Have you ever watched a baby that’s spotted boob? Tiny fists clench, little arms flap like a bird and eyes pop in anticipation of food joy. Feed a dog and you’ll be familiar with that Pavlovian response at the sight of their bowl: drooling, tail wagging, utter fixation. When I set myself the task of picking apart our relationship with Pret A Manger, these things came to mind.
Adult humans are more emotionally contained than babies and dumb animals, plus we are way world-wearier. But, when your colleague rises round 1pm and says, “Anyone want anything from Pret?” or, as you pass the Pret nearest the office, rotten hungover and needing sustenance before braving the boss, something of your primeval beast stirs, however small.
It’s not that Pret serves the finest portable food ever, but it is fresher than most desk-jockey nosebag and their marketing is sufficiently warm and friendly (read: savvy) to promote a disproportionately emotional attachment. The staff are trained and required to be nice to the customers and make them feel loved. Their food development team is hot on covering every base of food-desire cues: neurosis (two boiled eggs in a pot, popcorn), fashion (Korean pulled pork) and comfort (a fried breakfast in a baguette, macaroni cheese, gingerbread man). There are those who say founder Julian Metcalfe’s next project, Itsu, the low-carb Asian takeaway, has eclipsed Pret's cultural success but, when you’ve had a bad day, the last thing you need is #cleaneating, #sashimi and #courgettini.
Some people eat two of their three meals daily in Pret and, according to the company, where I spoke to people in marketing and food development on the record, and to a couple of others off the record, most know what they’re going have before they come through the door. Ask most people whether they like Pret and they’ll always include their favourite menu items in their answer.
Even if they think Pret is no more than a necessary evil, they’ll have one dish. “Urgh,” said Amy in the Paddington branch. “Does anyone love Pret? I don’t. But I do really like their crayfish and avocado.”
Does Pret deserve paroxysms of joyous hurrahs? No. It’s not that good. I don’t understand the people who actually download the company’s emailed event invite for the date the Christmas sandwich comes out. But even people who claim to despise Pret food – “It all tastes the same” – like the fact that they give their leftover food to homeless people at the end of the day. At head office, when we meet, the hipster Cereal Killer café has just been attacked by anti-gentrification protestors. Pret, I am told with some satisfaction, was not: “We do good stuff for the homeless and sell a 99p coffee…”
Starbucks doesn’t pay its taxes and sells large plastic cups of nugatory nutritional filth made from pink food dye, sugar and cream. Only the sort of mother who lets their kid smoke crack would give their child a Frappuccino. I’m not a naïve halfwit serving the capitalist profit motive – but I am a realist. Of the chains, Pret’s getting it as right a big company that employs 10,000 people can.
There are about 200 Prets in London, another 100 in the rest of the UK and the same again overseas. Last year they served 142 million customers
It’s owned by a bigger multi-national investment company, called Bridgepoint, which also owns totally uncute things, like Leeds Bradford International Airport and a French casino chain. They probably don’t give a toss about whether people get to eat something tasty at lunch or not, but, however much the Pret-behaviour niceties might be a shimmering mirage, a cynical corporate facade, a tissue of Pret-seasoned lies, it beats the grumps in the sandwich shop nearest me at lunchtime who only sell Walkers crisps in the three primary flavours. And, honestly, I quite like kale crisps.
What about Boots, Waitrose or M&S, you say. And my answer is Pret’s doing one job: feeding me – no danger of wandering in for a sandwich and walking out with a week’s shop, including a strange seasonal flavour of Toilet Duck (Winter Spice bleach, anyone?) and a gigantic bag of Kettle Chips (which you eat in a tired, lonely, absent-minded fashion on the journey home from work.)
Cities are full of the deskbound and desperate, and, for them, in a tiny way, Pret is a sort of replacement mummy: here’s your hot porridge, here’s your five-a-day, here’s a treat, here’s some hot food, here’s a free cup of tea. Mummy loves you.
Life can be brilliant, and sometimes we really do #lovemylife Instagram-style. Other times, it’s a grind and food is light relief, a primal and essential pleasure, as long as it isn’t served at tastebud-killing chiller temperature. Which brings me to another reason why Pret works. They build a lot of their food options in store and daily – that’s why the stuff they don’t sell goes to the homeless. It isn’t stashed with preservatives and transported overnight in refrigerated trucks. It tastes more like food and less of plain cold.
Leon is a more modern and tasty take on fresh fast food and those salad bar and burrito chains are a novelty, like drinking rum instead of vodka, but Pret has way more branches, way more choice and that shared urban experience makes it a cultural event. I’m not saying a trip to Pret is like the Turner Prize, or the opera, or even the Notting Hill Carnival – it’s prosaic, humdrum, a modest thrill in an ordinary day: one up from squeezing a spot and one down from winning 10 quid on the lottery.
