The QT

Tuesday 23 July 2024

Greggs plays a major roll in our economy

It is a business that still makes the North East proud. Graham Soult takes a fond look at one of the region’s most iconic brands
A Greggs store in Durham. Credit: Graham Soult

Think of something that defines the North East, and your first thought — other than The QT, of course — may well be the ever-ubiquitous Greggs. 

From its first shop in Gosforth, the bakery business has expanded to over 2,400 UK locations, with a target of at least 3,000. Newcastle city centre alone has a choice of 13 different Greggs to choose from when those steak bake cravings kick in.

So, while contemplating what topic to address in my next QT article, it was a revelation to realise that 20 issues in, there hadn’t yet been a column specifically about Greggs. Sure, it regularly pops up in the weekly Eyes and Ears round-up, but it’s never been the headline event, until now.

Greggs was particularly on my mind because it’s almost a year since the broadcast of Inside Greggs: 24/7 on Channel 5, a TV documentary that I was thrilled to be involved with. Indeed, such was the show’s appeal, it later broke the top ten on Netflix too.

Filmed in April 2023, my input involved chatting to the presenter, food critic and I’m A Celebrity star Grace Dent, outside the site of that original store in Gosforth, and telling the story of how Greggs started and grew. 

I particularly remember that week because the filming took place just two days after my father’s funeral. Between the interviews, it was comforting to share some of my memories with Grace, who has often spoken about the loss, in the last few years, of her own parents. Fittingly, my dad was a Greggs fan too, and one of my favourite photos of him is enjoying a coffee and bacon roll outside the shop in Tamworth, unaware of the brain tumour diagnosis that would follow months later.

Graham’s late father, Trevor, enjoying a Greggs in Tamworth. Credit: Graham Soult

These days, it’s those bright and welcoming Greggs stores that many of us, just like my late dad, are so attached to — sources of affordable tasty treats, served by cheery staff, that provide a pick-me-up at any time of day. As I explained on the show, however, the earliest iteration of Greggs had no shops at all — it was a man on a bicycle, selling yeast and eggs around Newcastle.

Former MD Ian Gregg’s delightful 2013 book Bread gives a comprehensive history of the business, but, in short, it was ex-miner William Gregg and his son George who established, in 1891, that first precursor to the modern Greggs. In turn, George’s son, John Robson Gregg — known as Jack — joined the family business after leaving school in the 1920s, with the bike eventually being replaced by a van, or travelling shop. 

Shots from Inside Greggs: 24/7 including the Gosforth store’s replica of the original Greggs bike

After George died, Jack began to expand the area served beyond Newcastle, and added bread and confectionery — bought from external bakeries at this point — thereby founding the Greggs that we recognise today. Then, as Jack enlisted in the Second World War, his wife Elsie kept the business operating, even adding a second travelling shop. When Jack returned, blue vans were branded J R Gregg, Baker and Confectioner as they traversed the mining communities north of Newcastle. 

Fast forward to 1951, and you get Jack’s acquisition of Mason’s at 69-71 Gosforth High Street, and what would become the first Greggs bakery — not primarily bought for the shop at the front, but for the bakery at the back, which allowed the company to finally produce its own baked goods for the network of vans. It was another 15 years before a second shop, in Newbiggin Hall, was added, and the rest — through a process of multiple acquisitions and, more recently, impressive organic growth — is history.

So, how has Greggs managed to evolve from a family-owned single shop to a £1.8bn turnover PLC, without losing the qualities that have always made it special? 

As I remarked on the show, one reason is that the company has never lost its sense of Geordieness. The business is still based on Tyneside, but, just as importantly, the Greggs brand has retained a humour and warmth that mirrors our North East personality. Whether it’s a longstanding reputation for irreverent tweets, or playfulness in its Primark fashion collaboration and Bistro Greggs fine-dining pop-up at Fenwick, Greggs never takes itself too seriously.

Bistro Greggs at Fenwick delivered a fine-dining twist on the sausage roll. Credit: Graham Soult

But behind the cheekiness, there’s a purpose too. At least one per cent of Greggs’ annual profits are donated to The Greggs Foundation, set up in 1987, which funds 900 school Breakfast Clubs across the UK and distributes over £4m of grants each year. As an employer, two-thirds of Greggs’ 30,000 staff (and the present CEO) are female — a business driven forward by brilliant women, following the example set by Elsie Gregg 80 years ago. And Greggs’ overriding mission to provide good, honest value to its customers is as strong now as it was in those bicycling days.

And therein lies another reason for Greggs’ ongoing success — its constant ability to adapt and improve, while staying true to its core values. The company continues to invest in high streets, but has always been agile in seeking opportunities to reach new customers. Recent growth, for instance, has targeted railway stations, drive-thrus, and cafés in Tesco.

Greggs in Chester-le-Street, which upsized last year. Credit: Graham Soult

Speaking at the Retail Week Live conference last year, CEO Roisin Currie summed up Greggs beautifully when she argued that ‘we are the custodians of the brand just now, but the brand is owned by our customers and colleagues’. 

To channel some of the company’s own humour, maybe that’s why Greggs is a business us North East folk truly feel we have a steak in.

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