Pret’s labelling commitment that was posted for a few weeks on Pret’s Twitter, but has since been pushed out by 2018 Christmas sandwiches, has only come after Natasha Ednan-Laperouse’s tragic death became public and the Inquest concluded that Pret’s labelling is inadequate.
From my 10 years in Pret and the labbelling “mess” I experienced, it has always been quite stressful to find the right info on ingredients and allergen. For one, the source of information was diverse and “scattered”, for example labels on the langars (fridges) did not have all the ingredients listed as was the case with the Artisan baguette that had the vital allergen sesame missing. I ate that Artisan baguette many times over the years and have very sensitive taste buds.
In the U.S. when I visited restaurants the soft drinks that come from automates where the Coke syrup is just mixed with CO2 and tap water, I could taste the chlorine through the Sprite or Coke and had to stop drinking it altogether as the Chlorine was too overpowering and a clear sign how dirty the water is when it needs that much Chlorine.
But even with the strong flavour of sesame I couldn’t taste it in the Artisan baguette, maybe because Pret’s Artisan baguette is often a very complex product loaded with so many ingredients, smothered with mayonnaise and sauces that drown each other’s flavours out. But it is irrelevant if I was able to taste it or not, the vital information of the allergen sesame wasn’t labelled on the fridge badge, and as staff I didn’t know it was in the bread.
The challenge in finding ingredients from different sources was often very stressful for the following reasons:
- Different sources of information, meaning whatever was missing from the fridge label had to be found on the allergen info in the file behind the counter or in other places.
- Some information was not available even in the allergen info file, e.g. the question if the eggs in the mayonnaise are pasteurized, or if the chocolate powder contains dairy powder as well, or if the flavoured syrups are suitable for vegans. Not even the mayonnaise bucket had the information if eggs were pasteurized or not. It was a constant hunt for the information. I had to advise customers many times to rather not buy the product if I couldn’t answer their query with certainty.
- High pace and stressful environment: This same situation where I had to go to the large fridge in the kitchen to check the mayonnaise bucket for info on pasteurized eggs because I couldn’t find the info in the allergen file, I remember my line manager pressuring me to stay in the shop during the busy lunch time period. But the customer, a pregnant woman, asked me about the eggs and with the pressured looks from my boss for me to hurry up as it was extremely busy, I went into the fridge anyway to scrutinize the mayonnaise bucket and couldn’t find any confirmation if eggs were pasteurized or not. Later I asked my manager and he didn’t know either. I advised not to buy the product. From experience also, when I aimed to ask HQ food team about this, at times there was no answer or my manager dismissed my efforts saying he/she will find out. But there was no consistency or communication. After a while you just give up as it gets too stressful for you to be the one responsible to figure out ingredients where the company doesn’t seem to care.
UPDATE 17.11.2018 on the question of pasteurized eggs … a customer Tweet at the bottom of this post.
- English as a second language: As most low paid staff are from other countries and also very young, there isn’t as much concern nor care to find the right information on ingredients. As a Team Leader I often had Team Members constantly asked me about an ingredient a customer inquired about. It was again very stressful as most Team Members didn’t want to go through the very small print of the allergen sheet in the file. Even though I trained them but oftentimes they didn’t understand the English words, so they just passed the customer on to the Team Leader who was already swamped with all kinds of duties. I re-trained my Teams again and again to be proactive as I couldn’t answer every question constantly. But again, the responsibility was placed on us staff who either couldn’t understand English well, including some complex words of allergen, or were so overworked especially during coffee and lunch time rushes, pressured by the managers to remain on the tills. Also, I had to fix misplaced items with wrong labels on a daily basis as some staff couldn’t read the labels properly and all staff were pushed for time to finish products, so some Team Members, especially new staff quickly placed products anywhere to quickly get back into the kitchen.
- Blaming downwards: This is then where the problem continues that staff and customers are made responsible to figure out ingredients from different sources instead of just investing the money and time to label every product. Full stop!
- Missing and mixed fridge labels: This is the biggest “mess” where labels in each shop have their own location. In all shops I have worked in, labels are scattered all over the place and many times lost. New labels had to be ordered when there weren’t any copies left. Or to safe time for new labels to arrive, other shops were asked to make a paper copy of the label and then was cut out and placed on the fridge. So, Team Leaders, Team Members and even Managers would take a label off the fridge and put it where-ever it suited them often scatter-brained and in a hurry. It was a constant search for labels. Every shop I worked in I tried to organize the label mess by having plastic containers in designated areas where everyone had easy access to and had to be constantly on everyone case to put the labels in the designated area. Labels where often put in paper bags or loosely placed any- and everywhere staff just felt to put them. It always was like an Easter Egg hunt, finding labels. If I stayed longer in a shop the organization worked somewhat, but not always as this was not a priority for staff. The priority was always to drop everything to serve customers fast.
