They’ve been queueing around the block on George Street to try out Croydon’s newest burger joint, but BELLA BARTOCK, our culture correspondent, got in there early to find out what all the fuss is about
It’s unusual for me to step foot in a fast food burger joint. Let’s face it, the carton McDonald’s serve their produce in is tastier than its contents.
However, after a 30-year absence from Croydon’s streets, it was time to give Wendy’s a visit, after the American-owned chain opened its 1,000th outlet on the corner of Wellesley Road and George Street this week, part of their re-entry to the UK market. And it wasn’t an unpleasant experience.
OK: it was breakfast, a “classic sausage, egg and cheese sandwich”, rather than a full-blown burger and chips combo, but it was pretty tasty, cooked to order, hot and, although not substantial, quite reasonably priced at £2.50.
This is a square company (“We don’t cut corners”): so it’s square burgers, buns, sausages and even square eggs, too. Which must be painful for the chickens…
Inside, it very much looks like any other burger joint: a bit bland but clean and airy. As you approach the service counter you encounter a large illuminated lightbox showing their meals and deals with giant pictures of their products, just in case you forgot what a cheeseburger looked like, or if after a few aperitifs you are only capable of grunting and pointing.
The initial service was fine, no “Do you want fries with that?”, and I was shown where to go for the pick-up area.
Rather than take part in the carefully organised, PR-patrolled press event earlier this week, when everything was served up perfectly and there was no chance of the public getting in the way, here at Inside Croydon we preferred to visit as a “secret shopper”, to test what the real customer experience might be like.
By Friday afternoon, that consisted of queues stretching up George Street, and later – judging by videos that have been widely shared on social media – some kind of fight broke out inside with youths brandishing what appeared to be sticks, rolling out into the street and across the tram tracks. Welcome to Croydon, Wendy’s.
For the staff, it was back to work soon after all that excitement. By early evening, the queue up George Street was re-established.
My visit was only two days after opening. They might be experiencing teething problems, but the service process part of the operation could become a serious problem if they don’t find a fix, and soon. The pick-up area just isn’t big enough. They’ve taken your cash and now, it seems, are just not bothered.
This area, where you wait while the food is freshly prepared, is not well-defined either. Customers waiting for their cooked-to-order meals are sitting at tables, while other customers, holding their trays full of food, are searching for an empty table. A bench in the corner would be better for those waiting.
It didn’t help that on the day of my visit, the IT failed. No one was sure which order was ready and for which customer.
Although it describes itself as a fast food restaurant, the delay in being served is longer than their competitors, because at Wendy’s they cook specific orders. Now I don’t mind this, because at least you know your food’s not been sitting on a tray for 20 minutes.
However, as they get busier and the Deliveroo guys get in on the act, this could escalate.
Another problem I encountered was that I ordered a hot drink to go with my meal. For some reason, they decided to make this first and so it was lukewarm by the time the food arrived. I hunted among the sachets of tomato ketchup and mustard, looking for sugar and a stirrer, with no luck. I asked a member of staff who had no idea. They disappeared behind a door and reappeared two minutes later clutching a few packs.
Is there a sugar shortage I’m not aware of?
The location of this new restaurant is surely one of the most prime of prime sites in the town centre.
Norfolk House and its tower (now a Travel Lodge) is situated on the junction where the trams turn off Wellesley Road heading towards East Croydon. This unit is on the corner, arcing both roads facing south-east and hence gets the best of the sunlight.
Wendy’s are sandwiched (sorry) between Greggs and McDonald’s. The buildings were the first of Croydon’s new high rises in the 1960s. Taberner House (now long gone) and the Nestlé Tower followed. Constructed in concrete, the developers weren’t sure the good burghers (sorry, last one) of the town were ready to embrace such brutalist architecture, and so they clad the whole Norfolk House development with brickwork.
The units that Wendy’s are in (Nos 19 and 20) must be the most utilised premises in town, having been used as a jewellery store, an electrical shop and, most recently, as a branch of Barclays Bank.
Eventually, my food did arrive. Armed with my silver tray and my purchase, I headed upstairs.
There are toilets on both floors but there’s no sign of a lift, which is a shame because customers with mobility issues will miss out on the best part of the experience.
What greets you as you take the last steps of the staircase is quite stunning.
The light streaming through is wonderful.
No blinds, no corporate banners, just the naked original windows letting in natural sunlight which with the restaurant being on the corner makes beautiful reflections and shadows on the adjacent walls.
Quickly, I made my way to the window sill and sat on the stool and took in the view. It is the best seat in the house.
This more than compensated for my now cold coffee.
From this vantage point, you can see the still-scaffolded Nestlé Tower, the nearly completed blocks that have replaced Taberner House and the impressive but empty Woolwich House, another ex-Barclays Bank premises.
As the trams trundle and rattle off down George Street towards the Allders building, your eyes track them and are led towards the Minster on the horizon.
The food that is served up at Wendy’s is exactly what is to be expected from this type of establishment. For me, it is the views which swing it, whether you want to people watch or take in the town centre’s constantly changing skyline.
I will return one evening soon, not for the competitively priced quarter pounder with cheese, large fries and small Coke combo, but hopefully to see the sunset from there.
It’s a feast for the eyes.
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