Meet Max Halley, London's Sandwich Baron
The most important email that Max Halley has ever sent was a simple question: “What is your favourite sandwich filling?” He’d carefully selected the recipients of this essential request: chefs, friends, industry professionals, people whose opinion he trusted. He hit send, expecting a handful of responses, “If that,” he says with a shrug.
All 50 replied, wistfully extolling the virtues of chicken and bacon, tuna mayo and classic ham and cheese. “It confirmed to me that people really like sandwiches, and that I was onto something.”
Opened in 2014 amongst a nondescript stretch of small businesses at the top of Stroud Green Road in north London, Max’s Sandwich Shop makes – wait for it: sandwiches. Really, really good sandwiches. Each Saturday afternoon a queue snakes out and down the road, while regulars discuss its signature ham, egg ‘n’ chips creation on home-baked focaccia in tones normally reserved for loved ones.
“When I first had the idea,” says Max, pacing back and forth inside the shop before opening time one recent Thursday afternoon, the Rolling Stones and Donnie and Joe Emerson on speakers that are, by design, particularly loud in the bathroom, “the only real sandwiches you could get were from Pret, caffs and salt beef bagels on Brick Lane. Egg and cress! Burgers had been done, but no one was doing sandwiches well as a proper meal, so I thought I’d give it a go.” How did he convince people that sandwiches were something you could have for dinner? “Simple. I only opened in the evenings!”
Broad-shouldered and barrel-chested with a shock of brown hair greying at the temples, Max has a frenetic, freewheeling way of speaking. Within five minutes of arriving at the shop I’ve been handed a shot of Fernet-Branca, then a beer and been drawn into a deep dive on the filmography of Werner Herzog.
The interior reflects its owner’s eclectic personality. The tables and chairs are stripped wood with peeling red backs. There’s a painted red patch in one corner of the room. “I thought it would look cool.” It does look cool. The menu is hand-written, concise and playful, featuring the shop's aforementioned signature, alongside more unusual specials like ‘How Am I Samosa Know’ (pea, spring onion, tinned peaches, lime, pickled onions and parsley). Vases sit on tables spilling with bright spring tulips and a whole side wall is pasted with vintage Spanish Top Trumps, given to Max by the shop’s unorthodox, occasional window cleaner. “I don’t ask where he gets them from. He just appears with them.”
Elsewhere I spy retro posters, porcelain trinkets and a lot of model ducks – a Max staple. “We get people sending them in from all over,” he says, “Korea, Germany, we got one from Seattle recently.” Apparently, one is worth loads of money, but its head was accidentally snapped off. It’s a bit of an in-house joke, he adds. “Bring the bill in a bill!”
Despite his Good Time demeanour, you don’t keep a restaurant busy for eight years, a 1,000 cover a week sandwich shop, with enthusiasm alone. Before his eponymous venture, Max graduated from UCL with a first in Ancient History, worked in a pudding factory, a deli, a pub – which is where he learned how to cook – and for the distribution arm of Brindisa, the upmarket Spanish restaurant chain. “I remember working at this publishing company just after graduating,” he says. “I hated it, but I was surrounded by loads of great restaurants, so I’d go for lunch by myself here and there, which is when I realised that I wanted to be in that world. I just needed to work out how.”
“I’m sure Max will say that it wasn’t easy for a long time at the beginning,” says Charlie Teasdale, the Style Director of Esquire, and a long-time customer. (a Ham egg ‘n’ Chips sandwich was even put on the cover of the magazine back in 2018), “and perhaps that the key to surviving is that you need to just stick at it - stick to what you do best and believe in. There was much talk a couple of years ago about a ‘sandwich revolution’ in London and beyond, which Max pretty much spearheaded, but he’d been making excellent sandwiches in Crouch Hill for years before it all took off.
“Max not only makes completely delicious sandwiches,” he adds, “but he has pitched the vibe of the shop perfectly. It is low-key, inexpensive, and very, very fun, and he is almost always there to welcome you and ply you with cloudy cider.”
With a recently launched book: ‘Max's Sandwich Book: The Ultimate Guide to Creating Perfection Between Two Slices of Bread,’ regular TV appearances and the opening of two pubs in the West Country, it might be appealing to lean into a reputation as a sandwich baron. Is Max tempted by an empire of sandwich shops? One in Gatwick? Ten in central London? New York? Milton Keynes!
“Never,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I think that as soon as you open more than one, the magic is lost. I’ve got the pubs and plenty more ideas, but I only ever see there being one Max’s Sandwich Shop.”
“God bless this sandwich shop, he says,” sat across from me on a small table that has seen a lot of good times over the years. Neither of us say anything for a short while, before he breaks into that signature wide, and slightly wild, smile.
“God bless this sandwich shop!”