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Artisan bakeries are on the rise – but Greggs has a roll to play too

The baked good behemoth has conquered the high street and left other bakeries fighting for crumbs from the table

Against the backdrop of the Second World War, an empire was slowly being built – out of eggs and yeast.

John Gregg set out on his pushbike in Newcastle in 1939 to deliver his fresh ingredients to local families. His enterprise survived the conflict and rationing, flourishing enough to allow him to open his own store in 1951, Greggs of Gosforth, which still stands today.

From there, the rise to a baked-good behemoth has reshaped the high street and left many bakers fighting for the crumbs from the table.

The journey from that one store up to the 1,900-plus on the streets of the UK began in earnest with John’s sons Ian and Colin, who aggressively expanded by buying bakery chains in Scotland, Manchester, Yorkshire and more in the 1960s.

The tactic worked – there’s now a Greggs for every 34,500 people in the UK and it provides a job for 22,000 people.

And the sausage roll – their, erm, bread and butter – is the most popular lunchtime snack across the country, with five gobbled up every second and a staggering 145 million sold every year.

That’s not just in the north – you can even grab a pasty on The Strand nowadays.

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But the northern ties remain strong, and that inspired student news site The Tab to use the firm as a measure of northernness last year. Their data assessed the number of people per Greggs store across the country and re-sited Hadrian’s Wall based on whether there was more or less than 25,000 people for each one. Manchester led the way with just 10,500 people per Greggs while Birmingham scraped through on 24,500. That meant northernness was redefined with a new wall sitting diagonally from Lincoln to just north of Gloucester. As for the top population per bakery? It was London at 92,000.

It’s not just the city centres that are filling up with Greggs – in 2013 they launched a frozen range and the first of many drive-through stores popped up in Salford four years later, quickly spreading across the UK.

When John Gregg first wheeled out his pushbike, the idea that his tiny food business could grow into a mammoth public company posting the £81.8m profits they reported last year would have been pie in the sky. That was a rise of two per cent while sales were up seven per cent to £960m.

In fact, it seems only Mother Nature can stand in the way of the pasty-propelled empire – the company blamed the wintry weather brought by the Beast from the East for their weak performance in the first quarter of this year, taking a 15 per cent bite out of their share price in May.

Image: Tejvan Pettinger/Flickr