Outside a central London branch of Pret a Manger, an artificial snow machine blows a small blizzard over the queue of people waiting to be let in. Two staff members wearing Santa hats tick names off on a clipboard. Inside, the tables are piled with mounds of mince pies and gingerbread biscuits.
It's early November – the Regent Street Christmas lights won't be switched on for another ten days – and I'm at the launch of Pret's Christmas sandwich, a seasonal menu item that has developed a cult-like following, with fans anticipating its arrival every year (or at least, tweeting a lot about it). It's the first time Pret has invited members of the public to celebrate the return of its Christmas range.
"I can't remember Pret not existing, if I'm honest," says a 21-year-old student, who's at the event with a friend. "I actually don't know how long it's been around. It feels like forever."
On my bus journey home from the sandwich launch, I try to count the number of Prets I see. I lose track after five. I realise that I too can't remember a time when Pret wasn't around.
Of course, Pret hasn't actually been around forever, but it is hard to think of another British high street food chain with similar omnipresence – especially in London. The brand currently has over 500 shops in the UK and internationally, including the US, France, Belgium, Hong Kong, Singapore, Switzerland, Dubai, Denmark and Germany. Around 237 are located in the British capital.
Founded by university friends Julian Metcalfe and Sinclair Beecham, who purchased the branding from a liquidated shop in Hampstead, Pret started out with a single store near Victoria station in 1986. With freshly made, Italian-inspired sandwiches, it offered a welcome alternative to what Metcalfe described as the "very grim" eating options of 1980s London, and was a hit with nearby office workers. By 1997, there were 53 Pret shops in the UK, followed by one in New York three years later. In 2001, a third of the business was sold to McDonald's for an estimated £50 million. Seven years later, private equity firm Bridgepoint bought this stake for £364 million.
The last decade has seen Pret build on this growth. In 2016, it launched vegetarian spin-off chain Veggie Pret, and earlier this year announced that it was buying rival food chain Eat, with all 90 stores to be shuttered or turned into Prets. Last year, Bridgepoint sold Pret for £1.5 billion to JAB Holdings, the Luxembourg-based investment fund that also owns Krispy Kreme. While it reportedly set aside £10 million for legal costs associated with the death of teenager Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who suffered anaphylaxis after eating a mislabeled baguette in 2016, Pret's so-called "allergy scandal" doesn't seem to have made too much of a dent in its profits. The company reported a turnover of £710 million for its UK business in October, an increase on last year's £636.9 million.
As we enter the 2020s, Pret's reign looks set to continue.
Much of Pret's success is down to its promise of "freshly prepared food" – an alternative to rival chains that ship their sandwiches in from faceless catering suppliers. Exactly how wholesome Pret's menu items are is up for debate. In 2018, the Advertising Standards Agency ruled that the chain could not advertise its sandwiches as "natural", due to the presence of E-numbers, while critics point out that many of its products also contain artificial additives and preservatives to improve shelf life.
Still, the freshly made tagline remains an incredibly effective marketing tool. "I think they have a very specific customer value proposition, which is 'fresh on the day'," says John Colley, a professor of practice at Warwick Business School. "There's not so many others who actually have that, whereby sandwiches are made on the day, pastries are produced on the day."
The woman charged with overseeing Pret's food offering is Hannah Dolan, head of global food and drink innovation, who operates from a small test kitchen at the company's head office in Victoria. I'm pre-warned about exactly how small the space is before I visit, but its size still surprises me: a slim room with an island table and fridges along one wall, then a squat back kitchen with containers of ingredients packed tightly on every shelf.
"It's set up like a shop kitchen," Dolan explains. "Every shop has its benches, ovens, microwaves and toasting machines, and then we have a walk-in fridge and freezer that everything is kept in. It all happens in here."
Dolan, along with five "innovation managers", develops menu items for Pret shops in the UK, as well as its overseas outposts. Every one of these products – from sandwiches to vegetable crisps to chia puddings – is divided into five categories.
"One is 'classic', so things like the tuna baguette or Posh Cheddar or Chef's Italian," Dolan explains. "Then we have 'health', so not necessarily super-healthy, but perceived health – things like juices and breakfast pots. Then 'warmth' – so all-around comfort, like soups – and then 'quirky' is one of our other things."
