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Pie and Mash Shops Look to Their Roots to Plot a Future Through Coronavirus

An industry already fighting for survival remembers the old days while harnessing delivery in a city paralysed by the coronavirus crisis

Jonathan Hatchman

Once considered a vital part of London life, pie and mash shops have been on the wane for decades. By the end of the 1930s, there were more than 150 in the city’s East End, according to Pie ‘N’ Mash: A Guide To Londoners Traditional Eating Houses. From F.Cooke on Hoxton Street in Hackney to L.Manze on Walthamstow High Street, pie shops reached peak popularity during the ‘60s, before many working class Londoners in the east and south-east moved to the suburbs. While Pie ‘N’ Mash indexed over 80 establishments still trading up to 1995, today there remain just over 20 — of which all but a handful have shut down in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The government’s closure of all non-essential businesses last month forced all U.K. restaurants to cease eat-in service indefinitely, with takeaway food and restaurant delivery services still permitted to operate. Most of London’s pie and mash shops — which have always done both — have since completely halted operations until further notice: famous names like Arment’s, Harrington’s, Eastenders, Tony’s, and Barney’s are gone for now. Others, like G. Kelly on Roman Road, tried one-in-one-out for a week before deciding to cut its losses and close, too. This comes at the end of a decade in which at least 20 shops with London postcodes have closed completely (most recently, F. Cooke on Broadway Market closed at the start of 2020 after 120 years in business). While there are proprietors who believe the tradition’s demise is over-exaggerated, for London’s pie and mash shops, many of which had already been fighting for survival before the crisis hit, these unexpected closures will put businesses on even shakier ground.

One still open is the oldest in the city: A south London icon, M.Manze on Tower Bridge Road was opened by Michele Manze, an Italian immigrant from Ravello, in 1892. The family now runs two other shops in Peckham and Sutton, which opened in 1998. All three of M.Manze’s shops have been closed for eat-in since Saturday 21st March, but the Sutton shop has been serving customers takeaway orders at the door. Director Emma Harrington sees it as a return to the shops’ roots — during the mid 1800s, ‘pie men’ walked the streets of south and east London selling pies with varying fillings, before pie and mash shops opened as institutions for the working class, quickly serving hot food at reasonable prices. “At Peckham and Tower Bridge we are lucky to have very large windows at the front of the shop which we have been able to offer customers takeaways through the window, just like they used to do in the olden days.”

Looking to the past can only partly arrest the impact on the present. As well as reducing footfall, a commercial side-effect of Covid-19 is the encouragement of cashless payments, which has both deterred customers and impacted the operations of the pie and mash shops still open. The exchange of cash has been said to increase transmission of the virus, but pie and mash shops have, until very recently, been cash-only businesses. Managers at M.Manze have noticed customers’ enmity towards card payments. “[The] majority of our customers are currently paying by card, however we would upset a few of our regulars if we were to go cashless as some of them come with the exact amount of cash for their pie and mash and wouldn’t own a card,” explained director Emma Harrington. “We have taken every precaution possible to ensure we are protecting our staff and customers as much as possible. When a customer does want to pay in cash, one shop assistant will take the cash and then wash their hands while another will wrap up the customer’s takeaway.”

Across the river, Neil Vening, co-owner of G.Kelly on Roman Road, noticed the same unease towards card payments. “We had pushed contactless payment before we closed and reached 80 percent on card, up from a previous average of 25 percent. However the remaining 20 percent seem not to have access to a card for varying reasons,” Vening told Eater. “One customer said the only card he has is his bus pass.”

The handful of shops still operating through the coronavirus pandemic are harnessing other kinds of technology to open up a fiercely local business to a wider, now-scattered audience. Shops such as Maureen’s, in Poplar, and A. Cooke (which has been operating as a wholesale-only business since its Shepherd’s Bush shop closed down in 2015), continue to offer chilled delivery throughout the U.K. Both Maureen’s and A. Cooke’s websites currently state that immediate delivery dates are unavailable due to high demand. M.Manze, for the first time, is promoting local hot deliveries via Just Eat and Deliveroo. In addition, Harrington explained the business is “inundated” and planning to introduce another delivery day to meet demand on chilled orders, with staff also working longer hours.

“[Chilled] is a perfect way for an ex-Londoner to get pie and mash delivered straight to their door wherever they live in the U.K. Many customers are also ordering online to deliver to a family member that perhaps might be in isolation,” Harrington added.

While M.Manze has provided chilled deliveries to reheat at home for some time, the business has become more reliant on hot delivery services. “This has been an extremely popular way for our regulars to still get their fix of pie and mash if they are self-isolating,” Harrington told Eater. “We have a queue specifically for the drivers to collect the orders.”

While delivery is proving popular, no one at M.Manze is under any illusion about the effect coronavirus has had and will continue to have on business. “We are losing income through eat-ins, including Saturday match days as these are our busiest by far,” explains Harrington. Both the Peckham and Tower Bridge Road shops are within walking distance of The Den, Millwall FC’s stadium, which, since the suspension of the English Football League on 13 March, has stopped hosting matches. “Also, many of our customers work locally and pop out for pie and mash on their lunch break, so with most people working from home, it really is only our locals that are still coming for takeaways,” she said.

Looking to the future, however, Harrington and the team behind M.Manze are positive that the effect won’t be too dramatic, that long-standing loyalty will give them the ability to bounce back: “We have extremely loyal customers and have no doubt that once we are able to re-open we will see them all once again.”