While others have floundered in the recession, Greggs the baker has seen its fortunes rise and rise. Now it's planning to open another 600 stores.
It is almost midday in one of the Manchester branches of Greggs. Customers are queuing to buy lunch.
There are builders choosing pasties and sausage rolls, a lady picking up some bread, while others peruse the meal-deals in the chiller cabinet. The latter equates to any bloomer sandwich, a cookie or doughnut and a drink - for the recession-busting price of £2.99.
A couple of children press their noses up against the counter filled with a creamy array of sticky buns and colourful biscuits.
Above it a large orange sign proclaims one of Greggs' marketing slogans of choice: "Freshly baked throughout the day."
There's a huge chunk of blokes who want lots of food cheaply - it's doing that job absolutely superbly
Richard Huntington Branding expert
Similar scenes are being repeated in the company's 1,400 or so other shops up and down the country.
Greggs the baker is a 21st Century British High Street phenomenon. With twice the number of outlets as Starbucks, and 200 more than McDonald's, it is "by far the largest food-to-go operator on the High Street," says Andrew Williams, deputy editor of British Baker magazine.
"It is only rivalled in store numbers by Subway, which is quickly closing the gap. The second biggest bakery chain in the UK is Sayers, with 150 stores."
Greggs' origins stretch back to the 1930s, when John Gregg started a business delivering yeast and eggs in the north-east of England. In 1951 the first shop opened on Gosforth High Street in Newcastle.
Over the next 30 years the firm grew steadily, numbering 261 shops by 1984 when it floated on the stock market.
But it's the economic downturn of the past two years that has really helped catapult Greggs to its current level of success. As household budgets have been squeezed, Greggs' brand of comfort food is enjoying a resurgence.
Comfort food does well in recession
This year, it has recorded a 3.8% rise in sales while others on the High Street have suffered. According to National Statistics there was a 6.4% fall in the number of retail bakery businesses last year.
Compare that with Greggs' announcement, in the summer, that it would be accelerating its programme of new shop openings.
But "Greggs the baker" as it's still familiarly known, is no longer just about baking. Although its biggest seller is still the sausage roll, of which more than two million are sold a week, it has branched out. You can buy a chicken pizza, a latte, soup and even something called a Tabasco chilli beef lattice. It's the sort of menu that has healthy eating enthusiasts despairing - an investigation of Britain's biggest sandwich makers by Channel 4 last year found Greggs had the highest levels of fat.
"We can play on the strength of being a traditional baker," says Scott Jefferson, Greggs marketing director. "But because of our scale and expertise we can push forward in terms of nutrition and food technology in a way that a traditional baker never could."
Greggs has not surpassed the number of independent bakers in the UK
Although Greggs has not overtaken the number of independent bakeries - there are more than 3,000 registered in the UK - its success will not have helped those who compete on cost alone. It offers prices that most independents cannot match.
"We are a vertically integrated business, so we own our supply chain. Because we make the vast majority of what we sell, we can absolutely control the costs all the way through," says Mr Jefferson.
But there's more to it than that. Industry experts believe Greggs' success is down to a canny realignment of who it targets - throwing greater emphasis on attracting male customers, rather than the females who would traditionally visit bakers.
It has rebranded its Bakers Ovens acquisitions as Greggs. In doing so, it has left behind the feminine, nurturing characteristics associated with that name.
"For a start it's called Greggs isn't it - it's a masculine sort of name," says Richard Huntington, director of strategy for the advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi.
"You've got a nice strong, although not particularly attractive, store environment, but it's a very gender neutral one. It's blue and yellow, it's pretty straight forward. They understand that what blokes want is pastry products that set them up to do an honest day's work."
But while it may be pulling in new customers by the thousands, not everyone is a convert - most notably healthy eating advocates.
Although it trades on being a traditional bakers offering wholesome goods, some argue Greggs is nothing more than a fast food outlet.
"They may market themselves as a family baker, but they are clearly a chain of branded High Street food outlets," says David Barling, senior lecturer in food policy at City University London. "Convenience and fast food is an addition to their traditional baking role."
