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

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?  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 have better recipes. 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 add a frothy bunny to your Megacalorieotta 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 there to destroy France. Its French name and flavorless food discourage potential tourists from ever visiting anyplace that could do this to tuna.  Jacques Cousteau and Inspector Clouseau must be spinning in their coiffins.
  • Pret’s food contains rare, precious ingredients like beluga caviar or Beyonce’s nail clippings .
  • Each sandwich may contain a Willy Wonka-like ticket for a chance to win the factory that puked it out.
  • It’s for people with low self esteem who don’t think they deserve warm, fresh food served by a human.

With the culinary arsenal of a New Jersey bachelor pad, this place would do better reheating leftover sandwiches from nearby delis.  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? Please pass the wasabi and a bag of dirt to 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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