Photos by Caroline Leszczinski.
What are you doing? Stuffing your face? Here's what the place you buy your pretentious office lunch from says about you.
PRET A MANGER
Famously, if you want to work at Pret, all of the staff get together at the end of your first day and vote on whether you should continue. This is why they are all so jumpy, creepy and eager, because everyone's first day ended with a workplace version of that moment where a hostage-taker asks you to shoot one member of your family.
Despite some stiff competition, they remain the high-street kings of talking to you like you are a five-year-old child. They are only just behind Innocent Smoothies in terms of teeth-grinding twee, mistakenly giving-off the impression that their target audience is C-student boarding school girls on the cusp of puberty. Again, this is at odds with the misery dictionary their office-choked customers swallow every day. Gulp down another super-awesome sandwich. It's absolutely chockers with goodness. Are you going to take that yummy avocado wrap back to your lonely desk in corporate accounts? Is that rockin' bap a floury pillow to cry all your sorrows into? I imagine Pret's copywriters have the highest suicide rate in the business, and no one can quite tell why. One day they're just writing self-consciously short sentences in a whimsical thinking-aloud style to decorate the rear of the new jumbo Nicoise salad box. The next their shoes are found a good 50m from where the 08:31 to Paddington hit them. So it goes.
Itsu was invented by one of the guys who started Pret. He'd no doubt noticed that his customers were starting to look more and more like he'd mistakenly knocked the horizontal-vertical balance on his TV, and so, having sold them the disease, he aimed to sell them the cure. Food with fewer calories than cardboard sausages and invisible potato. Famously, Itsu was the venue at which Aleksander Litvinenko ate after being poisoned with a radioactive isotope by Putin's kill team. For all the trauma, perhaps the owners can take comfort from the likelihood that the heart-healthy ingredients in his low-fat meal enabled him to live another 30 or 45 seconds. Flush with cash, in 2009 Itsu stores suddenly started springing up everywhere, rolled out in the middle of the night so quickly yet subtly that you couldn't even remember what shop had been there before them. Pretty soon, without so much as a word, you were just expected to accept your new Itsu overlords. This is why their stores always have the awkward air of citizens emerging blinking into the bright light of a new world order they don't quite understand. The people in there don't know why they are eating at Itsu. They don't expect to ever find out. And they are satisfied with this equilibrium of mystery. The cafe where Winston Smith decided he loved Big Brother: that's Itsu at 1.30PM every weekday.
The Foxtons of sandwich shops, Apostrop'he (along with the mysterious apostrophe hovering placelessly over the name), was invented by an ex-banker who "followed his nose" into food, and that's the vibe it still exudes: that it has been cobbled together by someone who can't see why bigger is not always better, a philistine posing as an aesthete, a man who likes Cartier and Joss Stone, Givenchy and Adele. Every time you walk in, your toes involuntarily curl from the likelihood that you'll be greeted by Geraint Anderson and the cast of Made In Chelsea exchanging price data on Knightsbridge buy-to-lets over a koala and sparrow's heart brioche. It's very easy to tell how much something costs in Apo'strophe – just take how much you'd be prepared to pay for it and double it. POD
The present trend on the high street is to make the name of your eatery the shortest word you can possibly think of. On that score, Pod are now market leaders. As a name, it has been focus-grouped and poll-tested into sculpted perfection. No doubt the branding company that came up with it billed for somewhere near the £2 million mark. And it was worth every penny. All the associations with “Pod” are positive, comforting, emolliating. Escape Pod. iPod. Seed Pod. Whale pod. A soft, rounded "P" flows into a soft, rounded "O", which blends seamlessly into a soft, rounded "D", like triple-ply toilet paper, wrapping you in its dulcet balm. Pod appeals to the people who want to leave the harsh realities of Itsu behind. They're done with that urban Vietnam. They've gone on an emotional journey that has led them into believing that all their favourite high-street lunch chains have become tainted and degraded by commerce. There's something very millennialist about the place: Pod packages its food like nutritional survival kits for a coming apocalypse. I wouldn't be surprised if they have shotguns and vegan-friendly candles stuffed in the back of those pricey green fridges. Their clients are the real hardcore, all obsessed with some delusional holy grail of maximum nutritional purity. Consequently, all the things they sell are foods that pass through your digestive system without ever donating a calorie. Its process isn't so much to nourish you as to exfoliate your colon. EAT
There is a lot of debate over whether you're supposed to say "Eat" or "E… A… T.". It's difficult to know what guidance to give: after all, the sentence: “I'm going to eat at Eat," is basically designed to humiliate and insult grown adults. It's probable they use it at Guantanamo in order to send some of the more belligerent prisoners round the twist. At the same time, “I am going to eat at E.A.T,” just sounds like you've already had that breakdown, and you've arrived at a fragile point of mental equilibrium where the only way you can still function is by spelling out words. I'm going to S.I.T. on the S.O.F.A. Please don't H.I.T. me with that S.T.I.C.K. I H.A.V.E. a N.A.M.E. And so on. EAT's function is to be a sort of Next to Pret's Topshop. Foodie food for people who are profoundly suspicious of the whole foodie ideal. Hence, they specialise in brown-on-brown logos that implore you to eat something sensible that doesn't excite your taste-buds too much. The excitation of taste buds, goes the unspoken message, is what has brought ruin to Britain. Get to bed early, avoid masturbation, make sure you don't inflame your passions with a lemon vinaigrette, and you probably won't put any unnecessary blemishes on your CV. If Britain were ever run by a neo-Cromwell puritan dictator, EAT would be well-positioned to be the state-sanctioned delicatessen. Then all the decadent Prets would be knocked down to make way for one long never-ending row of EATs – brown-on-brown-on-brown as far as the eye could see. Like women who slept with the butcher for an extra pound of bacon during WWII, a wink and a furtive hand-job could probably get you some kind of paprika shake and a sun-dried tomato, instead of all of that grey tuna, brown steak and pale-yellow cheese on off-white bread. Theirs is the first truly sepia menu in Britain. In contrast to the hostage-smile nervous wrecks at Pret, the staff at EAT are always depressed because they are the human slurry that couldn't get jobs at Pret. Yet they still have to look out across the road, to the Pret inevitably opposite, and imagine the happier existences, the better dreams, taking place just beyond the lip of their identity. Faced with watching their alternate universe life eight hours a day, they invent complex character lists and situations that are happening just over there. If you ever catch an EAT employee whispering under her breath, “Welcome to Pret, will you be eating in today?” you will now know why.
Follow Gavin on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes
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