For the harassed office worker or bewildered tourist, Pret A Manger fills a gap. Dependable in its quality, if about as exciting as a night in a Premier Inn. Less profligate than a £10 salad bar, but not as downtrodden as a Boots meal deal. One does not savour a Pret sandwich so much as refuel with it.
And so the idea of the Pret tuna mayo baguette as a British export success story seems faintly ridiculous, like trying to market drizzly grey holidays to the Portuguese. Why would any country with a superior food culture – France, India, Israel, I could go on – opt for Pret? And yet that is exactly what the company is banking on. Global expansion is currently high on its agenda.
Surely, though, Pret could only be a success (revenues of £357.8 million in the first six months of 2022) in a country that prioritises screen time over lunchtime? The Protestant work ethic means that convenience is more important than conviviality; the chain tries to serve every customer within 60 seconds of joining the queue.
Yes, we all know we should be making our lunch at home, but when that inevitably doesn’t happen, Pret is always there. It has long understood the idea that workers are unwilling to walk further than a street or two for lunch.
The pandemic was difficult for the primarily London-based chain. Overnight its clientele disappeared into lockdown. The consequence was 2,890 redundancies and 28 shop closures; a decade of growth wiped away in weeks. And then, in 2021, Pret announced its ambition to double the size of the business in the next five years.
Last year, the big focus was on new shops in regional and suburban areas, including outlets in Essex, Harrogate, Leicester, Leeds, York, Oxford, Chiswick, Twickenham, Muswell Hill and Reigate. Pret now has 429 shops in the UK. (Consider that Starbucks has around 1,000, McDonald’s 1,300, Costa 2,400 and Greggs 2,000.) It is a strategy that will reduce its reliance on office workers in the capital, and target homeworkers and shoppers.
What is more interesting is its plan to continue to spread the sandwich gospel around the world: the company aims to expand into five new global markets by the end of 2023. Prior to the pandemic, there was already a Pret presence in the US, France and Hong Kong.
A former Telegraph colleague who now lives in Hong Kong thought she’d escaped the black hole of temptation, only to discover that Pret is there for when she tires of Shanghai dumplings, laksa or dim sum from one of the legions of tiny restaurants serving office workers: “I do find myself going quite frequently, but that’s because I see it as a taste of home. You always know what you’re going to get – and it feels like they make an effort to be healthy,” she says.
A hint that sandwiches aren’t a very big thing in Hong Kong is that their triangles come in singles only. The “Slim Pret” range is rarer in sandwich-mad UK. “And Pret is for the most part on Hong Kong Island,” says my colleague, “which is the most affluent [and westernised] business district. People living or working in the New Territories wouldn’t typically be eating Pret stuff.”
Elsewhere, cultural differences are being crossed with a confident stride. In the last 18 months, Pret has announced new shops in a range of markets including Ireland, Canada, Israel, India, Spain and Portugal.
When Sarit Packer first read about the new franchise deal to take Pret to Israel, she turned to her husband, Itamar Srulovich, and asked, “Why?”
“It’s just strange, I wouldn’t think it was their market in any way. What needs can they be filling?” says the Israeli chef, who co-founded the Middle Eastern-inspired Honey & Co restaurant with Srulovich in London in 2012.
While she knows Israelis make a beeline for Pret when they visit London (“because it’s safe and, you know, England can be a bit hit and miss”), that doesn’t mean they would eat it back home, where fresh produce rules.
“Street food is amazing in Israel. There are local chains that will do far better quality and freshness. They bake the bread on site and assemble sandwiches as you order. You’re outside all the time. You don’t get your sandwich then head back to the office. Nobody needs a pre-packaged sandwich. The idea of sandwiches in fridges is alien.”
She certainly can’t see Pret’s hummus wraps or falafel salads going down well: “If they try and take the falafel to Israel, the people will slaughter them,” she says definitively.
“The one thing that I was shocked by when I moved to this country is that anyone would eat a cold falafel. Falafel comes from the fryer and you eat it straight away,” she says.
Pret is not the first company to hubristically set up shop in Israel. “Starbucks and Nando’s have tried to open and failed,” adds Packer. “Unless they’re aiming for petrol stations, I can’t see anyone in Tel Aviv saying, ‘Oh, I really need a Pret sandwich.’”
Oded Oren, another Israeli food entrepreneur, who is dedicated to improving the range of fresh food in the UK, agrees. It’s not that he won’t eat Pret food: “Going to Pret is a ritual at the airport. I like to get stuck in alongside everybody else.” But he adds: “I find it hard to believe they will succeed.”
His latest venture, Oren Delicatessen, hopes to enhance the UK’s array of lunch options and he says he finds the British culture of meal deals worrying: “When I see people getting their sandwich, bag of crisps and a Coke, I don’t think that’s a good thing.”
And yet Pret has already subverted expectations in France, where selling pains au chocolat is surely like selling ice to the eskimos. The success of Pret in the country of the jambon-beurre surprises French food journalist Alice Bosio: “I’m not sure I understand why Parisian people go there, in a city where the offer of gourmet sandwiches and street food is so wide, diverse, growing and of good quality.”
The Paris shops are smartly located in tourist spots, shopping zones or office areas. Cost, just as in the UK, is an undeniable factor. “Artisanal and good street-food spots here are a bit more expensive (€10 to €15 for a sandwich). But we do have many choices in Paris, even in Pret’s price range, chains like Cojean (focused on healthy food) and many bakeries that prepare sandwiches, salads and hot dishes.”
Given that Google’s 2022 Community Mobility Reports show the rest of Europe returning to office work in greater numbers than the UK, it may be that the stereotype of the long-lunching continental has had its day. “We go out often for lunch with colleagues – a bit less now since Covid, with home working – but we can’t afford real restaurants every day, so chains like Pret are convenient to spend a moment sitting without spending too much,” says Bosio.
But with so much choice available, not least franchouillard chain Paul, she suspects that another reason for Pret’s success might be, to borrow another French word, its cachet.
“Pret is associated with London and benefits from its image of a great metropolis,” says Bosio. “It brings back memories from London trips and makes people feel like connoisseurs.”
It was a similar story in the US, where Pret opened its first outpost in Manhattan in 2001. In the original Sex and the City film, released in 2008, Carrie and Miranda have lunch in a park with Pret bags on their laps. What looked like product placement apparently was not: the company revealed at the time that Sarah Jessica Parker regularly bought her lunch from Pret and had requested the sandwiches for the scene simply because she likes them. The company certainly works hard to adapt their offering to each new country, keeping an eye on what is going down well: avocado and falafels on pita bread in France; the crayfish and rocket sandwich in Hong Kong; chicken caesar salad in the US.
Speaking to The Telegraph, Pano Christou, Pret A Manger’s chief executive, concedes that: “Key to adapting to new markets are our franchise partners, who understand local nuances and how to bring the joy of Pret to each one in the right way. It’s been a busy couple of years, but we’re not planning to ease off on our ambitions to bring Pret to the world.”
While many of us will rue the day we can only get a Pret jambon-beurre from a French service station, others see it as a cause for celebration. Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, says: “Pret A Manger is the latest in a long line of hugely successful businesses to innovate and deliver massive change in order to come through the challenges of the pandemic and the energy crisis. To see them hitting the expansion trail again in this way is testament to their enormous resilience. It is another extraordinary export success story that we should all celebrate.”
Something, indeed, to raise a sparkling grape and elderflower juice to.