Pret has announced new openings for its new concept, Coffee Pret Kitchen, aimed at giving the sandwich chain access to smaller towns. But Nellie Nichols has some misgivings about the food range and the shop design.
In my younger days I had a more cavalier approach to life and a tendency to behave in a slightly more reckless fashion than I do today.
One very good illustration of this was my involvement in a game entitled The Traffic Light Challenge. Invented by an old school friend of mine, the object was to drive from various tourist attractions in London back to Putney Bridge in Fulham in the fastest time, avoiding going through any traffic lights whatsoever.
All makes of cars were allowed to enter, providing the driver was always accompanied by an allocated ‘navigator’ who logged and timed the route. The only other proviso was that all races started at 12.00 sharp to add some traffic congestion to the race.
Throughout the summer the competition rose to absolute fever pitch until, as autumn approached, the overall winner would finally be revealed.
We all got so good at route-planning across London half of us would have passed the taxi ‘knowledge’ test with flying colours had we taken it. I reckon half the one-way systems in the West End will be encrypted on my brain for ever and I have retained the most irritating habit of telling cab drivers the best way to go to avoid traffic.
If the same group of chums were still playing the same mindless game today I would be first to suggest a more modern version, which would prove just as tricky from a route-planning point of view and be just as challenging, swapping traffic lights for the 150 plus London branches of Pret.
I can’t help looking back on the small handful of stores that existed when I first worked there in the nineties and to the hundred when I went back early in the noughties when the first fledgling stores opened in Hong Kong and New York, to the now staggering global total of 265, with annual sales of £325 million. Let’s face it, Pret almost single-handedly invented brand loyalty.
So when will they reach their London saturation point, when cannibalisation becomes inevitable and starts to erode their sales, with too many branches opening within the same postal code?
Clearly not quite yet if six stores in Canary Wharf and six just in the Victoria areas alone can thrive. But a template for the successful migration further out of London than the current sixty or so stores (which currently major in safer sales locations such as airports and shopping centres) is now high on the private equity owner Bridgepoint’s agenda.
Now, more than ever, there is a real need to streamline the model into one, with a lower labour cost for a smaller footprint store in the UK’s many market towns.
The flagship pilot store for this new concept has opened in Vauxhall Bridge Road, just round the corner from their Hudson’s Place head office – a quirky location to say the least, no doubt carefully chosen for its low office footfall in a more residential part of London.
Approaching from down the street, without doubt, the store does have an immediate presence but not one of instant Pret familiarity, more of a distant relation. A large impressive façade, but one of dissimilarity none the less.
I’m greeted almost before I can set foot inside. The faultless Pret customer service as ever polished, friendly, perfectly executed. I could be forgiven for thinking I had been welcomed by a maitre’d of a top London restaurant, had he not borne far more resemblance to a character straight out of The Waltons.
The familiar Pret uniform has become quite contrived here: country gingham shirts with folded up, red buttoned sleeves and Che Guevara looking baseball caps. Is this meant to be a ubiquitous ‘country’ style look – I am almost looking for the straw.
The horseshoe layout is a lot to take in. Everywhere one looks there is a display of some sort, the products laid out in individual wooden boxes, signage everywhere. There is a lot of ‘exposed’ stylised brickwork with messaging that is almost impossible to read – this conjures for me images of the interiors of the All Saints stores.
There’s more wood on the floor and what seem to be kitchen cupboards hanging on one wall that without doubt look straight out of IKEA . There are wooden chairs with metal frames which I swear are almost identical to the ones we had at school, definitely modelled on classroom chairs, along with a mishmash of others; faux suede and leather armchairs.
The wallpaper is very Laura Ashley, again perhaps perceived as being country, the same design but pink on one wall and grey on another.
I’m beginning to seriously struggle with the overall design style of this store – The Waltons, Che Guevara, IKEA, Laura Ashley and All Saints, and that’s just for starters.
The word Kitchen is repeated throughout the store. Coffee Pret Kitchen (does this read well?) along with Natural Kitchen and Hot Kitchen. Wouldn’t it have been easier just to call it Pret Natural Kitchen?
The main menu board has a sub-text in such small lettering that is undeniably very hard to read unless very close up. There are many more smaller signs dotted about the counter relaying messaging about products. Perhaps there is just a little too much signage going on.
It’s been well reported in the press that here the classic Pret menu has been honed down for this new template and I’m intrigued. I’ve got my own theory on ‘out of town’, having worked on a few provincial food to go businesses in the last few years and I have discovered that there are some hard and fast rules.
A good wholesome range of cakes is a must, but perhaps a little larger than the pink, undecorated cupcake, chocolate muffin and couple of cookies on offer here.
The main sandwich offering is probably the biggest risk. The standard Pret menu has been shrunk down to a dominant selection of baguettes: French and stone-baked, mostly completely different in their fillings to other stores. There is Chicken & Bacon Club, a Wiltshire Ham & Cheddar and a Ploughman’s, all at £3.25 t/a and £3.90 eat in and a Tuna at £2.99/£3.60. The stone-baked are Smoked Salmon and Soft Cheese at £3.50/£4.20 and a Lemon Chicken Salad at £2.99/£3.60.
Most surprising of all is the reduced range of sandwiches. No classic wedges here at all, no Slim Prets, no salads whatsoever. Given there are three ‘toasties’: a Cheddar & Onion, a Tuna Melt and a Ham & Cheddar, but there are only three sandwiches and only on premium bloomer bread: an Egg Mayo at £199/2.49, which they will no doubt sell most of because of its low price point, and a Chilli Crayfish and a Salt Beef & Rocket, both at £3.50/£4.20. Of a tiny range of only three perhaps Salt Beef and Chilli Crayfish are a little polarising as recipes; I think I might have played safer with a couple of the other more popular Pret classics.
The mini-kitchen behind the counter is, of course, a big visual draw; to see the products made a few feet away yet again importantly compounds the freshness aspect of the brand. The circular driver’s mirrors mounted on the walls may be a clever visual device for the sandwich makers when they are busy but I think are far more in keeping located on narrow country lanes buried within the hawthorn bushes on dangerous corners.
I can’t help thinking this is all a bit of a gamble. Out of town means a higher ratio of older and retired consumers and far fewer professionals with hard earned disposable income. There has to be a quick and easy understanding of the brand that, let’s face it, will be less known in many a town it opens in.
I would suggest a higher percentage of sandwiches to hard-eating baguettes, and some signage that is far more legible than the spider print even I struggled a little with. Albeit there will be a healthy smattering of tourism in the right locations such as the proposed Windsor store, but nevertheless a price point of £4.20, just for a sandwich, is a high price point indeed for the more provincial towns. Pret’s existing average spend is £3.92 – can this be safely exceeded just by a sandwich on its own?
I’m finishing my delicious coffee in my square china mug. I didn’t pay for it as the charming barista insisted that since it was my ‘first time’ in the store I really shouldn’t. There is a massive charm offensive going on here and a lot of explaining and selling to each and every inquisitive customer who arrives. There has never been a question that anything in a Pret store is too much trouble. Service and quality are and always will be paramount.
But I’m looking around me and I’m the only one here. It’s very quiet and there is none of the usual ‘Pret traffic’ coming in through the door. This has to say something. We all know there is no question they will get it right in the end but right now there are still sandwiches to be made.