And the emotional, mental, physical and financial cost to staff.
The Truth behind the Pret A Manger Smile
LINK to Emotional Labour article
Upfront, Pret staff will NEVER spill the beans on why they are so cheery! They remain professional because they fall for the Pret trap like everyone. They only out themselves anonymous on review websites, YouTube etc., further below. Just very few speak out publicly. Even during the darkest period in grief and being bullied, I NEVER EVER even hinted to a customer what was going on! I was complemented on my professional service, smile, giving free coffees, and no-one knew that after my shift I went to the bridge at times.
Here is the short version in a nutshell why ALL (most) staff members EVERYWHERE in Pret are ALWAYS so smiley, cheery, friendly and helpful. No matter how busy and stressful it is.
The magic word: Mystery Shoppers
Mystery Shoppers (MS) are tasked to probe into a list of things every week in every shop, like if there is an adequate amount of selection during certain times, or if the shop incl. toilets are clean and so on. The most important thing the MS have to probe is customer service. I call them the “Misery” Shopper because many times they were so micromanaging pointing out the smallest stain on a table or a smudge on the window!
For Team Members there are two “motivating” factors for the smiley customer service:
- Cash incentives. Overall bonus for the whole shop team which is £1 per hour worked. So if a Team Member (TM) worked 40 hours that week, they will get an additional £40 on top of their contracted wage for that week, provided the MS report was all in the green area and then gave the bonus to the whole team. Managers’ bonuses are given quarterly. But a TM can individually also earn extra cash on top of the bonus (or even if the bonus for the whole team was lost).
This is called an “Outstanding Card” (OC) which is £50 extra if the MS is super happy with a particular TM or even General Manager (GM), Assistant Manager (AM) etc. Meaning, if the TM “kissed butt” especially hard, gave a freebie etc. they can earn that extra cash on top of their wages and team bonus. If the report is 100% perfect scores and the MS awards an OC to a staff member, that TM earns double = £100. So, that one staff member gets their weekly wages, the weekly bonus PLUS the extra £50 or £100 cash. £50 OC (Outstanding Card) or £100 SOC (Super Outstanding Card).
Side note: An Outstanding Card is not literally a card, it’s just a name for the extra cash award. There are no cards given, “just” the money. So, when a TM is EXTRA SPECIAL nice, it is often (not always!) that they assumed they’re serving the Mystery Shopper!
- Fear Management. If any TM or several of the Team messes up in any way resulting in bonus being lost for the whole team incl. GM (bonus not awarded by the MS), the angry manager will have a word with them. Depending what the bonus was lost on, this often is done in subtle or direct fear management where staff are made to fear for their job or position.
Link The reason why she got the Outstanding Card and with it the extra £50, or £100 if the shop had perfect scores, is the white writing on the red background. The Mystery Shopper rewarded this TM for this reason, quote:
“I noticed that the avocado in the remaining veggie box salads were brown and I asked if there were any fresher ones. The team member said she would ask the kitchen to make me a fresh one. She telephoned them and said if it was okay she would take the veggie box to the kitchen and they would replace the avocado for me.”
Other times a TM gives a free coffee to the Mystery Shopper but does NOT get an Outstanding Card. It is completely up to the MS what blows them away and what not.
And here comes the long version.
I cover mainly the “smiley” culture of Pret in: “How Companies force Emotional Labour on Low-Wage Workers“, but I want to take the reader through a typical day in Pret A Manger, and why this MS scheme is dangerous for mental health, not to mention patronizing and humiliating. This Tweet is by PAMSU (Pret A Manger Staff Union) who got fired in 2012 for starting a Union under the pretense of having made homophobic remarks ten months (!) before:
First of all I want to start off by saying that I don’t think a Mystery Shopper scheme is a bad idea, I think it can be helpful to improve customer service where needed. The problem with Pret is, they take this to intense levels which I find abusive. The extreme “perfection” staff have to reach is done to create a picture to the public, that staff are so happy to work in Pret. In reality they are tasked to “perform” emotional labour (or “labor” for American readers!). It opens the door to abusive leadership, bullying environment forcing staff into “unnatural” behaviour they would normally not do, unless they “feel” it. And with many other abusive situations, like even domestic violence, bullying etc. people get conditioned to it, accept it as norm, but suffer internally and in silence also because it is systemic and seems acceptable. Everyone is subjected to this, so they feel they go out of line if they complain. At least that’s how I often felt, because everyone “is doing it”, it must be okay or normal to keep smiling even while bereaved. I share in my interview at the bottom of this page the horrific time I went through while already traumatized after I lost my brother.
