“There are three core values that have always remained true to the brand and they all stem around passion. First and foremost, we are passionate about food and keeping it fresh and interesting. This is our core product and we work hard to produce the best we can. It would be easier to get tubs of guacamole instead of cutting fresh avocados in each kitchen in each shop but we stick to quality and taste.”
The second Pret passion is their staff, all 2,200 of them spread across 116 stores (25 outside London) in the UK. There are also several branches in New York as well as a Hong Kong store. Rolfe points out that in business all staff should be appreciated and that they play a huge role in the success of the brand. “We are passionate about people and our staff. They are extremely important and we make sure they have the right opportunities and rewards, that they are paid correctly and that they have fun working for us. We have and will always have a great culture and energy.”
Staff are also carefully screened before they join the company. Rolfe believes that sharing the company’s values is essential to wanting to work for Pret. “There is a rigorous assessment for each potential employee. We make them work in a shop for a few days, they have several interviews and, in each case, we try to get to know them as individuals.”
The third and final part of Pret’s sandwich success story is to be passionate and proud of the business and what they have achieved. Rolfe comments: “We make and have made mistakes but we remain proud of what we do and we try not to get distracted by a corporate approach.”
“Originally, when we invested, Pret was very much a lunch business,” said William Jackson, its chairman and managing partner at Bridgepoint, which now owns a 66% stake in the chain. “We’ve built it from breakfast through to the afternoon, and now it’s moving towards the evenings.”
Pret offers the same basic products in all its markets but adapts its service style and menu to suit local tastes. In the U.S., coffee is largely self-serve and customers get a choice of salad dressing. In Britain, baristas make the coffee, and salads are paired with a single dressing.
“Americans have always felt that they have the right to have it their way,” said Mr. Schlee. “They have a long and deeply ingrained habit of choosing what they want.”
Pret chefs prepare Swedish-meatball wraps in a shop kitchen. ENLARGE
Pret chefs prepare Swedish-meatball wraps in a shop kitchen. PHOTO: PRET A MANGER
In Hong Kong, the company offers more hot food and single sandwiches so people can mix and match, while in Paris it offers a wider array of desserts.
Pret’s growth slowed during the recession as customers ate out less. In response, it started offering coffee in the U.K. for 99 pence, which helped bring customers back.
"Our two noodle lunches, both Vegetarian and Prawn, are made with fresh egg noodles, not the cheaper dried variety. The noodles are dressed in our Oriental sauce, bursting with ginger, sesame and coriander."
Visit a few of their stores and you start to see some of the systems in operation. Basic systems for how the stores will look. What materials do we use to help keep them clean and make them easy to maintain? How to layout the store to make it easy for people to select their food, pay for it and take it away? How should our sandwiches be displayed and what type of cups are we going to use?
These things don't just happen by accident. And they don't just happen occasionally. They happen consistently. Time and time again. The result is that the customers know exactly what to expect. Fast and friendly service, superb food, great environment and easy to purchase.
The assistant took tremendous care with each item and described it to the customer as he rang it in. When he got to one of the sandwiches, he stopped. "Salmon and cucumber," he said, "I'll change that one for you."
The assistant went on to explain. "This sandwich is not quite full with salmon and we like to see our sandwiches bursting with fresh salmon. I'll find you another sandwich."
Pret a Manger has grown to an annual £450 million revenue company on a simple business offering: fresh, sustainably sourced, tasty, additives-free food — delivered fast.
Its message is simple and the words “organic” and “natural” are used repeatedly in its messaging throughout an experience at a Pret cafe.
What stands out is that Pret is generating at least twice as much revenue per store as any of its rivals. This may be because of Pret’s greater food offerings compared to its rival coffee chains and also the speed of Pret’s delivery. Compared to Starbucks, where customers in the US can wait up to 10 minutes for a coffee, Pret can field up to 10 staff at the till in peak times, aiming to serve customers within 60-90 seconds of them getting in line.
Ever since, despite the credit crunch and subsequent downturn, it has been fast uphill for Pret. Sales have continued to rise around 15% year on year, growth that has fuelled an ambitious expansion strategy. Pret now operates more than 360 outlets, in locations far beyond its London heartlands.
But it’s inside the stores that Pret has cultivated its most distinctive identity. There’s the quirky atmosphere – a mix of the upbeat and the helpful. There are the cheerful staff at the tills, baristas shouting out the orders for coffee, the drinks being relayed to the counter with all the theatre of a rugby ball emerging from a scrum. Pret’s goal is to serve you within 60 seconds – with warm wishes in your ear – so with a tap of your card, you’re on your way.
Back in 2013, Pret’s CEO, Clive Schlee, made headlines when he revealed that on store visits: “The first thing I look at is whether the staff are touching each other. Are they smiling, reacting to each other, happy, engaged? I can almost predict sales on body language alone.”
Critics leapt on this as evidence that Pret was peddling an inauthentic “have a nice day” culture, the cheerfulness prised out of a workforce worried they were being spied upon.
It’s a charge that I put to Wareham. She denies this is the case at Pret. “If you tell people what to say it will come across as false. We don’t do any of that. I think a lot of companies will talk about customer service. But we start before that. We create the happy team so that everything else flows.” She points out that the staff retention rate is improving. In the last six years their annual employee turnover has dipped from 90% to 60%, which she claims is “good for this industry”.
So how does Pret attempt to create a happy workforce? It starts with its recruitment strategies. A staff member is not hired on the strength of a traditional CV but on whether they conform to the three core Pret behaviours: passion, clear talking and team working. “In the recruiting centres they are not asking about have you made sandwiches before, can you make coffee, they are asking questions to see if people have these qualities,” Wareham says.
There’s a career path for those wanting to climb the ladder. You join as a team member, after three months you are promoted to become a team member staff, then you come to a fork where you can specialise, becoming a hot chef, a barista or a trainer in the shop.
After that you can rise to be a team leader and, after about three years of service, an assistant manager. “Eighty per cent of our managers start as team members,” Wareham says. “If you invest in your people, if you put your absolute focus on that part of your business, then everything else flows. To any small business, I’d say you have to put your money where your mouth is. Don’t have a shiny office, don’t have the lovely Apple Mac computers, don’t do any of that. A traditional company will spend 7% of their turnover on marketing, but we spend 1% and we invest everything in our people.”
The company uses staff reward schemes. Every shop has a mystery shopper visit each week, who is looking for engagement with a team member.
If the mystery shopper has a good experience, team members get an extra £1 an hour for the hours they have worked for the week. “Eighty per cent of our shops get the bonus every week,” says Wareham.
There are other performance nudges too. For a particularly good example of customer service – helping a parent through the door with a pram for instance – team members are rewarded with Outstanding Cards, which translate into £50 rewards.
There are also perks for the customers. One such initiative is the Joy of Pret which allows staff to give away free drinks to returning or deserving customers. Ben Rogers, a 21-year-old trainee manager, says these perks make customers happy, which in turn makes the staff happy. Rogers, who has been working for Pret for two and a half years at a store in Vauxhall, London, applied to work for the company having seen an advert for Pret’s school leavers’ programme on a website.