Would you believe the Queen of England and I have something in common? Yes, we do. And it is that FORTNUM & MASON is our favorite grocery store. Yes, this extraordinary store selling some of the most exclusive and expensive items in the world, is a grocery store. And my favorite! If you’ve ever visited London, hopefully, don’t just visit Harrod’s, put a trip to Fortnum & Mason on your ‘must’ list too. You will not be disappointed.
It all began with the Great Fire of 1666, which set all of London ablaze. As established builders, the Fortnum family moved to London to help with its rebuilding. A young cousin, William, arrived with the family, renting a room from Hugh Mason, a livery stables keeper, while he took a job as footman in the palace of Queen Anne. Queen Anne insisted on fresh, new candles each day, so when the royal courtiers retired at the end of the day, William had to replace the candlesticks of the half-used candles with fresh ones. Rather than throw them away, he took the candle stumps back to his room where he melted them down, replaced the wicks and created new candles. He would then sell the ‘new’ candles to the chambermaids and household staff, making a tidy profit.
With his entrepreneurial spirit, William approached his landlord, Mr. Mason, with a business proposition to jointly open a store selling the candles and groceries. They chose the then less affluent Mayfair section of London, a section still undergoing rebuilding and it was there in 1707 that they opened their small store. Fortnum used his palace connections to drum up business and working closely with the East India Company, began to sell imported teas. A short two years later, this little grocer had outgrown their original location, moving to where they still are today.
The entrepreneurial spirit continued with William Fortnum’s grandson and namesake, also William Fortnum, who took over the business fifty years later. The relationship with the palace also continued and they soon became the premiere supplier of teas to the Royals.
Fortnum & Mason had established a very successful business selling ready-made, take-away dishes like pork pies, poultry in aspic, dried fruits, marmalades and jams, to their affluent customers. One item, which the newest Fortnum created, became immediately popular, the “Scotched Egg“. A boiled egg, wrapped in sausage and deep fried, the ‘Scotched Egg’ did not need refrigeration, was a lot less smelly than just a boiled egg … and, it was delicious!
Fortnum then created their iconic baskets or “hampers” for hungry travelers, complete with disposable bamboo cutlery. Whether it was across country or out for an afternoon, travel during that time was long and arduous. Refrigeration didn’t exist. There were no fast-food restaurants. These ‘hampers’ were not only perfect for the road-weary, hungry traveler, but became in demand for an afternoon picnic, which after Jane Austen wrote about the Box Hill picnic in her novel, EMMA, were taking place everywhere. Not only the aristocracy, but the middle classes quickly adopted this favorite summertime activity and Fortnum & Mason’s picnic hampers were everywhere.
Since that time, Fortnum & Mason have sent hampers to every part of the world … from base camps on Mount Everest to the battlefields of Iraq. When Napoleon said “an army marches on his stomach”, I wonder if he knew that Fortnum & Mason was supplying the British officers with food and supplies. The Napoleonic War lasted from 1799 to 1815 and during that time officers in the British army would order specialty food items, dried fruits, preserves, pates, so that they wouldn’t have to suffer the hardship of war.
Those were the days when clothing mattered and a gentlemen carried an umbrella and wore gloves. Committed to providing excellence in service while catering to the posh upper-classes, Fortnum’s elevated the uniform of its clerks and doormen from the simple uniform of other stores to waist coat, tails and striped pants. Doormen wore top hats, opened doors and carried your purchases to your carriage. Clerks knew you by name and knew your preferences.
Of course, they wouldn’t be the iconic store they are without serving Afternoon Tea, which they have been serving for centuries. The original St. James room was completely refurbished in 2012 in honor of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
The magic begins when you enter the building . . . below the ornate clock, built in 1964, where four foot high replicas of Mr. Fortnum and Mr. Mason emerge and bow to each other every hour to the sound of 18th century music . . . and take the red-carpeted stairs to the Fourth floor. Decorated in their elegant signature blue, you’ll notice the grand piano where the resident pianist plays daily, and then the rows of tea urns lining the walls. Each table is set exquisitely. An ever-changing array of offerings from classic scones, finger sandwiches and desserts are impeccably presented and served on a classic three-tiered silver tray. And, yes, you can ask for ‘seconds’ with no additional charge. With over 100 specialty teas, you’re bound to find one or more that you like. It’s expensive … but so worth it.
From their humble beginnings in the early 1700s until now, Fortnum & Mason has not changed their focus. They may not be just a grocery store any longer, and many of the great food halls have changed, but there is something that remains unchanged about Fortnum & Mason and that is the commitment to quality products and superior service.