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McVitie's: The United Kingdom's Premier Biscuit

It’s not hard to see why the McVitie’s biscuits are so famous in the UK, and in other parts of the world. The brand has a long and rich history, and its story is one of success and innovation

Today, we’ll be focusing on a well-known brand across the world, which hails from the UK. We’re talking about McVitie’s, of course! These tasty little delights are so synonymous with the British people, which is no wonder since they almost always take up the first place on popularity charts across the country. They’re digestive biscuits which, as the name implies, help you with your digestion, so naturally, they’re also beneficial to your overall health. If you want to find out more about digestive cookies (and how to make some yourself), you can do so here. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the company’s history.

The History of McVitie’s and its Founder

The story of the McVitie’s biscuits starts in the nineteenth century, in 1809 to be exact, with a little boy called Robert McVitie. He was born in Scotland and even in his youth knew that one day he would become a baker. His dream fulfilled when in 1839, Robert, along with his father William, opened up a provisional shop where he could sell his pastries and biscuits. Robert’s shop was so successful, in fact, that he managed to open up several more shops and bakeries. As his business and career blossomed, Robert fell in love, and several years later, in 1844, he got married and had two sons with his wife, who they named William, after Robert’s father, and Robert Junior, after Robert himself. The “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” proverb is true with Robert’s sons, as both William and Robert Jr. would go on to become bakers themselves, just like their father. Robert had great foresight and was very wise to see that his family’s future lay in the baking business he created. Thus, he sent his two sons to Europe to graduate as bakers, so that when he passed away, they could take over the business and continue his legacy.

1850-1888: The Period of Growth

That day came in 1880 when Robert McVitie, sadly, passed away, leaving his business to his son, Robert Jr. But his legacy, and those of his sons endures up to this day. By the time of his death in 1880, Robert’s bakeries were so beloved by the people of Edinburgh, that Robert Junior’s first major investment in the business was to build-up a larger bakery. In 1875, five years before the passing of Robert McVitie, a gentleman by the name of Charles Price partnered up with the McVitie family. He helped both Robert and Robert Jr. over the course of thirteen years to grow the bakery business into the huge name it is today. Since mister Price played such a large role in the shaping of the family business, the McVitie brand carried the name “McVitie and Price” during these times. As the bakery reached ever higher heights of popularity, it came apparent that the demand for the biscuits was well over what the company could produce. Thus, McVitie’s decided to open up a brand-new factory in 1888, in the suburbs of Robert’s hometown, Edinburgh.

1888-1892: The Digestives Recipe is Born

With the opening of the Edinburgh factory, McVitie’s entered into a new era of profit and wealth. It seems that the McVitie family had a knack for both baking and business. Their story is one of success and it inspires those looking to start-up their own business as well. Although the company was already very profitable by the time the first McVitie’s factory opened, it wouldn’t be until 1892, four years later, that the McVitie’s brand would start to gain international fame. In 1888, a man by the name of Alexander Grant, came to work for the McVitie family. He is credited with the development of the secret recipe used in the creation of the world-famous McVitie’s digestives, after only having worked for the company for four years! The success story behind McVitie’s has many important figures behind it. As the old saying goes “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and the same can be said for McVitie’s. But the brand had luck, in the sense that it had skillful leadership ever since its inception. If Robert hadn’t been so far-sighted and secured his legacy by educating his sons, and if it hadn’t been for the investments and business decisions by Robert Jr., the McVitie’s brand might not have survived to this day.

1893: The Turning Point for McVitie's

To further demonstrate that 1892, the year that the McVitie’s digestives recipe was created, was the turning point for the business, it is enough to fast-forward into 1893, when the company received the ultimate seal of approval. In that year, the McVitie’s firm was commissioned by the royal couple, Queen Mary and King George the Fifth, to bake the wedding cake for the royal wedding itself! Even today, the royal family holds high respect amongst the dignitaries of the world, and millions of zealous fans across the globe watch their every move. The royal weddings of today are incredible events which attract millions of tourists, and because of all this, it can be concluded that the royal family are trend-setters. What they consider popular, is popular with the masses. The same was with Queen Mary and King George the Fifth, who recognized McVitie’s as a bakery worthy of the royalty itself.

McVitie's Gets Further Recognition

After this event, the firm’s profits started to high-rocket. It gained more and more recognition, as was evident with the numerous explorers of the early twentieth century who used the McVitie’s biscuits in their expeditions. The numerous explorers used McVitie’s as they were tasty, healthy for digestion, and most importantly because they were easy to store and transport. George Binney, who was the leader of the Oxford Arctic Expedition, paid tribute to McVitie’s, and the entire expedition was equipped with these handy little snacks.