Link – Wrong product label / misplaced product (Artisan baguette with sesame having Veggie wrap label) on 12. Oct. 2018
- Pret penalizing staff for missing labels: … but not for the reason of allergen or customer safety. Pret has a very strict rule in place that when labels are not on the fridges due to the product having run out, staff would be penalized. The reason labels had to remain on the fridges, even though the product sold out in the afternoon, was so that customers can see a certain product label that run out, and then ask for this item to be made to order in the kitchen, hence more profit. Also, during the busy times were shops are required to have full selection of all products, if due to lack of staff the full selection couldn’t get out on the shelves, Managers and staff at times “cheated” by taking the label off because if the Mystery Shopper visited at the time of the required full selection and found one missing item with a label, the shop was marked down and lost bonus. Hence, Pret penalized whoever was caught or found out taking off the label, mostly Managers as this would affect sales. Yet, there was no concern on putting all the allergen on the labels, let alone labelling all products.
- Inconsistency of labelling: Allergen labels for charity has been implemented since either 2015, but certainly since 2016 as I can remember in which shop I worked in which year, where we had to place the allergen stickers on each product every night. I worked in Pret from 2008 until the end of 2017. I was a Team Leader and often closed the shops, I cannot remember that we had to place allergen stickers on each product every night for charity before 2015 and certainly 2016. I may be mistaken, it may have been implemented since 2015, but I remember very well that in one of the last stores my line manager in the fall of 2017 told us that we HAD TO label the products for charity and if we didn’t have time to label, then the left over products needed to be thrown away. But he didn’t explain why. Again, it was stressful here as well because some charities would pick up the sandwiches and demand that we hand it out even without labels. Other times charities complained to HQ that the products didn’t have labels. It was a constant struggle between line managers and charity, and the staff was in-between. So, I followed this instruction carefully and didn’t give the sandwiches out when we didn’t have times to label them, as there was always way too much to do to finish everything. As a Team Leader I had to constantly set priorities on what was more important to finish.
Allergen stickers for charity.
Managers love to give too many tasks, expecting staff to work extra without pay, pretending that they weren’t working hard or fast enough, while in reality we were swamped with work. And it was never good enough. If you couldn’t do a certain task, you got in trouble the next day, if you could do it then, but couldn’t do another task, you got in trouble again. It didn’t matter. It was very calculated psychology and exploitation. It seemed like managers enjoyed making Team Members miserable. Thus the “labelling commitment” was no priority for exhausted and discouraged staff.
Quote from a review that hits the nail on the head: “Overworked Staff – Either stop cutting hours or stop giving teams a ridiculous amount of tasks to complete.”
- The “trend” of allergies and its dangers to wear out the staff: An interesting article I found really brings this home what I and my teams have experienced many times: “Stop Lying About Having Food Allergies“. In Pret the amount of times customers would ask for a certain allergen or if a product is gluten free etc. having us run around to find the information was immense. At times they made a huge fuss that they couldn’t have dairy for example, and we sweated to get the information if an item had dairy. Once we found that there was dairy in the product, the fussy customer then said “Oh, well I didn’t have much dairy this week, a little bit is okay…” Thus they not only minimized severe allergy sufferers’ concerns, but they wear the staff out, who then don’t take the real allergy sufferers serious. My Team Members often complained about a fussy customer who didn’t seem to have a serious issue after all. I could always tell a real allergy sufferer who scrutinized the allergen small print in the file and when they followed my advise NOT to buy the item when we couldn’t find all the information on the product.
Another great and recent article worth reading, in light of Pret’s second customer death: “How fussy eaters are putting lives at risk”
- The contradicting twist in all this: In 2017 Pret started implementing a machine food labelling system in all Pret kitchens for the ingredients in the fridges that were opened and needed a product label with the new expiry date, once the item has been opened.Before that, hand-written labels were used. So, for example if a tub of crayfish has a use-by-date (UBD) of let’s say 4 days from today while closed, the UBD changes to let’s 2 days once the tub was opened. Because many Team Members made mistakes as they are constantly rushing, writing the wrong UBD where the product then expired because they put a day longer, these labelling machines were implemented, where a Team Member just types in the product, the original UBD while unopened, and then the machine with all the ingredients programmed into it, calculates and prints out the correct UBD for the now opened product.
Pret was willing and able to do that for kitchen ingredients, and yet, NOTHING for customers to make informed decisions if or what to purchase to safe lives. These kitchen machines were implemented in 2017!!
Machines for UBD product labels to me is not a priority as TMs could still continue to handwrite the labels as they did for years. But a labelling system for products on the shelves just didn’t seem a priority for Pret.
