What a map of the UK's 1,650 branches of Greggs can tell us about the British high street

Pick one. Image: Greggs.

We at CityMetric know you love maps. But when we came across a map showing all the branches of bakery chain Greggs, across the UK (we all have hobbies, OK?), we thought it was enough to simply share it on social media and wonder at the sheer number of them:

But then the questions started rolling in. Why only one in Northern Ireland? Why so many in northern cities like Glasgow, Newcastle and Manchester? Why none in Devon and Cornwall? And what, exactly, is a second-hand Greggs:

Readers, we took it upon ourselves to find out. 

(What follows is a very in-depth look at the popular high street bakery chain, including, arguably, excessive amounts of detail. If you don't actually like Greggs, you might want to leave now.) 

First things first. Why are there so many Greggs branches? 

According to Greggs' head office, despite constant headlines about the "death of the British high street", there are around 1,650 Greggs shopfronts in Britain.

To put that in context, that's nearly double the number of Starbucks (according to Statista, 842 as of this year) or McDonald's (around 1,200). Somewhat surprisingly, Greggs is only pipped by coffee shop Costa, which has over 1,800 branches, and sandwich shop Subway, which opened its 2000th in February 2015.

So what's the secret? As far as I can tell, part of it is that Greggs isn't afraid to open multiple branches in very close proximity. Take the centre of Glasgow:

Or Manchester:

Greggs specialises in food to go, and it's apparently successfully calculated that for customers, this means the closer the better - high street cafes are now so plentiful that even that extra 200 metres could prompt a customer to choose Pret instead. It also manages its own supply chain, "from production to distribution to point of sale". This means that opening more stores close together makes economic sense - the Greggs lorry is already coming that way anyway.

Most Greggs stores are directly owned, not franchised - but they have a small number of franchised branches in "closed trading environments" like universities or "travel hubs".

The brand is also fine with opening up on non-high streets and opening up franchises in train stations, perhaps in reaction to the reduced footfall on high streets. On its website, the company states:

A high proportion of our openings are in areas away from traditional high streets as we diversify our portfolio in line with market trends.  Working with franchise partners we have extended the Greggs offer to previously inaccessible travel and convenience locations.

I asked a Greggs spokesperson why there were so many in Glasgow and Manchester in particular, and was told that it's simply a timing issue:

Greggs has traded longer in these major cities than most of the UK and consequently have a more mature shop estate in these areas.

Soon, all British cities will be stuffed to the gills with Greggs. You heard it here first. 

Why only one in Northern Ireland?

Roughly the same answer as above: the first branch there only just opened, but Greggs is planning another within the month, and more soon.

From the Greggs spokesperson, who was growing increasingly perplexed by my questions by this point: 

Northern Ireland has been a potential target for Greggs for some time but England, Scotland and Wales has been our primary focus. We were delighted to open our first site in NI with Applegreen on the M2 just north of Belfast and are opening a second store with Applegreen at Crankhill, Belfast on the 11th December 2015. We would expect more openings in the future.

What is a "second hand Greggs"?

These bakery outlets sell day-old pasties and pastries for a very reduced price. The stock in the standard Greggs shops is baked onsite, so the fare in the second-hand shops is still relatively fresh. 

Here's the one in Barry, Wales:

Image: Google.

Why so few in the southwest?

Our instinct here was that people living in the home of the pasty might not be so convinced by Greggs' versions (slightly flaccid sausage rolls, pasties shaped like squares) of their traditional foodstuffs. The Greggs spokesperson was a little reticent on this point, but implied that folks in Devon are slightly more sympathetic to the brand than the fiercely traditional Cornish: 

There are currently no stores in Cornwall. We are focussed at the moment on extending our reach into more parts of Devon.

Sorry Cornwall. No Greggs for you. 

Any other trade secrets?

I also hear, though Greggs head office hasn't confirmed this, that the store opts for relatively short leases with break clauses, as opposed to long leases or property ownership. As a result, it actually closes stores relatively frequently, perhaps to follow the pastry-eaters to a better location. 

The brand has also moved into breakfast service, and earlier opening hours, to compete with the breakfast offerings at other cafes and shops. Recently, it launched a bake-at-home range, sold through Iceland supermarkets, so you can make bakes in the comfort of your own kitchen: 

Image: author's own.

Why do people like it so much? 

In 2013, Ian Gregg, founder of Greggs, released a kind of business autobiography called  BREAD: the story of Greggs. It contains many interesting facts about the brand, including that, when asked what they missed most about home, British armed forces said "Greggs". According to the Metro, said survey resulted in Greggs providing catering for an army base in Germany in 2012. 


Also, as part of a restructuring a few years ago, the brand appointed special managers for each food category to manage recipes, promotions and pricing,so you could literally be the "cake manager" for Greggs. Dream job. 

In the book's introduction, Ian Gregg himself puts forward his own suggestions for the brand's success: 

Perhaps customers identify with a business that still retains old-fashioned values, that seems local rather than global and doesn't put shareholders before customers and staff.

Or, perhaps, it's more straightforward than that:

Maybe it's simply because the sandwiches, sausage rolls and doughnuts taste great, are good value, and are a treat most people can afford.

As someone who would rank a £1.40 Greggs Chicken Bake among her top 10 all-time favourite meals, I'd argue it was the latter.

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To see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.