The Pret Phenomenon

They just sell sandwiches don’t they?

If I have an early morning meeting in London I am often the first customer in my favourite sandwich shop Pret a Manger. There are few things I enjoy as much as eating a tomato-and-egg baguette, sipping coffee and orange juice, while I sit back and watch fellow Londoners scurrying to work. Some of the pleasure I get comes from just observing such a well-run business. I recently got to thinking about just why I like it so much.

First and foremost I like the food; I guess I would, being British. The Earl of Sandwich started something in the 18th-century that Pret continues to this day. It is fundamentally a sandwich shop with a limited and predictable menu. Pret seems to introduce new products slowly, in a rather deliberate way, but that’s not a bad thing, it’s a strength.

I know I am going to be served well, often with a degree of energy and engagement not usually found in UK retail. Also, I rarely wait long to be served: Pret is in the fast food business after all. This level of customer service, and responsiveness, is unusual in my experience, as I don’t think modern Brits like the idea of service. No surprise then that only 19 per cent of the staff come from the UK. Sixty per cent are from other EU countries, mostly from Eastern Europe. The employees seem to work hard and work well together. It is interesting that they all have a say in hiring new recruits: an aspiring employee does a day in a store and then the rest of the staff vote on whether to employ them or not. Supervision also seems to be visible, attentive and effective.

What makes Pret stand out, I think, is consistent delivery against its promises to provide quality food and quality service and to be responsive to waiting customers. To do this in one shop would be good, to scale that up to 220 stores, of which 163 are in London, is a very impressive achievement.

You know what to expect from Pret. Perhaps this, or something like it, would be a more appropriate strap line in today’s competitive market. Freshness and quality ingredients, its original positioning, are more common now than they were in 1986, the year they sold their first sandwich.


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