Exciting Things To Learn About Your Favorite Lunch Spot!

1) The clean, cheerful, and not that expensive sandwich chain Pret a Manger is British. Wha? Don’t the British hate the French? (I spend a lot of time reading English novels set during the Napoleonic wars.)

2) The CEO of Pret seems like a cool guy. His plans for world domination include giving away free stuff.

Chief executive Clive Schlee said he has given staff the power to hand out free drinks or food to the customers they like best — or would like to take home.

He told the Standard: “We looked at loyalty cards but we didn’t want to spend all that money building up some complicated Clubcard-style analysis.

“Instead the staff have to give away a certain number of hot drinks and food every week. They will decide ‘I like the person on the bicycle’ or ‘I like the guy in that tie’ or ‘I fancy that girl or that boy’. It means 28 per cent of people have had something free. It’s a nice, different way of doing it.”

3) I love free stuff, don’t you? Yes, yes you do. This is what he’s counting on.

4) Also there’s a weird kind of sexual component to this?

5) I guess with free stuff there always is.

There was a Pret on the corner of my last office job, and I went pretty frequently. The only thing I didn’t buy there was Diet Coke because the store overpriced them; but otherwise I found the experience of picking up food there so pleasant, in part because the employees were friendly. Apparently this impression is not unique to me because

6) the store is known as “the Happy Factory.” A journalist in London went behind the scenes to investigate. Caution: what follows is so English it may give you a craving for scones.

In a neighbouring room I sit down with Andrea Wareham, Pret’s director of people, to talk shop. Pret’s an odd mix, we agree. There’s the French name, the English food, American branding, and multicultural workforce — 106 nationalities, Wareham says. But what I really want to talk about is this reputation for being cheerful.

Wareham, of course, maintains that Pret a Manger is a happy place to work. “We get lots of feedback from customers via social media, commenting on the positive experiences that people have when they go into a Pret. ‘I went into Pret today and your team member did this for me or that for me’, so there’s this huge wealth of anecdotal feedback.”

The ethos, Wareham says, can be traced back to the opening of the first Pret store, just along the road in Victoria. “Back then it was Julian [Metcalfe] with the tiny shop, and every Friday night they shut the shop, got the beers out and had a party. They had a few drinks and said thank you to each other. Julian has always said very simply, that happy teams equal happy customers equal a happy business.”

Happy businesses are, sometimes, creepy; one hates to think of employees who are tasked with not merely showing up on time and doing their job well but projecting good cheer at customers too like professional Care Bears. But certain stores seem to manage to have a workforce with a positive vibe in what feels like an organic way. Trader Joe’s also comes to mind.

7) Here’s the Pret strategy for hiring and maintaining a cheery staff:

“Eighty per cent of our managers start as team members,” Wareham says. “If you invest in your people, if you put your absolute focus on that part of your business, then everything else flows. To any small business, I’d say you have to put your money where your mouth is. Don’t have a shiny office, don’t have the lovely Apple Mac computers, don’t do any of that. A traditional company will spend 7% of their turnover on marketing, but we spend 1% and we invest everything in our people.”

The company uses staff reward schemes. Every shop has a mystery shopper visit each week, who is looking for engagement with a team member.

If the mystery shopper has a good experience, team members get an extra £1 an hour for the hours they have worked for the week. “Eighty per cent of our shops get the bonus every week,” says Wareham.

That makes sense to me. Sometimes my boss send me to Pret with her coffee order, which was standard for her but, objectively, insane, and, to a coffee-illiterate person like me, nearly impossible to remember. Half caf Frappuccino with extra cream? Something like that. A lot of syllables that didn’t mean anything. I needed a mnemonic like “Please Excuse My Great Aunt Sally” just to get out the door.

The staff members grinned at me when I approached them with a certain half-determined, half-exhausted gleam in my eye because they knew I was about to place that insane coffee order, and they made me feel a little better about being a 30-year-old manager still being sent to gopher coffee for my boss. I don’t remember them ever giving me anything for free — maybe they didn’t want to sleep with me — but they were kind, and some work days that’s the difference between calmly returning to your office, coffee-type abomination in hand, versus walking straight into the traffic on Seventh Avenue.

8) Anyway, you know what’s popular at Pret across the pond? Not Frankenstein-monster coffee beverages, and not the veggie sandwich I was partial to either. According to the Evening Standard:

The biggest selling item remains the banana, closely followed by porridge, while the best-selling sandwich, which had been the tuna baguette for several years, has been overtaken by the chicken Caesar baguette.

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