Liked by customers, but not dieticians, pasties are among top sellers
He questions the nutritional value of Greggs' products and sees the brand as an example of the industrialisation of bread-baking.
"Sausage rolls wouldn't be ideal in any nutritional diet. In the case of industrially produced bread a lot of the nutrients are removed from the grain and then reinserted later as added-value extras. It is less healthy for us."
Greggs says its flour is milled to traditional techniques and industry standards and, that any nutrient content would be described as typical.
Branding expert Richard Huntington agrees the Greggs brand undoubtedly owes much to McDonald's and Burger King.
But it has, at least, put bakers back on the High Street and is giving supermarkets a run for their money.
"We may not adore Greggs in the way that we do some other brands, but we understand the role it plays and for whom that's relevant. There's a huge chunk of blokes who want lots of food cheaply. It's doing that job absolutely superbly."
Below is a selection of your comments.
Typical; as soon as there is a success story to be celebrated, the "health police" deride it. Greggs are successful because they serve the food that people choose to eat and not the 'healthy' options that the food fuhrers demand we should. David Owen, Westray Orkney
I crave a Greggs meat and potato pastie or sausage roll. Food in the UK is cheap and chunky, and Greggs is a good purveyor of this. Every time I visit UK, I find one... BigD, Zürich, Switzerland
The French have patisseries and we have Greggs. How embarrassing - makes me cringe. Tahseen, London
As a freelance environmental health practitioner I have inspected these stores all over the country and I rate them not as a bakers shop but as is quoted a 'fast food outlet' - all the pies and pasties are delivered to branches frozen and regenerated on site. In my opinion the amount of saturated fat contained in these products goes no way to promoting healthy eating. As is quoted it supplies "a huge chunk of blokes who want lots of food cheaply". Norman Wint, Taunton/Gloucester
If nutritionists want to have a pop at Greggs for selling high fat foods, they should consider that high fat foods are not the only cause of obesity, that Greggs don't just sell sausage rolls, and that most if not all vendors sell some foods that are high in fat. If I'm out working on site all day then a convenient, cheap, salty, fatty lunch is exactly what I need to keep me going. A sausage, bacon & egg butty is a godsend at 11am. Add a fruit juice, a piece of fruit, or soup, and I'm eating quite healthily. I treat myself to one of Greggs' unspecified meat sausage rolls every so often, but it's not something I choose to eat every day and I'm thankful to Greggs for the option. Baldmosher, Manchester, UK
The thing that concerns me about Greggs is the amount of young kids that are being brought up on Greggs "typical" baked food, washed down with a bottle of Coke and a cake for afters. No doubt followed up with a McDonald's for their evening meal... in Runcorn the fresh fruit smoothie stall closed within six months, yet junk food outlets survive. We even have a Wimpy! Who remembers them? Mark, Runcorn
The stuff that Greggs produces is such false economy. Make a sandwich, get a big bag of apples, and fill up a bottle at the nearest tap. If you really want to have a sausage roll every day, buy a big pack of them at a supermarket or proper bakers. Martha, London
You cannot beat a sausage & bean pasty from Greggs. Admittedly, they're not the healthiest place to eat in the world, but as always, when eaten in moderation won't do you any harm. John Grimshaw, Manchester
Greggs is the McDonald's of bakeries. Terrible food sold on the cheap to conquer the masses. This country really needs to improve quality of breads e.g. more sourdough etc and less of the high sugar breads on sale at moment. David, London
Say what you like about any of their competitors at Greggs you can eat like a king for three quid - no wonder they are thriving in a recession! Mark Savill, Chard UK
Just another variant on the unhealthy fast-food fad. Their products are riddled with saturated fats, salt and sugar. Dr Ian Sedwell, Weymouth, UK
The price and convenience are obviously the reason for Greggs' success, but I think that the quality is suspect. It's difficult to get wholemeal items and their pastry fillings have an addictive quality to them. In cold city centres it's easy to be seduced by the bright colour and warm tasty products. Joseph, Bromsgrove, Worcs
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