The doomsday clock has been ticking for over a year and has finally reached midnight. I’m not talking about the posturing of Mr Trump and North Korea; no, I’m talking about ‘M&Sexit’. The staple store of the UK high street has finally closed its doors in Europe for the second time in a decade.
Marks & Spencer isn’t going to win any awards for its rather dowdy clothing ranges that even pensioners refuse to buy, but its closure is going to leave a gaping chasm when it comes to food and drink.
In the UK, M&S is the king of the supermarkets. Not because its the biggest, and certainly not because its particularly accessible to the average family, but simply because its offering has always been different. M&S recognised years before any of the other supermarkets that there were distinct demographic segments of food consumers that valued convenience and quality above price. And loved a prawn sandwich.
For decades they have been the champion of the high quality ready meal, whether a one-pot dish to stick in the oven or a contrived ‘menu’ of items that you can throw together with very little thought or risk of screwing up. The retiree, the cash-rich-time-poor city worker, the singleton… for all of them M&S offered affordable luxury and treats without the effort of actually cooking.
The UK has led the market in ready meals for a long time. Half of all ready meals in the whole of Europe are purchased by Brits. That’s an impressive annual value of UK£3 billion. Now looking around any Dutch supermarket, whilst its easy to find ready meals they are nowhere near as dominant as in the UK. Culturally there are obviously reasons for this, which I won’t go into in this particular article, however it does go to show why not only Brits but the Dutch and other expats will find a distinct lack by the departure of M&S.
Probably the closest Dutch equivalent to M&S is Marqt, although they have a long way to go in upping their laziness factor when it comes to their range of ready meals and they aren’t directly marketing to the tastes of an expat community. In terms of specialist stores catering specifically for that market, the one that residents of The Hague will be most familiar with is Kelly’s, with stores in Wassenar and just north of the city centre, plus an extensive website featuring primarily British and North American products.
On first glance, a perusal of Kelly’s range filled me with horror: Bernard Matthew’s frozen turkeys, Bisto gravy granules, Walker’s salt and vinegar crisps… not exactly the pinnacle of British cuisine and certainly nothing that makes me pine for a taste of home. If I never ate any of that rubbish again then my life would be better for it. But, in the interests of research, I did a straw poll of my Facebook friends around the globe about what they most missed in terms of British food whilst living overseas.
And to be fair to Kelly’s, they’ve got it absolutely spot on. The extensive list included Jaffa Cakes, PG Tips tea bags, Cornish pasties, crumpets, custard cream biscuits, baked beans, cheese and onion crisps, Cadburys Dairy Milk chocolate… apparently our taste of home appears to be led by mass market processed comfort foods that apparently have us hooked, quite probably from childhood onwards. The brands have done their work.
Marmite popped up quite a lot, and whilst I’m personally ambivalent to it, I would say that is a unique British taste (Australia’s Vegemite being similar but by no means the same). But other than that I can’t see a single expat food product that doesn’t have a Dutch equivalent, can’t be made from locally available produce (lets face it, a Shepherd’s Pie is just minced lamb and mashed potato) or should be banned under EU food regulations on the grounds of good taste.
With the departure of M&S we’re not losing the kind of food that expats pine for. We’re losing from the city a damned fine store with a unique offering that will be sorely missed by anyone who enjoys good food and drink.
Check out this link for a brief history of M&S’ food offering: http://www.marksandspencer.com/c/style-and-living/archive-history-food-trends