1925 - Now: McVitie's Expands its Line

The company went on to experiment with its products, and in the twentieth century developed numerous new types of biscuits and cakes. In 1925, McVitie’s developed the Homewheat Chocolate Digestive type of McVitie’s biscuits (today is known as McVitie’s Chocolate Digestives); in 1927, they developed the Jaffa cake. Almost twenty years later, the Penguin became part of McVitie’s and one of its recognized brands in 1946. In more recent times, however, they’ve reduced the amount of biscuit types they produce, but those that remained have become Britain’s most favourite cookies.

McVities Digestive cookies

Figure 1 - A Pack of McVitie's Digestives

The McVitie’s Biscuits Interesting Facts and Trivia

With such a famous name as McVitie’s, a couple of interesting facts are sure to spring up here and there. We’ve compiled a little trivia for your amusement, so let’s dive in. The McVitie’s company actually played a major role in the First World War. McVitie’s was tasked by the British government to supply the troops with the so-called “Iron ration” plain biscuits. The biscuits already proved themselves in a large number of different environments as they were used by many expedition crews, thus they represented the perfect food for the soldiers serving in the trenches. In order to meet the high demand for biscuits, McVitie’s had to open up a new factory in Manchester. As the majority of the male population was serving on the frontlines, the biscuit production jobs were taken up by women, which helped them further emancipate themselves and eventually gain the right to vote.

Numerous royal couples commissioned their wedding cakes from the McVitie’s bakery. One such cake was commissioned by Princess Elizabeth and her husband, lieutenant Philip Mountbatten. In the post-war period, supplies were very scarce. Cooking ingredients were actually sent as wedding presents and even McVitie’s suffered certain setbacks. They had to reduce the number of biscuits they were producing from over three hundred, to only the top ten most famous biscuits in production. Nevertheless, they managed to create a cake over two and a half metres tall! Pieces of this cake were later sent on to nearby schools and institutions. In more recent times, even more incredible cakes were made by McVitie’s. For his wedding ceremony in March of 2011, prince William ordered a cake made from one thousand and seven hundred McVitie’s Rich tea biscuits and seventeen kilograms of chocolate!

In 2002, the company’s Harlesden factory, the largest factory in Europe, celebrated its 100th birthday. Only two years later, a competition called “Dunk for Britain” was held across the country. The McVitie’s Milk Chocolate Caramel Digestives were able to beat all other types of McVitie’s biscuits to win the title of the “Nation’s favourite McVitie’s dunking biscuit”! Five years later, the company was met with another great accomplishment, as McVitie’s biscuits were voted for the most popular tea-dunking biscuits in the UK. The chocolate digestives, Rich tea and Hobnob’s took the first three spots. The company even has its own mascots in the form of McVitie’s “Sweeets.” They’re awfully cute. Seriously, google them, you won’t regret it.

Since we’ve mentioned the three most favourite McVitie’s biscuits in Britain, why not check out what’s so great about them?

Britain’s Favourite Biscuits: Chocolate Digestives, Rich Tea and Hobnobs

The Chocolate Digestives, Rich Tea and Hobnobs are Britain’s favourite tea-dunking biscuits. All three types are produced by McVitie’s, with the first being originally created in 1925 in McVitie’s Harlesden factory. The chocolate digestives are actually regular digestive cookies which are coated on the underside with milk, dark or white chocolate. It is this cookie that has won both the 2004 and 2009 awards and remains the favourite British biscuit up to this day. Other types of chocolate digestives include the basic biscuits with chocolate chips mixed in, or biscuits with a layer of chocolate, caramel or mint on top. The American travel writer, Bill Bryson, said that the chocolate digestives were Britain’s masterpiece.

McVitie’s is also famous for their Rich tea biscuits, although the history and tradition of the rich tea cookies predate McVitie’s. They adapted the recipe and added in their own ingredients to produce their own line of rich tea cookies. The most basic ingredients of rich tea biscuits are usually wheat flour, vegetable oil, sugar and malt extract. They were developed in Yorkshire during the seventeenth century as a kind of a light snack for the upper classes of Victorian England. They would most often be consumed in between full-course meals, along with a nice, warm cup of tea.

The famous Hobnobs are the youngest type of McVitie’s biscuits. They were launched in 1985 and were such a huge success that the company had to expand the line only two years after their debut! In 1987, McVitie’s started producing a chocolate subtype of Hobnob biscuits. The Hobnob biscuits are produced from rolled and jumbo oats. The Hobnobs are mostly produced in the UK, but they’re also available outside the British Isles, in such places as Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and others. They’re the third most favourite “tea-dunking” biscuit in the UK and come in loads of different tastes and flavours.

It’s not hard to see why the McVitie’s biscuits are so famous in the UK, and in other parts of the world. The brand has a long and rich history, and its story is one of success and innovation. Robert McVitie started a business that would become his legacy, which his sons would continue to groom until it became a world-famous brand which delights biscuit enthusiasts across the globe. The McVitie’s is also beloved by the royal family, which is the ultimate seal of approval. After existing for so long, the company is still going strong, and it will probably continue to do so in the centuries to come, producing marvellous biscuits which are a joy to dunk into a warm cup of tea.

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