Think the baguette is a symbol of French cuisine? Think again. Birmingham is full of them. Forget about Brum’s balti heritage and follow me on a second-city baguette crawl.
You can’t buy a lot for £1 these days, but on the streets of Birmingham city centre a quid will get you a filled baguette and a penny change. I work with some of the country’s finest economic brains, but they can’t understand how places like ‘Meal Deal’, ‘Eat4less’ and ‘Baguette World’ can be financially viable.
Hundreds of hungry office workers, shoppers and students go in search of their daily bread every lunchtime at one of these outlets. Eat4less (Corporation Street) charges 99p for a baguette, or £1.75 for a “meal deal” which also includes fries and a drink. There is free WiFi and a large seating area, although I’ve yet to see anyone conducting a business meeting over lunch here. Further up Corporation Street than House of Fraser, Eat4less is a bit too far away for me and a lot of other office workers.
Baguette World has two city centre branches – Stephenson Place (on the slope between Grand Central and HSBC) and Bull Street. With shorter queues and friendlier staff, this used to be my baguette place of choice, but they have recently started charging a 20p premium if you want your 99p baguette warmed-up. Economic theory will tell you they’ve shot themselves in the foot, as both Eat4less and Meal Deal offer a warm baguette as standard.
Meal Deal on New Street is my current favourite, and judging by the long queues snaking up New Street at 1pm on week-days, I’m not the only one to think that. For a quarter of the price of a much smaller baguette at Pret a Manger over the road, Meal Deal has the widest range of filling, fresh and warm 99p baguettes in town, and comes with the strapline “Birmingham’s Original Baguette”.
It also has a range of Chef’s Recommendations, such as ‘Marrakech spiced chicken’ and ‘lager and lime chicken’. These may not quite be to Gordon Ramsay’s standard, but are a lot better than you’d expect for the price. Meal Deal cheekily undercuts Eat4less by 1p, as it sells meal deals (fries, drink and baguette) for £1.74, while slices of carrot cake, red velvet cake or chocolate cake will set you back £1.20.
It can get pretty chaotic at lunchtime, as the mainly Eastern European staff shout out orders and names. Their grasp of the English language is dubious – they may know their way around a sandwich menu, but ask them for directions to the train station, and they’re out of their comfort zone. I’ve had a few wrong orders here – a ham and cheese baguette often materialises into a ham baguette with a portion of chips.
No cash on you? No problem, as cards are accepted – even for 99p transactions. I’ve been waiting for a price rise for a few years now (they’ve been 99p since 2008), but it looks like inflation doesn’t apply to the bargain baguettes of Birmingham.