Pret A Manger (“Pret”) is a London-based sandwich retail chain that has been expanding in the US. There are now 24 outlets in New York and one in Washington, DC. Despite encountering many Pret outlets in England, it was the latter outlet that gave me my first experience eating one of their celebrated fresh sandwiches.
“Pret A Manger” is French for ready-to-eat. You need not have an understanding of French, though, to know that their sandwiches are made fresh. They are all lined up in paperboard containers (used instead of plastic to emphasize the freshness!) on refrigerated shelves. You should be wary about not having a sandwich decision in mind before approaching the shelf, because if you stand dormant in front of a shelf for more than two or three seconds, a Pret employee will almost certainly cut in front of you to load on some more of the fresh sandwiches. They are, of course, loaded in the front rather than the back so every customer gets the freshest sandwich available.*
*This leads to an apparent conflict between Pret’s two guiding ideals: freshness and efficiency.** Pret is a ruthlessly efficient operation: all sandwiches are premade. Customers just grab a box and immediately venture off to the cashier yelling that they are free. If I didn’t know better I would suspect the cashiers were on commission and just desperate for service, but such desperation simply seems to be standard operating procedure at Pret. Anyway, the desire to have the freshest sandwiches available results in employees cutting off customers who struggle to grab the sandwich of their choice. Perhaps Pret has a longer-term view and realizes that such a system will encourage consumers to make choices beforehand or make quicker choices so they need not block other customers from accessing their sandwiches, a greater source of inefficiency than employees temporarily blocking customers.
**Pret also has an environmental sub-theme, emphasizing that its ingredients are free-range and such.
Bread is pretty important to a sandwich and while I won’t doubt that Pret’s bread is fresh, it’s remarkably bland. It looks and tastes remarkably similar to the Pepperidge Farm bread that you can purchase in any grocery store. The other ingredients are fresh (my sandwich of choice has fresh avocado) but not particularly high-quality or tasty. Freshness ought not be an end in itself, just as excess ought not be end in itself (see, for example, Deep Dish Pizza). While high-quality ingredients are better fresh, freshness does not overcome mediocre components. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the mediocrity, though. Pret is an English chain* and while there are many good things we have borrowed from the English, cuisine is certainty not one of them.**
*And, McDonald’s owns 1/3 of the American branch of Pret.
**Side note on English food: Does anyone understand Marmite? Is there an equivalent odd-tasting spread in American, or any other, cuisine?
Pret will continue to expand in the US. It is taking advantage of themes—environmentalism, freshness, and efficiency—that Americans find appealing. And, this expansion will be unfortunate for those of us who take sandwiches seriously. At some point, I may even long for the days when the $5 footlong was the obsession of American sandwich eaters.