There are about 200 Prets in London, another 100 in the rest of the UK and the same again overseas. Last year, they served 142 million customers. Incredibly for the home of haute cuisine, there’s a Pret in Paris that does more business than any other branch anywhere in the world.
On social media, Pret interacts with its ardent admirers. Last year, when a Pret-branded pop called Yoga Bunny – God knows why, it has roughly the same sugar as cola – disappeared off the shelves, #yogabunny trended, albeit briefly. It’s a mark of the modern corporation, that this cucumber-flavoured fizzy sugar water was back on the shelves within a few months.
Cucumber Selzer is the pop that replaced the saccharine Yoga Bunny and is a significantly less sweet take on the same flavour. The product was a hat tip to the cucumber-water trend – it’s very Pret, to gobble up food trends and flog them to the masses. A few on Twitter think it’s a perfect pairing for Hendrick’s Gin – thus dragging Pret out of the work and commute space and into the realms of “me time”. Mostly though, the Cucumber Selzer is not popular. Even the head-office mole admits it’s a “worst seller”.
However, this doesn’t mean it’s bad. It just means the punters haven’t learnt to like it yet, because “we are taking the customer on a journey”, says Clare Clough, sounding more like a DJ than Pret’s food director. Later, talking about the liberal use of quinoa in so many products, Clough repeats the journey line, with the satisfaction of knowing she has steered the British people away from rice and pasta to the protein-rich grain.
Pret is a sort of replacement mummy: here’s your hot porridge, here’s your five a day, here’s a treat, here’s some hot food, here’s a free cup of tea
The human resources director, Andrea Wareham, says the company only employs people who fit the Pret Society: “Fun is the key driver, work hard and have fun.” The aim “is for customers to feel emotionally engaged with the team – who come to work for us for a few months and end up staying years”.
When the staff smile and deliver full-beam the 18-point strong list of “Pret Behaviours”, including giving away treats to punters, however cynical that motivation may be, people feel disarmed and nicely so. Although, one customer I spoke to in a Bristol Pret said she only ever got given a free coffee when she was with her prettiest friend. An extremely attractive editor friend says she even gets given free food, so I think that Bristol customer might be on to something there.
Allowing the cynicism back in is important, and especially to the founders of PAMSU (Pret A Manger Staff Union), which was founded by five employees in 2012 and floundered the same year with only 12 members. I spoke to one of the five who says they founded the union because “as is often common in the hospitality industry, we were treated with no respect, we had little job security and were harassed and bullied by managers. Pret Behaviour? It does not work like this in practice, and I wanted to hold the management accountable.” In return, he was subjected to a smear campaign he says.
“Every time I go to Pret, everyone is so happy there, but it’s not genuine happiness, it’s an illusion because, if they don’t look happy, they lose their bonus.”
Eighty per cent of Pret’s staff come from overseas. Interestingly, on my way to visit Pret HQ, I stopped by one of the many nearby branches and asked the English guy who sold me my green tea if he liked working here. “Could be worse, could be better,” he said. But it’s great really, isn’t it, I said, willing him to display some mandatory Pret Behaviour. “Like I said,” he said, “could be worse, could be better.”
The PAMSU founder admits though, that Pret “taught me how to be efficient, organised and practical. Even though they force staff to be nice to customers, it’s a positive thing. The product and customer service is better than the other coffee shops”. He approves of “the power to give things away for free”.
Last summer, Prêt opened “Good Evenings” with all the accoutrements of a restaurant – wine, crockery, proper cutlery, jazz. Universally panned by critics, Wareham says it’s doing well regardless, and that those critics completely missed the point. It’s designed not for restaurant-going good-eating buffs, but for ordinary people who need cheap filler before going on to more liquid activities. The people need to eat – if they cannot eat filet mignon, let them eat avocado and crayfish. Jeremy Corbyn was clutching a Pret baguette going in to Labour HQ after winning the leadership contest.
Corbyn-style, I thought I’d crowdsource my questions for Pret, but the replies were overwhelming in number yet pathetic in querying scope. Just loads of questions about the food: gripes like stop using so many salad leaves, and you’re not using enough salad leaves; the boiling water in the herbal tea is “too hot”; the coffees are too small. So it went on: more mayo, less mayo, bring back Yoga Bunny, more vegan... With relief, I spotted a question from my old Marxist chum Tony, which directed me to his Facebook campaign. I assumed it would be to stop Pret’s over-reliance on crayfish from that nation of human rights horrors, China, but no, Tony the angry Marxist is demanding ‘“Bring back the onion bhaji wrap”.
Illustration: Anna Koska