Even journalists “get used” to abuse and accept it as the norm:
I want to share a rough timeline of activities on a day-to-day running of a Pret shop, as well as a little bit of the kitchen to paint a true picture of the immense stress staff are under on a daily basis. I was a Team Leader of the shop or also called Floor Leader (FL) and know working in the shop inside out. I can’t speak much about running a kitchen, but will briefly touch on the kitchen. The shop and the kitchen are like two separate businesses that need two separate leaders. Both have their own separate challenges as well as positives.
For example in the shop staff HAVE TO smile and perform a cheery presence, while in the kitchen they can just be themselves. In the kitchen they have no windows, have to work super fast assembling products WITHOUT time to breathe until their break. In the shop there are windows to take a breath, while still having to clean, stock up etc. I often “mediated” between the teams when they were at “war” pointing fingers where the kitchen felt the shop team is lazy or the shop felt the kitchen team have it easier. I always pointed out to both teams that each team have their challenges as well as good parts, but that EVERYONE works hard and has a lot of stress, just differently.
General Manager (GM) and Assistant Manager Floor (AMF) are in plain business attire
Floor Leader (FL)
Hot Food Chef (HFC)
Team Members (TM)
And whatever other position Pret comes up with, as they sometimes add job roles. But these are the main roles distinguished in their colours (belt, name badge) so outside teams can quickly identify who’s who. The most important who does most of the hard work is the Team Leader. They really are the ones that run the shop, if they are good and don’t imitate most GMs who like to sit in the office, don’t help and just shout like slave masters.
Again the same General Manager (GM) but a different Assistant Manager Kitchen (AMK), plain business attire
Kitchen Leader (KL)
Team Member Trainer (TMT)
Team Members (TMs)
Kitchen TMs, the sandwich makers who are called “chefs” by Pret to make them feel better and portray to the public as if there was some real cooking going on in the kitchen! Lots of patronizing and fooling slogans like “Lovingly made in this kitchen today” bla bla…
In reality all the food comes already cooked, except the frozen bread, croissants etc. But all ingredients are ready cooked and delivered daily from factories. Hence also “Ready to Eat”. The soups come in large plastic bags and are heated in water baths. All other ingredients are like we have at home after getting the shopping from the supermarket. There’s no cooking involved, just heating up and assembling a sandwich. Even the “poached” eggs that do come raw, are just heated in sealed plastic pouches in a water bath. There are no pots and pans and stoves in Pret kitchens!
One recent staff review:
Link Under Show more: “The food isn’t fresh, it’s shipped already cooked in plastic bags and reheated. A joke.”
As the shop and the kitchen are like two separate businesses in each shop, the AMF and/or FL run the shops and do the ordering for the shop, look after the Team, customers etc. The AMK and/or KL do the ingredient ordering for the kitchen, look after the Team etc.
As all Prets I’ve worked in are under-staffed to maximize profit and managers’ bonuses (incl. area managers and upwards) many TMs are pushed to multi-task. If a shop is lucky, they have 3 TMs on the tills in the mornings if there are 6-7 tills. They have 1 Barista with the GM doing coffee as well, as this is easier than customer service at the tills! GMs don’t like to work on the tills! As there aren’t enough staff, they ring the bell for one or two of the kitchen staff to then come out and help serve the queues during the morning rush. This puts an immense strain on the kitchen staff, who then get behind on their production, where they are expected to do a certain amount of products per hour. If they fail to finish in time, including cleaning etc., again they will be motivated through fear management and are bullied (subtly or openly) to work overtime, unpaid.