- One of the most important reasons why each product needs to be laballed ASAP is the problem with the fridge labels and Allergen file behind the counter. If a customer either took a product that was placed behind the wrong label badge and/or if the customer asked the staff and looked themselves on the small print Allergen paper, but looked at the wrong line which easily happens with the small print, and then sits in the airplane not realizing they took the product that was labelled incorrectly. If the product has its CORRECT label stuck on it, the customer can then look at it again for more detail while in the airplane. If the customers themselves took the wrong item that is individually and correctly labelled, they can then still double check again, away from the shop in the airplane where they can’t leave nor use the Internet to check ingredients. Thus they can then decide not eat should they find they bought the wrong item. But with an unlabelled item, especially in the airplane, there is no way the customer can remember if they looked at the wrong fridge label, or the wrong line on the small print allergen guide sheet.
In a nutshell, Pret’s labelling has always been messy and the responsibility (blame!) was always put on staff and customers. And yet, Pret can label every product, every night after closing time for charity. The thought behind this is that the homeless cannot go to a shop after closing time or most likely have no access to the Internet to inquire about allergen, like customers and staff can during business hours.
It is a messy and lazy way to do the minimum required.
What is so devastating about all this is, that apart from all the ignored warnings Pret received before Natasha’s unnecessary death is, that CEO Clive Schlee who did not know how to respond to a customer’s concern back in 2015, did NOT put on the brakes once he was made aware of Natasha’s death. He went full steam ahead with business as usual.
Labelling for charity was implemented, surely since 2016 as I can remember, probably since 2015, but not for customers. Bottom-line, he did not stop the PR[et] “machine” to implement life saving changes but kept driving the company full speed without any regards for human life.
Recent events that are inspiring in true leadership taking responsibility, and putting on the brakes that Pret’s CEO could learn from.
This is truly doing the right thing “naturally” and not just throwing PR[et] slogans around.
Pret’s ridiculous and plainly embarrassing slogans …
Slogans … in contrast to true leadership actions:
Starbucks‘ CEO Kevin Johnson acted immediately after the racial issue in one of their stores and closed 8000 shops for staff to be trained, costing the company an estimated $12 Million+. This also could have been to avoid riots that erupt fast in the U.S. especially on racism. This is the second time shops are closed for training.
Tracy Crouch, MP recently resigned due to the delay (procrastination rather) in lowering the fixed odds bet from £100 to £2 where she had the lives of gamblers in mind.
Quote from the Standard (bold highlight by me):
‘In her resignation letter to Prime Minister Theresa May, Ms Crouch said: “Unfortunately, implementation of these changes are now being delayed until October 2019 due to commitments made by others to those with registered interests.
“From the time of the announcement to reduce stakes and its implementation, over £1.6 billion will be lost on these machines.
“In addition, two people will tragically take their lives every day due to gambling-related problems and, for that reason as much as any other, I believe this delay is unjustifiable.”‘
This is leadership! Not sweet-talk, not PR, not hiding catastrophic events under the carpet until they become public, regardless if lives are ruined and people’s dignity is stepped upon.
Only now after all the publicity has Pret hired Tim Smith, former CEO of the FSA to oversea food safety practices in Pret. It took two deaths, a third nearly fatal, several customers with allergy reactions in hospital, and numerous ignored warnings becoming public for Pret to finally and slowly take this serious and re-act. Very troubling, but unfortunately not surprising as I know Pret.
And who knows, Mr. Smith may become Pret’s new CEO. Pret certainly needs a change of leadership as this blaming downwards just doesn’t work anymore.
UPDATE 17.11.2018 on the question of pasteurized eggs from a customer via Twitter. Here it is clear again that no shop has any info if eggs in Mayo are pasteurized. Further, when a customer asks if the Mayo is pasteurized staff assume they mean the Real Mayo which comes in 10 Liter buckets and is used in many products.
So, the Manager says it is not, just to be safe because they can’t (nor have the time to) find the info. The Pret-Tweeter says, yes it is pasteurised but completely ignores the follow up comment from the customer where she gratefully states to have eaten the Tuna Mayo Baguette.
But the Tuna Mayo is a different product and maybe even a different Mayo than the 10 L Real Mayo. The Tuna Mayo comes already mixed up in buckets, ready to just be put on the baguettes or sandwiches. The Real Mayo is a different Mayo.
So, there are two Mayonnaise types or products and only the factory or factories where these two different products come from know which Mayonnaise is which and which is pasteurized or not.
Hence, I’m doing work for Pret again to help with the health of their customers, in this case a pregnant woman, as a regular Pret office Tweeter cannot distinguish from the different products!
UPDATE March 2019
First time I verbally tell my story in one setting on a podcast:
Above interview is with Adam from The Adam Paradox podcast on my experience in Pret A Manger.
We spoke about gaslighting, “shadow banning” and censorship on social media, as well as bereavement, trauma and mental health in general. I further talked about the significant timing of Pret CEO’s announcement of the £1000 Tweet for all staff. I also talked about a regular day in Pret and how staff have to cut corners, in order to fulfill the immense workload under constant pressure.
It is hard to squeeze my traumatic experience into a podcast segment, but we covered enough to get a good picture of today’s systemic stress environment for profit driven global companies.
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