Some fast-food restaurants have found the edge of survival by looking extreme, especially with outrageous staff names, and others have worked their brains out on new menu ideas. Pret A Manger also does both, though one stands out above the rest. We talked to the general manager of it’s 17 openings in New York this year about why.
At the beginning of the 20th century, five men in England dreamt of opening a fast-food chain and one of them had to manage it if they were to succeed. When he sold it on, the name was still “Pret A Manger.” Only he called it Pret A Bean.
“From the beginning of the concept,” says the general manager of the chain’s 17 New York openings this year, “we have always tried to stay true to the original vision and concept.”
The way it started? “The original founders Mark Hartley and Theo [jd) Brant called it ‘Pret a Bean’ or ‘Pret A Manger.’ It had a great name.” It didn’t, unfortunately, have a good name for the kind of place it wanted to be. “They went for a location in Lincoln Center which opened in 1907,” says Andrea Johnson, its marketing manager. “It had big windows and dark brown oak tables. The interior didn’t do well. There was a lot of bad press about the ‘deafening noise.’ ”
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As if the food never mattered, Pret A Manger still wasn’t “deafeningly loud” and it still hasn’t been one of those places that had a bad name. And that’s the key. “We have to be good at what we do,” Johnson says. “The products we serve are great at being very tasty. And we’re getting more and more open to new ideas.” The instant success of its Fish & Chips, which has landed the group in Japan and Singapore, he says, means that they are now thinking about doing a chicken in one form or another.
More aggressive business models like fast-casual takeaways have started to creep in with the rising cost of labor. The difficulty with this, Johnson says, is that in open locations, people are going to have to pay attention to what is on the menu. “You’ve got to make sure that the quality you offer is something that will keep customers coming back,” he says. “We’re very careful about who our customers are.” Pret A Manger’s ability to make each meal as individual as possible — and that they cater for very picky eaters — has kept them profitable.
“We have to be good at what we do.”
A teenager in Manchester can just walk into any Pret a Manger and get a quick bite. A 10-year-old will have to wait a bit, but that doesn’t mean he can’t have a meal. Pret A Manger staff can manage it. “I also can’t tell you how often I’ve driven with my son to Clifton Hills,” Johnson says, in Clifton Park.
And then there’s the giant hype machine. The company has more than 200 branches in London. “The demand in New York is stronger than London,” Johnson says. “At Pret in Manhattan, we do everything we can do to help you place an order because we get a lot of walk-in traffic at lunchtime.” He finds there to be confusion between Pret A Manger and Pret a Melt. “The recipe for Pret a Melt is there. The cup is in the mail.”
Just don’t tell him that Pret a Bean is over. “That would ruin the name.”
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