“It is clear they have little to know training and have absolutely no training or experience in employee relations or even customer relations for that matter. Every manager I have worked with – I have worked with 6 – will immediately try to belittle you. Not sure exactly why this is such a common practice among managers but it is an intrinsic behavior within the company itself. …Very, very sad reality of Pret. -Company culture….”
Link 2014 “Manager at my shop treated everyone really poorly. Expect you to stay longer to complete your job for free when not enough time is given. Constantly missing hours from extra shifts taken. Have to ask every week to see if they have repaid those hours and in some cases takes months to chase back.”
NOTE: The “for some reason” is more systemic than this and many other TMs realize. I had to chase my money CONSTANTLY.
Pret had to settle two class action lawsuits in NY within 4 years on wage issues. In the UK people never do a Class Action, but it would be high time for Pret staff to go to court on wage issues!
MS: “Team members should smile at customers and may not work when ill, as team member was coughing whilst serving me and was therefore not feeling cheerful enough to smile that day.”
I coughed while serving the Mystery Shopper as I had a cold. But I chose not to stay home as we were not paid the first 2 days even when we have a sick note.
Pret Staff Tweets:
The £45 Mystery Shopper bonus she’s talking about is that she would have worked 45 hours that week. Each hour is £1 bonus, as Pret cuts the weekly bonus even when staff are sick for 1 day that week. And the rest £55 she means is the hours she lost for that 1 day. And Pret only responds to her Tweet because it’s public. In reality Pret does nothing and doesn’t care if staff are sick.
A recent Tweet to the CEO by a frustrated Team Member:
A typical day in Pret
(underneath the slideshow)
Slideshow can be paused
The above slideshow is just a selection, the list goes on in —> Pret Staff Complaints
A typical day in Pret
Main “Crunch” Times based on an average shop:
Between 12 Noon-2PM
Afternoons until closing time.
I share these times from all the shops I worked at, with an average of 6 – 8 tills and a team of about 25 – 35 staff.
5AM start of shift. The first TMs come in and hopefully no-one called sick, as even ONE person missing puts incredible stress on the rest of the team because every team is tightly staffed.
Between 5-6AM there are around 6-8 TMs and later from 6 or 7AM onwards more people start coming in.
Kitchen TM starts preparation of slicing vegetables.
Shop TM, often the HFC but can also be the Barista, starts baking frozen croissants and baguettes. Every shop decides their own way who starts the shifts.
A Team Leader, can be KL or FL, should be starting first with Health & Safety checks, like taking the temperature of all cooling systems in case any fridge/freezer broke down over night warming the food which has to then be thrown away to avoid food poisoning. They also start checking the huge delivery of ingredients and products to make sure that nothing is missing, which then has to be re-claimed from the suppliers.
But reality in Pret is, because they like to staff very tightly, the first 3 – 6+ people from 5AM have 1 hour to get everything ready for 6AM opening time. It is extremely stressful to get everything done in time for opening, especially when the evening shift before left the shop in a bad state.
Many who are new make the mistake and start before 5AM UNPAID!! Because when they can’t finish in the unrealistically short time they’re given, the GM pushes them in pretense that they were not working well or fast enough. It’s psychology that happens in most Prets! But most of the Teams I’ve worked with are extremely hard working and work very fast, but are fooled and manipulated by managers who come in at 8 or 9 o’clock pressuring the Teams via the Team Leader or AM. And because the Team Leader wants to move up fast to escape this culture, they become bullies and only spare those that make friends with them.
Most shops have the HFC who starts all the baking and also preps the coffee machines, brings the milk out etc. Depending on how the evening Team left the shop, this often is a nightmare when the previous shift didn’t close properly, didn’t stock up etc.