"Quirky" can be hard to explain to her American colleagues, Dolan admits, but means taking a little-known food item and making it mainstream, or offering a Pret version of a popular existing product. She shows me the almond butter bites as an example – a Pret take on Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. "It's like, how do you make something mainstream more Pret, or make something niche more Pret?" she says.
Sandwiches, salads and wraps are made fresh each day in Pret shops, so the recipes Dolan and her team come up with must be achievable within a small kitchen space, with a method and ingredients list short enough to fit on a recipe card. "You need to get the guys in shops to be making it consistently every time," Dolan explains. Overall, it takes her team around nine months of recipe-testing and sign-off from different areas of the business before a new product reaches the shelves.
"We look at things 20, 30, 40, 50 times sometimes," says Dolan. "The vegan cookie over there, I must have seen about 50 times before we launched."
Dolan has found some variation in the popularity of products in different countries. Pret customers in the US prefer Balsamic dressings, while Hong Kong likes to mix-and-match single sandwiches. However, across all markets, there is one type of Pret product that remains popular: "The chicken Caesar baguette, the tuna – so, the classics," Dolan sums up.
This isn't hugely surprising. As the furore over the discontinuation of Pret’s jambon beurre and the temporary disappearance of its vegan cookie shows, people are staunchly loyal to their Pret favourites. "Our customer service team were like, 'For the sake of our humanity, please can you bring back this damn cookie,'" jokes Pret's UK PR manager Ailsa Wheeler Aldridge. In the decade that gave us Trump and Brexit, is it any wonder that we crave the familiarity of a lunch that looks and tastes the same every time?
In response to its customers' love of the classics, Pret has launched vegan versions of some of its most popular sandwiches and wraps. "We put a poll out on Instagram a few weeks ago – luckily we'd been working on these in the background – and we asked, 'What would you like to veganise of our core range?'" says Dolan. "The top answer was cheese. Unfortunately, we haven't quite got there yet. Cheese is hard!"
She brings out a "tuna" baguette made with chickpeas, a hoisin mushroom wrap that mimics Pret’s popular duck version and a surprisingly good egg mayonnaise made from turmeric-seasoned tofu. Even without a vegan Posh Cheddar and Pickle, the range is very good.
When the products are released in stores a few days later, every veggie in the VICE office is talking about the "chuna" baguette. Friends WhatsApp me asking if I've heard about Pret's new eggless egg mayo. A new classic is born.
It's both a cliche and the fuel of Reddit threads, TimeOut articles and parody Twitter accounts that there are Prets everywhere in London. That doesn't stop it from being true. There are Prets everywhere in London. This ubiquity must have something to do with the company's success over the last decade. Accessibility is obviously one thing, but equally: if customers are exposed to your branding multiple times, they are more likely to buy from you – it's a classic business strategy. Either that, or they feel mentally bludgeoned by the endless maroon stars and stop in for a latte out of sheer exhaustion.
Pret may appear to be everywhere, but the locations of its shops are actually strategically chosen – often urban areas in the south-east of England where customers have higher levels of disposable wealth. This has allowed the business to grow in spite of the widespread downturn of the high street that claimed fellow food chains like Jamie's Italian and Carluccio’s.
"To actually penetrate the north, where disposable wealth is marginal, they just don't bother. A city like Nottingham, where 800,000 people live in the wider area, it has two Pret a Mangers," explains Colley. "You go to London and there are several hundred. Now you can see it's entirely down to disposable income and where they can get the volume [of customers] through the stores. I think that's the thing they've done well. What most chains do is just pour stores into the whole country willy-nilly, and as we've seen with the restaurant chains, as soon as demand drops overall, they're all into receivership."
Pret CEO Pano Christou boils the company's success down to two things. "Two important aspects of Pret have been critical to growing our business in the past decade: our business model and launch of Veggie Pret," he tells me.
The first because, as Colley notes, it sets Pret apart from rival high street sandwich chains. The second may well be a plug for the spate of new Veggie Prets opening next year, but the company does intend to turn many of the acquired EAT shops into Veggie Prets due to the success of its original Soho pop-up. "Opening Veggie Pret has also had a huge impact, differentiating us on the high street and appealing to a new type of customer," Christou adds.
