Fresh from the Fridge: Can someone explain Pret-a-Manger to me?

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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!

WHY????

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!

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7 Comments

  1. that must be the pret in united states. i am from the UK. i had a pret wrap today and it was VERY tasty. tasted like real food compared to a wrap from tesco’s I had…

    But you are right about trying. customer service SUCKS really badly nowadays… all you have to be is better….

  2. Nice article, but I think you missed one of the (perhaps most important) reasons why this place is getting traction: its a restaurant for the social media generation. Since many these days seem so much happier interacting with people in digital rather than analog form (just look around you at lunch today, and see how many people at tables with others are talking to each other, and how many are tapping away at their phones), creating a restaurant where you can remain in your digital solitude without being interrupted by human waitstaff is brilliant. It’s not at all about food. It’s about being allowed and empowered to maintain your self-induced technical isolation even during the times that should be our most social: eating.

    • Author

      Brendten, that’s a good point. I have noticed that some restaurants are inherently more friendly to solo diners vs. pairs or groups. In this case, I’m not sure if that was by design or by accident. They originated in the UK and people tell me that the locations there are much better and fresher; though I never inquired about the type of customer. The digital haze is here to stay. Maybe this is our future…sadly.

      • The digital haze doesn’t have to be here to stay. As innovators, we need to be building the next round of social technologies as means to an end (ie. enablers of real-world social interaction) rather than the end itself (ie. the social interaction destination). I’m hopeful that the rapid shift to mobile as our primary digital devices, and the doors that opens for apps that are exactly this type of means to an end, will bring about this next wave of new-old social media combinatorics.

        • Author

          I agree that the social tools we use now are clunky and artificial. They will go away. In fact, the we we access information will look more like The Matrix than some pocketable gadget. Perhaps some of the novelty of this information flow will wear off, but leisure time will only increase as automation accelerates. People will have more time for digital addictions than useful application of digitally-acquired knowledge. Some curious, ambitious people will will use that time to create, but many (as we see with pills, web addiction and food) will just consume voraciously. What’s the expression – “the devil finds work for idle hands”. At the core of purpose is a mandate to do something, to work. As we free ourselves from that, my concern becomes more real. This shift may not happen in our lifetime, but that is the trajectory.

  3. Patricia Grimm October 16, 2012

    The concept behind Pret A Manger is real, preservative free food for people on the go who at least want to try and eat something healthy. It is made fresh daily from unprocessed ingredients and the extras are given away to charity. Yes, I know the refrigerator takes away from the freshness, but I think that’s the whole grab and go mindset of many young adults today. They “don’t have time” to make breakfast or lunch, so it’s grab the morning coffee, breakfast yogurt and a sandwich for lunch at your desk and head out. It works for places like Starbucks, but their food is full of sugar and chemicals. If you have time to sit and enjoy your food, Le Pain Quotidien is a much better unprocessed option. But for food on the go, I’d rather eat something from Pret A Manger than McDonald’s or some other chemical factory.

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