At times this is due to lack of staff etc. But often it is simply due to laziness, where the evening Team Leader sits in the office all night, while the 2 people outside slave away without support! As a FL it was important to me to not do that, but to support my Team and we mostly finished in time leaving an immaculate shop for the morning Team. The next shift then had a clean and easier start. But many shops don’t care for the next shift, which in turn comes back to them when they take over from the morning team who retaliate to the evening Team… vicious circle and it adds to the stress that’s already there.
But I always changed that behaviour in every shop I worked in. This created a relaxed atmosphere where the teams started to work together instead of against each other, because they realized that this actually became much easier to work in support of each other instead of a cliquish environment.
6AM opening the doors
Again, if the Team had a good start and nothing went wrong, no delays etc. the shop can be open smoothly and customers can be served in a relaxed way.
Between 7:30-ish and 9-ish depending on the shop and which area they are in, the shop then becomes humongously busy with the coffee rush. But still there are only 2-3 TMs on the till if they are lucky and 1, maximum 2 Baristas. This forces the HFC to interrupt their hard, hot and sweaty work, to constantly having to jump in to “bust” the queues as the Teams have 1 minute to serve each customer which the MS probes them to the second!
A Mystery Shopper report excerpt (I added the blue writing and yellow marking):
Pret: “We aim to serve our customers within 1 minute of joining the queue. Where you served in a reasonable time, bearing in mind how busy the shop was and the number of open tills?”
MS: “I was served very quicly, after 15 seconds, very quick service.”
Pret: “We aim to serve our customers their hot drink within 1 minute of payment. Did you receive your hot drink order within a reasonable time?”
MS: “I received my hot drink very quick, after 30 seconds, quick service.”
And yet, the MS gave 4 out 5 points on each question as if 15 seconds wasn’t good enough. The point system is important mainly for managers. The more points the more bonus. So, even when the Team gets the bonus, but the points are not as high, GMs still stress and pressure the Teams because the manager’s quarterly bonus depends also on the point score. Managers are rewarded their bonus based on all the different results: profit, waste, labour, cleanliness etc.
But the Mystery Shopper reports and bonus system counts towards the largest chunk of managers’ bonuses! One GM was happy with his Team to cheat on everything, but the Mystery Shopper results. As a Team Leader new in his shop, he took me aside and said to me, “I close my eyes to everything, but not to the Mystery Shopper.” In other words, if I as a Team Leader failed to engage my Team and this resulted in poor MS results I’d get in big trouble. But on other things, even Health & Safety issues, he would have closed his eyes. … I’m not going to elaborate what my response was, but I communicated that he shouldn’t close his eyes to anything. I said that also because I was penalized for the smallest things in a previous shop. So, I made sure I covered all my basis and not let a greedy GM sabotage my job.
The MS being the biggest contributor of Managers’ bonuses creates even more stress because the Team get the message, “It is NEVER good enough what you achieve”. And I have countless example of how managers stressed us even when we got the bonus and even when someone got the OC. It’s never good enough unless it’s 100% perfect EVERY time. And even then, one slip, one mistake and all hell breaks loose!
This is the reason why so many customers complain on Twitter with half empty cups of cappuccinos, or a milky Americano where they asked for a black one. Because staff are so robotic, fast and on autopilot.
Only one of countless Tweets with photos like this:
This is St. Pancras, one of the most busiest shops in Pret!
Amy Sharpe from the Sunday Mirror went undercover into Pret (after having read my blog I’m proud to say!!) and writes about a conversation she had with a Barista during coffee rush. Quote (I added the bold):
“Undercover reporter Amy Sharpe worked inside the scandal-hit chain and discovered a potentially fatal blunder with labelling and staff who are hugely over-stretched. …
I am at a central London branch, where 10 staff vie for space, muttering apologies as we collide and stretch across one another to grab pastries and bags.
I shout orders to a barista while dashing to a beeping toastie machine to retrieve a baguette.
I make green teas and filter coffees while my other drinks orders are prepared. It’s stressful and confusing and the queue makes it even more so.
