SALES at Greggs have topped £1 billion for the first time as the launch of its controversial vegan sausage roll helps drive a surge in customer numbers.

The bakery chain posted a 15% rise in pre-tax profits to £82.6 million in 2018, with sales rising 7.2% to just over £1 billion.

Company-managed shop like-for-like sales were up 2.9% in the period.

Greggs said that while the first half of 2018 was impacted by extreme weather, it was able to bounce back and perform ahead of expectations.

For 2019, Greggs hailed the "enthusiastic reception" and "extraordinary" level of social and general media coverage surrounding its vegan sausage roll, which has helped spur a spike in footfall since its January launch.

The Northern Echo:

Greggs vegan sausage roll. Picture: PA 

Like for like sales were up by 9.6% in the seven weeks to February 16 and chief executive Roger Whiteside paid homage to the impact of the roll alongside the firm's full-year results.

"Whilst there are significant uncertainties in the months ahead, Greggs has started 2019 in great form, helped in part by the publicity surrounding the launch of our vegan-friendly sausage roll.

"We hope to continue benefiting from this strong momentum during the first half of 2019 before facing stronger comparatives later in the year.

"We have a strong financial position which we plan to use to invest in Greggs' potential for further growth, whilst also delivering good returns for shareholders."

January's news that Greggs was to sell a vegan-friendly sausage roll drew a flurry of responses online, including comments from Good Morning Britain TV host Piers Morgan and comedian Ricky Gervais.

Greggs sells 1.5 million sausage rolls a week but created the new option due to public demand after an online petition by Peta, calling for a vegan version, was signed by more than 20,000 people last year.

Its popularity has already led to Greggs lifting its 2019 profit outlook.

Greggs was also helped by the growth of healthier options, hot drinks, breakfast and hot food and said that it has had a "very strong" start to 2019.

Shares were down 0.5% in morning trade at 1,803p.

Laith Khalaf, senior analyst, Hargreaves Lansdown: "Greggs is one of those businesses which has shrugged off the doom and gloom currently engulfing the UK high street.

"Turnover reached record levels in 2018 and trading has been strong so far this year too, helped along by the launch of Greggs' vegan sausage roll.

"We don't know how many of the vegan rolls the baker is actually selling, but the publicity is getting customers through the door one way or the other. "