4am and all the restaurants are closed, or if your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, the nearest diner is 50 miles away, and packaged sandwiches are all the service station has to eat.

The sandwiches always seem half stale, are thin on the ingredients, and usually only come in three or four flavors: ham and cheese, baloney and cheese, tuna or chicken salad (and maybe, if you’re in the South, pimento cheese). Honestly, the only people I’ve seen that eat these poor little sandwiches on a regular basis are construction workers and people on the go all the time, like messengers or delivery people. I’m 37 years-old, and it’s always been this way here in the US, at least in my lifetime.

In the UK, on the other hand, people seem to eat these sandwiches all the time. And why not? They usually taste pretty fresh, and they come in a freakin’ galaxy of flavors. Here’s a short list of just a few of the flavors offered by Marks & Spencer, a single British retailer:

Aromatic Duck, B.L.T., British Ham & Cheddar, Chicken & Bacon, Chicken & Balsamic Roasted Tomatoes, Chicken & Stuffing, Chicken & Sweetcorn, Chicken, Avocado & Bacon, Coronation Chicken, Crayfish & Rocket, Egg & Bacon, King Prawn & Bacon Caesar, Poached Salmon, Red Salmon & Cucumber, Roast Beef & Horseradish, Sausage & Ketchup, Seafood Cocktail, Smoked Salmon & Cream Cheese

I can’t speak for the rest of the UK, but in London and Bath you can buy sandwiches just like these almost anywhere. Drug stores (chemists) sell them. Convenience stores (newsagents) sell them. Many department stores (like the aforementioned Marks & Spencer) sell them. And almost any time of the day, you can look around and see someone eating one of these sandwiches.

So, I guess my main question is… why?

How is it that the British get awesome packaged sandwiches, while those of us in the US are stuck with a “sandwich” that tastes like it was made 2 months ago and has one lousy slice of ham and one lousy slice of processed cheese?

Does America’s “car culture” lend itself to diners and fast food places, while hungry (but less motorized) Brits just walk over to their nearest newsagent for a snack?

Was there a gap between the “industrialization” of food production and the arrival of US-style fast food in the UK that was taken advantage of by British sandwich makers?

Did WWII rationing and hiding in bomb shelters cause the British to have a need for food that could be prepared quickly and cheaply, and not need reheating, thus leading to a “sandwich culture” of sorts?

Did America once have a large and vibrant “packaged sandwich industry” that fell by the wayside once fast food became commonplace, leaving to a few companies a niche market for gas stations and vending machines?

Look, I know that this is a pretty silly question in the grand scheme of things. But it’s been bothering me since my first trip to the UK in 2000. I was in the Marks & Spencer on Oxford Street looking at clothes when I accidentally stumbled across the Food Hall. I saw this giant display cooler – the length of which was similar to the coolers used to store beer in most US grocery stores – that was full of sandwiches in all kinds of flavors. I got a “Beef Wellington” sandwich, which was rare roast beef with paté and chopped mushrooms on top. It was damn delicious, and not just “pretty good for a packaged sandwich”, either. Since then I’ve wondered about the discrepancy.

I’m aware that many convenience stores here in the US have “gone upmarket” and now offer subs and panini. But not every place sells these. Every convenience store, on the other hand, seems to sell the triangular boxed sandwiches, though, even if they also sell the upmarket stuff.

Can anyone tell me why this is?

One Reply to “Packaged Sandwiches: US vs. UK”

  1. Prepacked sandwiches were a surprisingly late development in the UK that didn’t really exist until about 1980.

    American fast food was around but not nearly as proflific as it is today, and definitely nothing like that found in the USA at the time. McDonalds was here im the seventies, yet I came across it in about 1985. The lack of fast food is possibly one reason that allowed it to grow.
    Another possible reason is the American love of the Deli Counter. In England, if I am asking for a Pastrami, Brie snd English Mustard baguette, a Deli is likely to ask how much mustard or if I want pickles? In the USA, what I have observed is people are ever so specific about the quantity, thickness (possibly the religion and political persuasions) of every micro-inch of cheese, meat, garnish or piece of salad. That might be an exaggeration on my part, but I am speculating pre-packaged solution would never live up to some individual expectations.

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