All the while, staff must be alert to the issue of allergens.
One barista tells me the cramped service area is a “nightmare”.
He says: “If I’m next to you, you have to shout. If you don’t shout I can make a mistake. A person can grab the wrong coffee. Make mistakes and the customer gets mad. You’ve got to focus, stay calm.”
When the bonus is lost, the boss will give the Team or the individual a good telling off. At times directly and loud, other times subtle manipulation threatening with the job security.
I survived this during bereavement! There was no mercy!
Link by @terry_mcparlane Twitter of a typical cramped Barista working area.
A Mystery Shopper tweet:
The psychology of “group incentive” is actually peer pressure and what a recent reviewer called “blame culture” which I totally underline. I spent a lot of time building my team member UP when they messed up the Mystery Shopper after our manager put them DOWN, because putting down is counter productive and leads to mental health problems. If I had buckets of the tears that were flowing after the harsh telling off when the Mystery Shopper wasn’t happy …
A Pret employee’s review on the Mystery Shopper pressure:
Another of the many reviews along those lines:
Between 7 and 9AM or even later, the GM starts to come in. Depending on the GM, some come at 7AM, others at 9AM etc. Some sit in the office during intense stressful morning rush. Others help. But if they help, almost all GMs prefer to be at the coffee machines with their backs to the customers, as customer service is extremely stressful with the demand to SMILE CONSTANTLY … for the Mystery Shopper. This is the frustrating thing for the Teams, because the GM pressures staff to be perfect for bonus, while themselves “hiding” at the coffee machines!
When I was bereaved and wanted to get away from customer service as I could not afford to stay at home unpaid, having lost all my savings. I begged the GM at times when I couldn’t hold back the tears, to please let me work in the kitchen for a day because I was tearing up at times on the shop floor. But because I wasn’t used to the pace in the kitchen, the GM denied this. I stopped asking then. But at times I asked the GM or AM if I can please be at the coffee, as I was really fast at the coffee and wanted to get away from facing customers in tears. Again, it was denied because most GMs are selfish and always choose the easiest job, no matter how a TM or even I as a leader, was doing!
A rare observation and even rarer comment by a customer who noticed that the manager is always sitting in the office during busy times. Pret tasks the Mystery Shopper also to record if they see a manager on the shop floor and what the manager was doing. Pret leaves all this to the Mystery Shopper instead of having regular visits from the Operations Managers (OPs – area managers). OPs often themselves sit in the pub during busy lunch times, pretend to be busy and mostly communicate via email. I know this for a fact, I’ve seen it.
Here I want to paint the picture and would ask the reader who is a regular customer in Pret to take a morning out of their work routine if they can, go to Pret, sit closest to the till area where they can observe BEHIND the counter all the TMs. Sit down and JUST WATCH for 30-60 minutes during the most busiest coffee rush. Just sit there, quiet and concentrate without any distraction or phone, reading… Just observe for a solid hour and then ask yourself HOW staff can smile, have eye contact and make polite conversation with EACH customer!
They can, but only because of the above mentioned cash incentive and fear management via the Mystery Shopper.
Pret probing on the INDIVIDUAL Team Member:
Pret: “We aim to connect with every customer with eye contact, a smile and some polite remarks. Rate the engagement level of the person who served you at the till.”
MS: “I was not greeted at the till or given a smile. The conversation was what was necessary for the transaction. To be welcoming, the team member could have greeted me and smiled and be engage[d] and positive.”
(No concern if the TM was extremely busy and may have gone through person tragedy, depression etc.)
Pret probing on the WHOLE Team:
Pret: “We aim to be attentive to each customer’s needs. Rate the engagement level of the whole team in this shop during your visit.”
MS: “The team members were focused on their jobs but were not welcoming customers. This could be improved by the team members smiling at customers when they entered the shop, and making friendly remark or small talk, where possible.”
