Pret a Manger’s success is deserved – just hold the mayo

Pret staff: a cheery bunch. Photo: Garry Weaser for the Guardian

A piece for The Guardian’s Comment is Free on Pret a Manger

Pret a Manger’s plans to create 550 jobs in the UK and open 44 new branches are good news in an industry still reeling from the pasty tax bombshell. The company’s sales are up 15% on 2011, the profits by 14% to £52.4m. As the economy continues to founder, such expansion is impressive. They’re not a perfect company, but Pret’s success is worth celebrating.

The rise of Pret typifies the improvements in British eating over the last generation. The company was founded by college friends Julian Metcalfe and Sinclair Beecham in 1986, with a shop in Westminster. At the time, Metcalfe says: “Eating in London was very grim. There were lots of Italian sandwich bars. Italian food is amazing, but it was like the worst Italian chefs came here.” Towers of pre-buttered bread, greasy counters and tubs of slop were dispiritingly common: Pret was clean, sleek and sensibly designed.

The product it served was, and remains, better than the standard offering of the British high street. Compare its sandwiches with those of Boots: Pret’s are of course more expensive – around £3 apiece instead of £2 – but often taste more than 50% better. The avocado salad wrap is lovely, but they do continue to produce monstrosities – the “famous all-day breakfast sandwich”, the various tepid, salty wraps, the chewy bits of bacon. And they have a strange addiction to mayonnaise.

Still, Pret sandwiches have no sell-by date: 95% of stores give their leftovers to homeless charities. (The company also runs a training scheme for homeless people and ex-offenders, and claims more than 70 people have been “taken off the streets” as a result.) Pret has introduced the public to potentially unfamiliar dishes such as miso soup. Its porridge is lovely on a hoary winter commute. If the nation’s sandwich shops have improved since the 1980s, it is in part a reaction to the higher standards of Pret.

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