Snacks and the city
Pret A Manger has become a high street darling since it was founded by 1986 by college friends Julian Metcalfe and Sinclair Beecham and the company now has around 295 stores worldwide, mostly in the UK. We sent Appointment salesman Paul James down to the Oxford Street branch to experience a day in a Pret kitchen.
Oxford Street, 7am. I was about to be thrown in at the deep end -hospitality-style - joining the team of Pret A Manger's busiest store.
Upon arrival, I was greeted by the store manager, Monia, who exuded that mixture of bright chirpiness and friendly no-nonsense that seems to characterise Pret's employees. Even at this time in the morning.
If I thought I had done well to brave the cold March air at this time in the morning, I was sadly disillusioned, as I found a hive of activity that had started at 5am. Not that the early start had killed the energy. There was a buzz about the place that seemed more like lunchtime on a Friday than 7am on a weekday.
I was soon swept up in the pace - following a spot of hygiene training and having been squeezed into a hairnet, I was promptly asked what my favourite Pret sandwich was. Feeling slightly disorientated, I replied "um... Swedish Meatball?"
"Great", came the jovial reply, "you'll be making 60 of them from scratch!" My face must have been a picture, because a polite, yet animated chap called Salvador grinned and told me "if we all work as a team, we'll be fine!"
Like components in a well-oiled machine the obviously well-trained staff set about their tasks. Each of the team members have been with the company over a year and not just at that shop - many had transferred from other outlets in the London area.
Music was playing loudly in the kitchen, which was half a tennis court of space filled with long stainless-steel benches, and all the team were humming or singing along as they set to their work with well-practiced ease. In all, the staff are tasked with creating over 200 sandwiches from scratch by 10:30am.
Determined to prove myself a fast learner, I concentrated on preparing my own contribution that the paying public would (hopefully!) enjoy. In front of me was a plastic wallet on the wall with cards detailing the weight of all of the ingredients and also a step-by-step process of how to construct the finished product. Easy right? Well, actually, it was! Bread, check. Mayo, check, (carefully weighed) filling, check.
After an hour, I had made my first 26 sandwiches, each one as perfect as the first. I was pretty pleased with this, until Monia told me with a smile that she had got the time down to 35 minutes.
Nevertheless, the morning wasn't over yet and I finally managed to create another 36 sandwiches by 10:30 when I was patted on the back and sent to have a break with a coffee in one hand and one of my own sandwiches in the other (this wasn't just them being nice to me, all Pret staff get free lunches).
Out in the sun of Oxford Street, my fellow kitchen staff called me over to join them. The perfect chance to get the lowdown on the Pret environment from the staff with the management out of earshot, I thought.
However, the team were as cheerful and animated whilst taking their lunch as they had been at the 7am sandwich-making. I couldn't help but ask how they managed it.
A girl called Nina shrugged and smiled. "They look after their staff and that means it's a great atmosphere. That's why people stay with the company...And everyone knows what it's like to get up early and pitch in - everyone at Hudson's Place comes into the shops for two days a year."
I was surprised - Hudson's Place is the company's head office in Victoria and I wondered how many other companies would send head office staff down to the shop floor to do a day's work...
Talking to Nina, I had almost forgotten the Paul James-made sandwich in my hand but now I took a cautious bite. If I had ever doubted my sandwich credentials, I don't know why. It really was pretty good.