Pret A Manger announced the closure of 28 stores this summer, leading to the loss of 2,890 jobs – more than a third of its workforce. As the company is now – rather desperately – offering free coffee to season ticket holders, could it be true that the Rockstar of the high street has finally had its day?
When university friends Julian Metcalfe and Sinclair Beecham took over the struggling coffee shop in Hampstead (where else?) in 1986, they developed the chain’s signature, all-natural menu. Serving good coffee and fresh sandwiches using organic produce, it was at the time a genuinely revolutionary concept. It seems hard to imagine now that the burgundy and white logo that litters the streets of London could elicit such excitement but early Pret offered an alternative to what Metcalfe described as the “very grim” eating options of the 1980s. Its popularity rose and commuters soon scrambled for their tuna baguettes. By 1997, there were 53 Pret shops across the UK.
Not only were you drinking an organic coffee and eating free-range eggs, you were also helping the homeless.
Metcalfe and Beecham then set up the Pret Foundation Trust, which aimed to alleviate “poverty, hunger and homelessness” in the UK. Their Rising Stars programme gives jobs to the homeless, teaching them vital skills and giving them support – over 450 people have passed through the programme thus far. The company also delivers over 700,000 food items daily to the hungry across the globe and in the UK it currently donates food to over 100 hostels every day. This charitable move was the true genius of the company – not only were you drinking an organic coffee and eating free-range eggs, you were also helping the homeless – and consequently receiving a complimentary triple helping of smugness with your latte.
And from here on out the company grew exponentially. People that didn’t live in London would queue at airports for a Pret: I know because I was one of them. Half of the joy of going on holiday lay in the Chicken Caesar Salad baguette and a little bottle of orange juice, devoured in the departure lounge before jetting off to sunny horizons.
For many the shop is the mark of a Londoner. I don’t have a friend in the city that doesn’t have an opinion on Pret and we all know without blinking what we’d get for breakfast on any given day from the chain (for me, a “meaty” croissant or a five-berry bowl – hangover dependant). At work, colleagues discuss the Pret menu as if it were their Last Supper, arguing for hours over merits of a Bang Bang chicken vs Hoisin duck wrap (Bang Bang every time).
And sure, the sandwich shop has had its wobbles. McDonalds bought a non-controlling stake in the company 2001 for an estimated £50million, thus ruining Pret’s middle-class, city-slicker street cred. Then there was the allergy scandal in 2015 when a 17 year-old-girl tragically died after eating an incorrectly labelled baguette. A mistake that means every restaurant in England now barks at you about allergies before you’ve taken off your coat.
Bosses are cajoling the workforce back into the office by using its gingerbread men and matcha lattes as bait.
Then, of course, coronavirus hit. During lockdown, after the obligatory Tiger King and Boris Johnson conversations, Pret was up there with the most discussed topic of 2020. Did we miss it? Could you make a comparable flat white at home? How much money we were saving not being there and – when the grip of lockdown started to thaw – how tragic was it to get “a Pret” on Deliveroo?
So, what happens now? I have to admit I miss the sad sandwich shop – but not enough. Bosses are cajoling the workforce back into the office by using its gingerbread men and matcha lattes as bait, but for me it has lost its charm: we now know we can survive without it.
Once a refuge, a safe haven, a place I’d pop into for a sandwich to line my stomach before a night at the pub, it has now become a place of despair. There is nothing that beats the disappointment strolling in to buy an overpriced toastie to be confronted by a self-satisfied selection of “no bread” salads, two boiled eggs and some spinach labelled a “Protein Pot”.
The company has out-smugged itself and, like Icarus and the Sun, there’s no going back.
Katya Edwards is a reporter at the Daily Mail.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.