Yesterday, I had the displeasure of meeting someone at Pret-a-Manger, a thriving chain featuring something resembling food – from the 1950′s. I live in New York, which offers an astounding number of food options – from McDonald’s to fresh bagels to pizza to Mexican. So I was shocked that this Frankenrestaurant was not a laundromat or a hospice by now. As I negotiated peace with my furious stomach, I came to some surprising conclusions about local marketing…and life.
So what’s my problem with Pret-a-Manger? The food isn’t even remotely fresh. They don’t even try to fake a culinary orgasm. Let’s start by introducing you to their chef: the refrigerator. I call him Fridgy. Fridgy makes every sandwich cold, pre-packaged and hours (months?) in advance from some undisclosed military installation. Prisons…and 7/11…have fresher-looking food. Have you ever bitten into a cold baguette? I hope you have amazing dental work. All the flavors blend into one meta-flavor – cold. The only thing left is texture – hard…soft…mushy…and, ouch!
To add insult to injury, the prices are premium. For the same $13, you could have warm, fresh food. And, you wouldn’t have to fetch your own coffee. A barista at Starbucks would be happy to hand you a sugary delight with a frothy bunny on top – for the same price!
This mystery got my mind racing – how could this place exist when the amazing Chipotle and Cosi sandwich are mere strides away??? Here were my best theories:
- It’s for people who were hobbled by a careening truck and Pret-a-Manger is the closest place they could drag their bleeding body to.
- It’s for people who hate France. They’re using a French name to trick you into eating flavorless “French” food, methodically sniping one prospective Francophile tourist at a time. Jacques Cousteau and Inspector Clouseau would be spinning in their fois gras-filled coffins.
- Their food contains rare, precious ingredients like beluga caviar or emeralds.
- It’s part of a bizarre competition where each sandwich might contain a Willy Wonka-like ticket to someday own the factory that puked out these sandwiches. Yum!
- It’s for people with low self esteem who don’t think they deserve warm food or fresh coffee served to them by another human being.
With the culinary arsenal of a New Jersey bachelor pad, this place would do better reheating leftover sandwiches from nearby deli’s. It’s almost like this is a test pilot for the real restaurant. Joke’s on me – I’m out $13 and they’re rolling in beluga. Maybe unfresh is the new fresh and I never got the tweet.
You know who else is not off the hook (so to speak)? Yushi and their horrendous refrigerated sushi. Cold rice? Yeah, pass the wasabi and a bag of dirt I can throw on Iron Chef Morimoto.
So what did I learn?
- Branding, speed, and location are more important than freshness or flavor to many people.
- People aren’t that picky and even New York has them in spades.
- Give everything you make a French name, it’ll make it better…at least until we destroy their reputation.
- Low prices aren’t as important as the right price point for your target segment. In this case, upwardly mobile young professionals, skewed female 60%-40%, from what I observed.
- The world is full of thriving mediocrity. What Pret-a-Manger did most successfully is try. Effort is worth more than the greatest ideas in the world. Sure their chicken tastes like it died of embarrassment, but as a business, they are a testament to effort. This should serve as a huge inspiration to others – TRY! Even if you have a competent product, hustling can get you far. So get off your ass and make it happen!