I spent the first decade of my sandwich cafe life when in the North West of England referencing Pret a Manger. The first branch of Mangetout in Liverpool opened in 1992 when Pret at two branches in central London still had to be qualified by its full title.
Pret now has branches seemingly on every street corner in London and almost seems like a global brand, but the fact is that it exists mainly in the UK, with just a few branches in the USA, Hong Kong and France. You would have thought perhaps that with its French name, Paris would be a natural home, but it was not until 2012 that the first branch opened in Paris. What took them so long?
I discussed this with my French colleague Anne-Claire at dinner in Paris the night before my visit. She suggested that it was the draconian costs of employing staff in France which was off-putting. I thought she may have had a point, remembering Marks and Spencer’s disastrous first opening in the city, dealing with staff employment issues. But on further reflection I wasn’t so sure it was that simple. After all, many fast food businesses do prosper in Paris and surely a slick operator like Pret should be able to cope as well as any other.
About two years ago, I had a similar discussion about this conundrum with Rosa Jackson, a journalist based in Paris, and a consultant editor for Time Out Paris Food and Drink. We came to the conclusion that the long tradition of filled freshly baked baguettes routinely sold in the ubiquitous boulangeries probably already filled the role. In addition, many French office workers still cling to the tradition of a proper sit down déjeuner, albeit one which is steadily being eroded, in line with the global trend of the shrinking working lunch.
Pret was born in the height of Thatcherism, in 1986, when long boozy Friday lunches were becoming a thing of the past. In fact the whole restaurant lunch trade in the eighties was declining; everyone was too busy shouting deals down into their massive mobile bricks in the office. And when the recession of the early nineties came along, a speedy lunch became a necessity. Pret came into its own and spearheaded the way lunch is now consumed. Crusty baguettes and multigrain bread oozed delicious freshly cooked fillings flavoured with herbs and crisp salads. If you couldn’t go out, at least you could have something good to eat at your desk.
The basis of the model at Pret, where the sandwiches are made on the premises, meant that expansion in the early years was slow, and tied to the London area. It was not until the end of the nineties that the first branch opened in Manchester, for example. The problem was distribution. When making a fresh product on site, either your core suppliers have to be very nifty, or local partners have to be found who will deliver a similar product, and consistently.
Transferring the model to the USA was no picnic either. The occupants of Wall Street, seemingly the natural home for the Pret style were too entrenched in their traditional salt beef style delis to pay much attention. But gradually multiple sites were found, and the backing of the mighty McDonalds at that time, ensured that the stores in New York and other cities of the US are now doing just fine.
The Parisians are fiercely proud of their food heritage, so perhaps it is not surprising that, while Pret waited in the wings, other independent businesses have sprung up to fill the appetite for the déjeuner rapide, French style. I assisted Anne-Claire on a snacking trend tour of Paris for French catering executives last summer, and what struck me was the lack of sandwich bar chains. Instead we passed innovative prototypes selling takeaway food, perhaps focused on the egg, with dulcet names to English ears like Oh La Coque! Or perhaps a self-explanatory Kebab Chic. The two largest multiples: Cojean and Lina’s only have around 19 and 12 branches respectively, in the whole city.
So how does Pret a Manger slot into this eclectic mix? The rue Marbeuf site which was the second of two branches opened in Paris at the beginning of 2012 is the only one currently in what most of us would think of as the centre of Paris, just off the Champs-Élysées. Two of the others are on the outskirts in gleaming new commercial developments, and the fourth is further out still in Levallois-Perret, a suburb in North West Paris.
So far they have been cautious, and rightly so, Memories of over enthusiastic growth between 2000 and 2002 in the US, Hong Kong and Japan, which led to a drastic retrenchment of the international operation, still linger, although an aggressive expansion is now planned in the French capital.
I visited the Marbeuf site on a warm sunny day. Paris is the perfect walking city in good weather, and en route I inevitably passed many boulangeries and patisseries with their warm buttery baking smells. Racks of fragrant Gariguette strawberries and nectarines lined the pavements outside greengrocers. Food aromas are what Parisians take for granted in their daily lives.
Why then, did I have a sense of disappointment on stepping into the Pret premises at 12.15pm? Between the familiar chilled sandwich, salad and drinks units, immediately opposite the entrance there was a hot section, from which emanated an unpleasant stale cheese pastry smell. Or perhaps it was that the broccoli and stilton soup had been kept warm that bit too long. The staff were bright and cheery enough, all in attendance behind a raft of tills, poised and ready for the expected onslaught, so no problems there. But the display was just plain drab. The large notices declaring NATURAL FOOD, SUR PLACE (on the premises) and RIEN A CACHER (nothing to hide), suggest that these attributes may not be obvious and so have to be shouted out loud and clear, to convince.
I tested a hot wrap pizza, €5.80, from the aforementioned hot unit, and a granary slim rôti (a half round of roast beef) €3.15, which was pink enough but underseasoned. The pizza wrap was very ordinary and had suffered from being in the wrapping for too long, stacked up against others.
Did all this affect the trade? No, it seems that the young Parisians have taken this branch of Pret to their hearts just as they surprisingly did with McDonalds in the eighties, or maybe the attraction partly is the large airy room behind the shop where the food can be consumed at no extra cost. TVA, the French VAT, is only 7% on food for immediate consumption on the premises, or 5.5% on food to be eaten later.
After this rather depressing experience, I moved on to look at EXKI, a recommended Belgian bio chain which has quietly been opening branches throughout Europe. The first impression of the rue du 4 septembre unit was uplifting, even though it was 2 pm, and after the lunchtime rush.
Here was real passion behind the offering. It felt like someone’s first business, although this chain is already strong in France (14 in Paris and 2 in Lille), Italy (7), 2 branches in Luxembourg, 1 unit in Holland as well as 35 in Belgium. I loved the way the soups were displayed in clear urns, and the unusual salad combinations layered in tubs in the chillers.
Not everything was prepackaged. For variety of display there were help-yourself desserts, and innovative menu items which would have stood up well to any fusion lunchtime operation in London. I restrained myself to a beetroot, carrot and orange salad with parsley and sesame at €4.30, and the most delicious rhubarb crumble flavoured with cherries and mint at €3.95.
I don’t often visit Pret a Manger in London, just because I need to keep up to date with all the other new openings, but I made a point of doing so on my return. The branch opposite Russell Square tube station was cool, sweet smelling and the displays immaculate.
I pondered over why the Marbeuf branch had impressed me so little. Perhaps I was expecting too much: for a Paris Pret operation to have items like proper crusty baguettes, which looked so delicious piled up in the nearby boulangerie window on the corner, instead of soggy wraps. Or some fresh cut salad smells to mirror the open boxes of ripe raspberries I had just passed. Whatever the reason, Pret in Paris will need to watch the likes of the little terrier, EXKI, snapping at its heels.
Pret a Manger
19 rue Marbeuf
26, rue du quatre Septembre
(an edited version of this published previously in Sandwich and Snack News)