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This past January, while still jet-lagged and hopeful and giddy, despite trying to break in new Doc Martens on vacation, I finally got to step into a London dining establishment I’ve yet to forget: a Sainsbury’s grocery store. Yes, you read that correctly. The other fine places I dined in while going from London to Exeter to Edinburgh and back again included Tesco, Boots, Greggs, and Morrisons — all grocery stores and pharmacy chains.
You could spend an entire lifetime devising all the Meal Deal permutations you can create at one of these stores — a whole new Sliding Doors reality shift in each lunch. Do you go with a prawn-mayo, cheese and onion, chicken and bacon, or steak and chutney sandwich? The drinks and sides selections stretch out like a never-ending red carpet. How about a banana smoothie, Diet Coke Sublime Lime, or CBD soda to go with your Scotch egg, yogurt-cheesecake bar, or chips? What unites all of these deals across the retailers? They’re only between £3 and £5 total (so, between $3.79 and $6.31 USD).
The mere accessibility of the concept of Meal Deal immediately scrambled my silly American brain, with how democratizing the pricing and selection is. It’s a true every-person meal. You’ll regularly see students, executive types, and trade workers all waiting in line to grab the last shrimp and cucumber sandwich before continuing on with their respective days.
While the premade sandwiches first originated in Marks & Spencer stores in 1980, other grocers caught on quickly, with Boots stores being the first to sell them as part of a wider meal deal (i.e., along with a drink and a side). It has largely paid off, too. In 2017, the Meal Deal industry was worth eight billion pounds a year, with options widely available across the U.K. in most major grocers (as well as shops in train stations, airports, and chains, like Pret a Manger). According to The Guardian, more people in Britain were making and selling sandwiches than working in agriculture at the end of the 20th century.
The Meal Deal is part national identity, part astrological chart.
How you choose to build your particular Meal Deal says much about you. Last year, a journalist even published a compelling (and frighteningly accurate) roundup of what each Love Island U.K. contestant would get for their Meal Deal. In my case, I’m a vegetable halloumi wrap sun, with a vanilla Coke Zero moon, and prawn cocktail crisps rising (a bit business and a bit party).
It really is that deep, with many Brits associating and identifying with their preferred Meal Deal grocer, psychologists studying why shoppers always get the same Meal Deal, and popular Facebook groups and Instagram accounts where Meal Dealers can rate the combinations of others.
Over a third of U.K. citizens eat a Meal Deal at least once a week, and no matter what you choose, each combination is a moveable feast of British culture and identity, and a uniting force of efficiency. “The sandwich stopped being an afterthought, or a snack bought out of despair, and became the fuel of a dynamic, go-getting existence,” writes New Yorker staff writer Sam Knight in his piece “How The Sandwich Consumed Britain.”
In practice, the experience of picking out a Meal Deal is not unlike shopping at a pared-down retail store like IKEA or Aldi, where you save by what you’re not paying for (fancy displays, assembly, packaging). With Meal Deal prices as low as they are (typically my choices never surpassed £5), you likely won’t be getting a warm customer experience, or really much of an interaction with a human, with plentiful self-check-outs while workers mostly focus on slotting in fresh batches of sandwiches and salads onto the chilled shelves. But you don’t get a Meal Deal sandwich in order to have a heartening exchange — you get it so you can be more nimble, on-the-go, free.
When will the U.S. get an affordable Meal Deal?
Some hoped the future meant fully functioning hoverboards and personal space ships, but I’d have at least hoped for a respectable, affordable meal option by 2023. Especially with return-to-office requirements, rising costs of living, and just how profitable Meal Deals are, the idea should be a no-brainer for American grocers and convenience stores. Much like Costco’s ultra-affordable rotisserie chickens or most grocery-store bananas, U.K. Meal Deals are a major “loss leader,” in that they’re heavily marked down to get customers in the door (where they’ll then hopefully buy more items with higher markups).
Even more upscale grocers, like Waitrose, are finally caving to the Meal Deal frenzy and newly offering their own selection of grab-and-go sandwiches, drinks, and sides.
Across the pond, though, progress is still moving at a glacial pace: Even though grocery-made sandwiches are incredibly popular stateside, a meal (sandwich, plus drink and side) will rack you up closer to double what a U.K. Meal Deal would. They are not grab-and-go, either, and are exclusive largely to regional chains. Sprouts’ $4.99 sandwiches and the iconic Pub Sub (a half sub will put you back $5+) will not get you a side or drink, but they are really the only grocery offerings that are somewhat close to the majesty that is Meal Deal.
In her book Sandwich: A Global History, Bee Wilson says that the very sandwich itself freed us of many things: the fork, the table, meal times, and, thus, society. In the U.K., at least, the pricing of the Meal Deal is not just a barometer for the cost-of-living crisis affecting much of the world, but also a powerful leveler and equalizer. In a time of great discord and ever-widening class divides, an affordable lunchtime option is a tether to a more equitable future.
After all, sandwiches in America have fueled reforms, liberated women, and have straddled class barriers time and time again. Isn’t it time we allowed a Meal Deal sandwich to further democratize lunchtime and beyond?
What are some of your favorite global grocery finds? Tell us about it in the comments below.