The future of Pret, Christou says, includes "turbocharging the growth of Veggie Pret" and integrating new technology to improve customer experience. "We’re trialling a few different digital options in our shops, such as ordering ahead using an app," he says. "The ambition is to make it even easier, faster and more convenient for our customers to purchase and enjoy food and drinks at Pret."
Christou does not say whether such technologies would impact the people who work in Pret’s shops. Alongside its dependable food offerings and the sheer number of outlets, Pret is notorious for its cheery – and very human – customer service. Staff are trained to create the "Pret Buzz": smiling as they call out coffee orders, making smalltalk with regulars and giving freebies to customers they like the look of. Former CEO Clive Schlee said the first thing he looked for in shops was "whether staff are touching each other. Are they smiling, reacting to each other, happy, engaged?"
Rui worked at a Pret in north London for six months as a chef, and experienced this upbeat style of customer service first-hand. "They try to get a good energy about people," he says. "They don't want it to be like, 'I’m having a crap day,' [because] of course you're going to be worse at the job you're doing. So yeah, they're trying to always be energetic and to push you around, but it's not going to be a bad type of push."
To ensure standards are maintained, mystery shoppers visit each of Pret's shops once a week. They order hot and cold food, inspect the shop's appearance and may also test staff members on knowledge of ingredients or allergens. If the shop passes the test, its staff receive a bonus on that week's salary. "If the team members don't accomplish the job – so, like, cleaning the area, maintaining the lines – you lose the bonus for one week," Rui says. Another former Pret staff member tells me she felt pressure from management to appear happy during mystery shopper visits.
In early 2013, the London Review of Books described Pret's mystery shopper test as a "panoptical regime of surveillance and assessment". The growth of the service economy meant that staff were now expected to give emotional availability, in order for their company to maintain its edge over competitors. "Work increasingly isn't, or isn't only, a matter of producing things, but of supplying your energies, physical and emotional, in the service of others," Paul Myerscough wrote.
This was a year in which Pret's global sales would rise 17 percent on the previous year, to £443 million, and see the opening of more than 40 new stores. It was also one in which the company denied accusations that it had fired a worker who was attempting to set up a staff union demanding London living wage.
It seems fairly apt that one of the most successful British food chains of the 2010s – the decade of our reckoning with late capitalism and of workers' rights being eroded by the gig economy and Tory Brexit deals – would feature unregulated growth, alleged union-busting and the introduction of "emotional labour" to workplace lexicon, all in a single year.
Rui now works in a different coffee shop – one where happiness isn't quite so enforced. "I'm completely trying to get used to the environment, but it's more relaxed, you're selling coffee, talking with the customers," he says. "In Pret, no, it's more energetic, it's faster."
Before this, and before Pret, he worked at global food chains including TGI Fridays and McDonald's. When he looks back at his time with each company, however, he doesn't see much of a difference in their approach to staff. "Do you want me to be honest with you? It's the same!" he laughs. "It's the same. It's the same job, it's making food – that's all."
We all know Pret is just food. Their coconut flat white is just a coffee and the tuna and cucumber sandwich is just a sandwich that you could make at home for half the price. But as our working hours become longer and technology makes us further removed from normal human intimacy, it’s more than just food. And so you keep going to Pret and they keep opening stores.
Before you know it, the Posh Prosciutto baguette is your "go-to lunch" because buying it means you don't have to really think about sustenance. You notice when they introduce a new falafel flatbread. You have a favourite barista at the Pret near your office and you arrive at train stations and airports early, so that you have time to buy a bacon brioche. And then, one day, you find yourself standing in a central London Pret on a weeknight, trying to remember a time when this monolithic sandwich chain did not exist.
Pret became the nation's favourite sandwich shop not for its food or customer service, but its dependability. It is easier to go to Pret than not to go to Pret. In this turbulent decade of political uncertainty and an escalating climate crisis, it's nice to have something as knowable as a place where the staff smile at you, and you can always get a good egg mayo sandwich.
Back in the test kitchen, I ask Dolan what Pret's most popular menu item is.
"Annoyingly, the top-selling line in all markets is the croissant," she says. "My sister-in-law, who has moved to Australia, is like, 'I love your savoury croissants.' I'm like, 'What? We've launched so many better things since then!' She says, 'Yeah, but they’re so good – you can get them at Singapore airport.'"
We don't want better things, we just want the familiar embrace of Pret. Get ready for another ten years.