Every journo wants a shot at Pret, but I still want to take this article apart. Why, because it is a piece that came by invitation into HQ. Today a new article was published, and as usual, I want to comment on it with a behind the scenes perspective. I’m sure the author has had a look at my blog, as I am spread on Twitter and other social media, hard to miss. But also especially because they cover issues like the Mystery Shopper which I write extensively on. But political correctness and a journalist career keeps most reporters just writing sweet pieces about Pret. There is nothing critical here, except copy and paste sentences on critical voices.
I have asked undercover journos like James Bloodworth and others to send someone into Pret undercover, not only into shops, but HQ. Amy Sharpe went already into a shop, but only for a week in the evening. The media for most part is in Pret’s pocket and just reports about Pret’s success, not what’s going on behind the facade. We just love success, no matter who’s paying the price.
But the main issue I have with articles like this is that journalists stubbornly refuse to listen to front-line staff themselves! Even when staff suicides are dropped on their lap, they don’t want to know about it.
The photo at the header is from a Facebook group: “I hate Pret” facebook.com/preth8ers
And another former Pret staff member who got fired for starting a Union: twitter.com/__PAMSU__
The article: How Pret Took Over the British High Street by Phoebe Hurst for VICE.
Quotes from the article are in bold:
»Much of Pret’s success is down to its promise of “freshly prepared food” – an alternative to rival chains that ship their sandwiches in from faceless catering suppliers.«
Yes, Pret’s workers have a face, a smiley face, and behind that smile is a typical bullying company that increased with private equity, but existed already before. I explain more below, but I know that the media knows my blog already and that I write extensively on the “emotional labour” forced on staff, so this is for new readers who are not from the media.
»Exactly how wholesome Pret’s menu items are is up for debate. In 2018, the Advertising Standards Agency ruled that the chain could not advertise its sandwiches as “natural”, due to the presence of E-numbers, while critics point out that many of its products also contain artificial additives and preservatives to improve shelf life.«
Unfortunately again most journalists fail to mention the current class-action suit in New York on the “natural” claim that Pret is trying to get thrown out. I write about this extensively in: Pret A Manger – Ready to (ch)eat
»Still, the freshly made tagline remains an incredibly effective marketing tool. “I think they have a very specific customer value proposition, which is ‘fresh on the day’,” says John Colley, a professor of practice at Warwick Business School. “There’s not so many others who actually have that, whereby sandwiches are made on the day, pastries are produced on the day.”«
Again, homework hasn’t been done well here. I quote directly from the “Regulation 28: Report to prevent furutre deaths” of the Natasha Ednan-Laperouse Inquest. Quote from Page 2, Point 1 (I added the bold):
»Regulation 5 allows for food outlets to avoid full food labelling requirements whether they prepare a small number of items in local shops or in the case of Pret, over 200 million items for sale by preparing these items in “local kitchens”. These items prepared in “local kitchens” are in fact “assembled” in large parts from items made in factory style outlets to Pret specifications. I was left with the impression that the “local kitchens” were in fact a device to evade the spirit of the regulation«
Yes. I worked in Pret kitchens and was a Team Leader in shops. I checked the delivery from factories many times of items that came in to be “assembled”. Everything is ready cooked apart from the raw eggs that come sealed in plastic pouches and are heated in water baths for the “poached” egg and bean pots.
Pret’s products are as fresh as when you go to the supermarket, buy some ham, cheese and a loaf of bread. Then you go home, put the items in your fridge, and make a sandwich the next day or the day after next. It’s as “fresh” as that. The ham and cheese are already God knows how many days or weeks old and are stored in fridges for days after they are taken in from factories.
And the croissants/pastry come in from factories FROZEN and are days/weeks old with a year expiry date. From the frozen state they are then “freshley” baked. But they are NOT frehsly “produced” pastries.
That’s why the title of the Guardian article that journalist Felicity Lawrence uses and linked here is so fitting: The brilliant Pret a Manger marketing con we want to fall for
One of many Pret staff reviews on this:
People still want to fall for it. No matter how many point out, including staff, that the food is not fresh and no matter how many customers die.
»I’m pre-warned about exactly how small the space is before I visit, but its size still surprises me: a slim room with an island table and fridges along one wall, then a squat back kitchen with containers of ingredients packed tightly on every shelf. “It’s set up like a shop kitchen,” Dolan explains. “Every shop has its benches, ovens, microwaves and toasting machines, and then we have a walk-in fridge and freezer that everything is kept in. It all happens in here.”«
Yes, it’s great that Pret let’s the test kitchen be small, so they find ways to know how to work. Yet, instead of doing this, Pret should ENLARGE the kitchens for several reasons. Enlarged customer area is to increase profit, while staff are squeezed like sardines having to work in high stress, without daylight and in cramped spaces. This not only leads to staff’s mental and physical health issues, but it continues dangerous mislabelling, mixing up ingredients, cross-contamination etc. endangering customers’ lives.
I write about this in: Vegans Eat Meat at Pret and put some photos of cramped work spaces.
»Dolan, along with five “innovation managers”, develops menu items for Pret shops in the UK, as well as its overseas outposts. Every one of these products – from sandwiches to vegetable crisps to chia puddings – is divided into five categories.
“One is ‘classic’, so things like the tuna baguette or Posh Cheddar or Chef’s Italian,” Dolan explains. “Then we have ‘health’, so not necessarily super-healthy, but perceived health – things like juices and breakfast pots. Then ‘warmth’ – so all-around comfort, like soups – and then ‘quirky’ is one of our other things.”«
Yep, those “perceived” health! That’s why people should check the sugar levels on all the juices and smoothies, including the green juices.
