In the early hours of Thursday morning in Chatteris, Cambridgeshire, an orderly queue began to form in the drizzle. No celebrity awaited the hardy queuers, no new iPhone or EL James novel. No, what occasioned this marathon of patience was the opening of Tesco’s first discount store, Jack’s. Aimed at giving Aldi and Lidl – who in the past five years have almost doubled their combined market share to 13.1% – a run for their money, the new store stocks only 2,600 products (a typical Tesco has more than 25,000) and feature a Wigig (“when it’s gone, it’s gone”) aisle of overstock, end-of-line products and last-minute deals familiar to customers of its German rivals. Thirteen more Jack’s are due to open over the next six months. Each store, claims Tesco chief executive Dave Lewis, will be “the cheapest in town”.
Yet the launch of Tesco’s budget spin-off is about more than humble price-slashing. It’s a shot across the bows in a supermarket battle of Britishness. The name Jack’s, streaked in chalkboard-font white across a bright red background, is a tribute to Jack Cohen, the East Ender who founded Tesco in 1919, when Lidl and Aldi were but twinkles in their founders’ eyes. It also brings to mind the union jack, which is replicated infinitely across aisles of own-brand, locally sourced produce. Together, these tactics seem designed to conjure supermarkets of old and with them, the misty-eyed Little Englandism that inspired 51.9% of UK voters to think the country would be better off without Europe. We don’t need your Spanish peppers, says Jack’s, your French wine or Italian tomatoes; we shall live on British beans, bread and butter. What Jack’s is really selling the 71.4% leave-voting people of Chatteris, in other words, is the myth of post-Brexit self-sufficiency, and it’s about as convincing as the Cornish camembert in the cheese aisle.
How Jack’s will make good its promise to “grow, rear and make” 80% of its products in Britain is unclear when according to recent Defra statistics, Britain produces only 60% of what it needs to feed itself. Perhaps it will be extending its range of cheesy knock-offs to Chesham chorizo, Barnsley borscht or Flitwick feta. Even more uncertain is how it will continue to sell food cheaply post-Brexit – perhaps precisely why Tesco have launched Jack’s pre-Brexit. YouGov’s 2017 Buying British report showed that 23% of consumers were more likely to buy British food because of the referendum result – though only if it were cheap, with 60% saying that if buying British cost 25% more, they’d buy foreign instead. With food-based patriotism intensifying and the Brexit shit yet to hit the fan, now is arguably the best time to be opening a British-branded bargain basement.
A £3.15 packet of minced beef is more likely to inspire customers to think about their spaghetti bolognese dinner than the more distant future when – in the increasingly likely event of a no-deal exit – hefty export tariffs on British agribusiness drive up domestic prices (the Lords EU energy and environment subcommittee recently reported that failure to get a free trade deal with the EU could increase the price of beef by up to 29%). Then again, Tesco may choose to hold down prices at Jack’s by offsetting losses against profits made at its stores in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and Ireland. One also wonders if Jack’s insistence on Britishness will extend to its staff – although since they’re paying them “more of a base rate” than at Tesco, it’s hard to imagine that Jack’s won’t become reliant on migrant labour, even with restricted freedom of movement.
Jack’s dependence on Europe goes deeper than its shelf-stackers. Jacob Kohen was born in Whitechapel in 1898 to Polish Jewish parents, Sime Zaremba and Avroam Kohen, a tailor from Łódź. The young Jacob spurned his father’s vocation to become a grocer. His fruit and veg stall soon became a dozen, then a wholesale business, then a shop. Years later, at the bank manager’s suggestion (his staff had trouble telling apart the many Jacob Kohens at the Mare Street branch), Jacob rechristened himself John Edward Cohen – Jack, for short.
Now, almost a century after the son of Polish immigrants set up shop on an East End street corner, Tesco is attempting to one-up its continental competitors by vaunting its Britishness, using its founder’s “very British name” as proof. Yet these British credentials are as manufactured now as they were then. Jack’s, in this sense, is not a supermarket at all but rather a parable of Brexit Britain, an impossible dream of a nation sustained by its own wilful ignorance and nostalgic self-regard. Jack’s and its eponymous founder are fundamentally products of Europe, and no amount of Peckham Pecorino is going to change that.
• Rivkah Brown is a freelance journalist