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The founders of Pret are Sinclair Beecham and Julian Metcalfe, college friends who paired up 15 years ago to introduce in London a sleek foodservice concept designed to offer an alternative to hamburger-fries-shakes fast-food menus. The name Pret A Manger, meaning "ready to eat" in French, was taken from a restaurant in Hampstead, a London suburb that had tried to keep McDonald's from setting up business in the area.
Since the first Pret unit debuted, more than 100 other locations have been opened in the United Kingdom, 10 in New York City and two in Hong Kong. By 2004, 30 more units are expected to open in Manhattan, as well as more units in Hong Kong and Japan. International expansion has been fueled by, ironically, none other than McDonald's Corp., which last year secured a 33% interest in Pret.
Unlike its competitors, Pret's décor is industrial "chic" - creating a crisp, clean environment with reflective brushed aluminum walls, stools and diamond-shaped floors, stainless-steel refrigerated cases and a central serving counter with cash registers, freestanding and under-counter refrigerators, merchandising units, coffee and tea brewers, soup tureens and a convection oven. The few touches of color - a yellow wall and orange ceiling with suspended exposed pipes, as well as burgundy stars found on entrance mats, balloons, merchandising stands, packaging and menu boards - capture customers' attention amidst the contemporary, sleek ambiance.
At each Pret, explained Gabriel Yifrah, director of U.S. construction, menu items, mainly sandwiches and a selection of salads and desserts, are assembled and packaged on-premises and displayed in refrigerated display units. Soups, on-site baked croissants and cookies, and bottled and dispensed beverages also are an integral part of the menu mix. In its marketing literature and in Passion Facts, Pret emphasizes its use of "handmade, natural food." In addition, facts explain that, "Every Pret has its own kitchen. We don't have a factory. We make our sandwiches, baguettes and PretWraps one by one, in every shop, throughout the day. You won't find sell-by dates and storage information on our sandwiches and wraps. If our fresh food doesn't sell out each day, we give it away to charity rather than compromise our standards."
Unit staff begin food assembly at 7 a.m. and refresh the food supply throughout the day as needed. In a large unit, 10 stainless-steel prep tables and refrigerated ingredient display units are arranged so employees can assemble fresh ingredients into sandwiches (1,500 are made daily on average), then wrap and package them in logoed boxes (inscribed with the Pret logo and message "handmade in this Pret today" and listing natural ingredients) for presentation in refrigerated display units located in the front of the house. Certain designated sandwiches are made at specific tables. Assembly instructions, along with photographs of how each ingredient is positioned, are available at each station for employees' reference. Desserts and salads are assembled here, as well.
Also in the kitchen are coffee brewers, a bean grinder, an iced-tea brewer and a countertop slicer for cutting meats and vegetables. The only products heated on-premise are soups, which are delivered to each unit in one-gallon sealed plastic bags and rethermalized in a 10-gallon electric steam-jacketed kettle before being taken out front and placed in tureens for holding and serving.
Each unit's kitchen is equipped, as well, with sinks for washing cutting boards, scoops and other utensils, and for sanitizing fruit and vegetables. Overhead steel shelving units are positioned throughout the kitchen, while floors are protected by water-resistant, non-stick vinyl.
After preparation and assembly, all menu items, which may total up to 31 each day, are taken to the front of house for display. Refrigerated items, including bottled beverages, are placed in one of five floor-to-ceiling refrigerated cases that have been positioned side by side near the entranceway.
A centrally positioned serving counter is situated perpendicular to the refrigerated cases. During busy traffic periods, eight cashiers are positioned shoulder-to-shoulder to offer quick check-out. "We want to serve customers in 90 seconds or less," explained Naomi Golding, general manager of the 42nd Street NYC unit.
Behind the counter from left to right in this Pret unit are a reach-in refrigerator used primarily for milk storage, two iced-tea dispensers, a drip coffee dispenser, coffee machines that produce cappuccino, latte, mocha and espresso drinks, two soup tureens and a convection oven for baking croissants and cookies, as well as tomatoes, almonds and pine nuts. Products made in the oven are placed across the aisle at the front countertop display unit. Space below the back counters is dedicated to dry and refrigerated storage.
At the front counters, customers' orders are placed either into take-out bags or on 12-inch aluminum round trays. Seating is available at larger units for 72 on stools with aluminum bases and vinyl cushions placed at bar-counters lining the walls and at round tables with marble tops.
The simplicity of the Pret concept, along with its emphasis on food variety, is what Yifrah claimed to be the chief reason for its success. Even the process for purchasing equipment was streamlined. "We started by purchasing the same equipment used in the U.K. and importing it to the States," explained Yifrah. "Now, we have the equipment customized in the States based on specifications established in the U.K. The equipment here and in the U.K. looks alike. The only difference is where it is produced." Pret's success can also be attributed to employee training and development that contribute to below industry average turnover.
With its ambitious expectations for expansion, Pret A Manger continues to refine a formula that has led to its current success. Selecting E&S so that products are productive and appropriate for the cold menu concept, as well as maintaining them to reflect the shiny, contemporary ambiance will continue to challenge the enterprising owners as they venture into the international marketplace.