»Sandwiches, salads and wraps are made fresh each day in Pret shops, so the recipes Dolan and her team come up with must be achievable within a small kitchen space, with a method and ingredients list short enough to fit on a recipe card. “You need to get the guys in shops to be making it consistently every time,” Dolan explains.«
No, it’s not so much about consistency as it is about the pace. Kitchen staff have a certain amount of minutes to assemble a certain amount of products, shop staff have 1 minute to serve a customer and serve a coffee. If they “consistently” fail to be fast, they are threatened with their job security. Also, if the products are not brought out fast and the shelves filled at certain times, the WHOLE shop team risk losing Mystery Shopper bonus if items are missing. This Pret does to show customers that their shelves are always filled and the tills ringing!
»There are Prets everywhere in London. This ubiquity must have something to do with the company’s success over the last decade. Accessibility is obviously one thing, but equally: if customers are exposed to your branding multiple times, they are more likely to buy from you – it’s a classic business strategy. Either that, or they feel mentally bludgeoned by the endless maroon stars and stop in for a latte out of sheer exhaustion.«
Again, would have wished for some more homework here. Obviously, being confronted with Pret on every corner lures people in, making the choice easy and comfortable. What most journalists miss again is the private equity reality that The Times journo Sathnam Sanghera quoted a veteran private equity investor on in “Pret was the best thing since sliced bread but private equity ruined it” quote:
“We buy a business, work out how many restaurants you can get away with in an area until it’s become saturated, then try to convince a new buyer that there is plenty more runway”
I started at Pret in 2008 when private equity firm Bridgepoint purchased Pret and set a high target to open at least 15 shops per year. And already in 2009 and certainly 2010 I saw Prets pop up everywhere. When JAB Holdings purchased Pret 10 years later, now former CEO Clive Schlee pocketed £30 million on bonus alone.
»This has allowed the business to grow in spite of the widespread downturn of the high street that claimed fellow food chains like Jamie’s Italian and Carluccio’s.«
Hm, to compare Jamie’s 22 restaurants where they COOK in pots and pans quality food to a 500+ sandwich chain, with low-wage sandwich makers, that Pret psychologically calls “chefs” isn’t the best example.
»Pret CEO Pano Christou boils the company’s success down to two things. “Two important aspects of Pret have been critical to growing our business in the past decade: our business model and launch of Veggie Pret,” he tells me.«
Yes, here’s the business model: exploitation of low-wage employees. And there is a reason why 1. Pret and its leadership have such poor scores on Glassdoor & Co, and 2. why Clive Schlee then let Pano Christou already take over on Glassdoor in July 2019, even though Schlee’s retirement was set for September 2019.
»Alongside its dependable food offerings and the sheer number of outlets, Pret is notorious for its cheery – and very human – customer service. Staff are trained to create the “Pret Buzz”: smiling as they call out coffee orders, making smalltalk with regulars and giving freebies to customers they like the look of. Former CEO Clive Schlee said the first thing he looked for in shops was “whether staff are touching each other. Are they smiling, reacting to each other, happy, engaged?”«
Yes, of course, Pret fails to mention that the “cheery” human customer service is driven by fear management and cash incentives via weekly Mystery Shoppers. If staff are not smiley enough they lose bonus and are fear managed, even threatened to lose their job.
I write about this emotional labour and collect articles by journalists, researchers and service workers: The Dangers of Emotional Labour
I particularly can highly recommend two articles apart from my own first hand experience in Pret: Timothy Noah’s “Enforced Happiness in Pret” and Sophie McBain’s “How Emotional Labour Harms us all”. Both also linked on the above site with other really good articles on the subject of emotional labour.
I made a brief slide show of only a few of the questions Mystery Shoppers are tasked to test staff on. There are more questions like how clean the shop was, how many product lines were on the shelves etc. I concentrated mainly on the smiley part and used comments from real Mystery Shopper reports.
»Pret became the nation’s favourite sandwich shop not for its food or customer service, but its dependability. It is easier to go to Pret than not to go to Pret. In this turbulent decade of political uncertainty and an escalating climate crisis, it’s nice to have something as knowable as a place where the staff smile at you, and you can always get a good egg mayo sandwich.«
Yes, where it’s easier to go to Pret as it is on every corner. And where staff always smile because they want to earn the extra £200 reward, or if they lose bonus don’t want to get fear managed.
For any journo who cares, just go undercover for more than a week in the mornings into kitchens and shops, and even Head Office and care to take a closer look.
I also continue to ask for independent investigation into Pret staff suicides.
Slideshow can be paused
The above slideshow is just a selection, the list goes on in → Pret Staff Complaints and an extensive article with staff reviews about the systemic bullying culture in Pret that a customer witnessed: Caught in the Act at Pret
I worked at Pret A Manger and survived systemic workplace bullying during bereavement that involved HR, the top leadership, HQ and even the now “retired” former CEO Clive Schlee. I declined 4 settlement offers if I am silent about my ordeal. But I rather starve and speak out to help others. For an overview of important blog entries of my experience with Pret, please visit “My Ordeal with Pret A Manger”. The little arrow to the right next to each heading will lead directly to the post.
I tell my story for the first time verbally in below audio player interview on a podcast by The Adam Paradox, and wrote two articles in the Scottish Left Review: 1. “Late Night Girl’s” Story with Pret and 2. Pushing Back Against Pret.
Thank you for reading/listening.
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