ANY and ALL the Team are under CONSTANT observation and fear of being watched and rated! All the time. Every moment. Not only from the CCTV all over the shop and office, but managers, customers and Mystery Shoppers.
Yes, Pret states “reasonable time” and depending how busy it was etc. And the above MS contradicts themself by saying “where possible”. But the Teams are so conditioned and robotic, they always rush and the GMs stress them even during the quiet periods. If they can’t finish a task, they have to often stay longer unpaid. If they DO finish the task, they are criticized for not kissing the Mystery Shopper’s butt sweet enough when they enter the shop! It is always a lose-lose situation and NEVER good enough!!
And here is the perversion of Pret’s Emotional Labour abuse, and I call this perversion and abuse!!
Because this is what it is, PERVERSE, ABUSIVE, BULLYING and EXPLOITING!
Put yourself in their shoes.
A low-paid TM (£8.65 per hour in London) serves between 100 – 200+ customers before lunchtime going through the hellishly hectic coffee rush!
While they slave away like this, they have to smile, make eye contact, some conversation and go the “extra mile” give freebies etc. AND remember all the coffee order, hear the Barista call out the coffees that get constantly mixed up. They have to answer questions, especially on allergens, be polite to rude customers ETC! ………. and be like acrobatic clowns so that Clive Schlee CEO alone can pocket £30 million after JAB purchased Pret.
And customers remain fooled to think staff are so happy in this hellish environment forced to be like clowns because they have kids to feed!
Highlighting from above review:
“The kitchen staff is treated like slaves. They are expected to do the impossible. … Everything is over priced and you are forced to act like a happy jack-ass or your pay is cut. You don’t get paid your full hourly rate if you don’t impress the “mystery shopper”. This place is what hell must be like.
Advice to Management: Quit your jobs and go back to England and stay there.”
It’s not the first time that an American reviewer angrily wants Pret to go back to the UK.
I could add countless reviews like this also from YouTube, Twitter, FB and other sites, but to shorten this, the smile behind Pret is forced via Mystery Shopper’s bonus / cash incentives and fear management.
Anyone who falls for this facade that staff are so happy to work in Pret can remain lulled in if they want to.
I have to also say that staff truly love to give freebies and help customers, they really do. I did, my teams did etc. BUT becoming conditioned to this and then being bullied when personal tragedy hits you like it did me and many others, will add to mental health problems, even depression.
I was leaked an email recently which the Director of HR wrote to all the shops that two staff members died within a month. I was told by the people who leaked the email to me that one was a suicide. They don’t know the circumstances of the other TM.
But I know of an AMK who died by suicide in 2017 and I may have learned about her turmoil before she died.
I almost went over the edge with what I’ve been through in Pret. If I would have gone through, my death would be the third suicide in Pret. And my suicide would certainly be related to Pret A Manger’s bullying environment. I explain in full in below interview.
So, dear reader, if you have an hour to spare in the weekday morning, go to your local, or even better, another Pret where they don’t know you, sit close to the counter where you have a good view of all TMs. And just observe WITHOUT being distracted. But observe in a subtle way as TMs will assume you are the Mystery Shopper if you “stare” at them. But then again, you may get a free coffee or even breakfast if the Team thinks you are the MS! 😀
If you read though all this, thank you for reading and caring! Please know, I never take people’s time lightly. I know I write a lot, it’s my passion. But I always appreciate people’s time with difficult subjects and when their perception is crushed. I always say, if something looks too good to be true, especially in profit-driven multi-billion pound business, please take a closer look.
The Clever Marketing of the Free Coffee give a way, and why Pret may not be doing a Loyalty Card Scheme: FREE Coffees in Pret A Manger.
Clive Schlee’s “retirement” and the
“Dangers of the Lack of Leadership“.
I worked at Pret A Manger for almost 10 years and survived systemic workplace bullying during bereavement that involved HR, the top leadership, HQ and even the 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 also tell my story for the first time verbally in this >>> podcast interview based in California, and wrote an article in the Scottish Left Review.
Thank you for reading/listening.
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