Happy Birthday Pret

When I left London in August for a fortnight’s holiday we were in a ridiculous heat wave. When I got back it was grey, overcast, all the blackberries were out and the high street was full of ‘back to school’ promotions. How time flies, autumn has arrived and Pret has just celebrated its twentieth anniversary.

With the ending of summer retailers and manufacturers turn their focus on weightier fillings. The lighter salad and fish sandwiches and wraps step sideways for more wintry and meatier options. The holy grail of hot food again becomes the focus of many an outlet. But I have to ask why has no one ever really managed a hot sandwich efficiently? The most commonly found hot sandwich on the market remains the squashed steam-rollered Panini, oozing molten hot melted cheese, too often at an exorbitant prices. The waiting time for a toasted sandwich is lengthy and tedious. Core temperatures take a long queue building time to reach. The rather novel black toasting bag with built in handles you pop into a toaster seems to appeal mainly to the office and domestic markets.

Throughout the summer Pret have quietly been undertaking a trial of a new range of hot wraps. Unless you frequent one of their test shops which are the test bed for anything new, (and therefore well worth a visit), this would have been easy to miss. The challenge of hot food has always been an insurmountable one for Pret. Over the years the solution to serving hot sandwiches coupled with lightning fast customer service has evaded them time and time again. There seemed no way of providing a hot and fresh offering without simultaneously creating the queues they work so hard to avoid. That is, perhaps until now.

A self-service open hot cabinet forms part of the main counter area offering different pre-packaged hot wraps with simple clear signage on three shelves. Take your wrap to the till and nothing could be simpler.

There are three in the range: All Day Breakfast, £3.25, Hot Salt Beef and Jalapeno Chicken, both £3.50. On the day I go and try them the Jalapeno Chicken is nowhere to be seen. But in Pret you only have to ask. Can I wait 15 minutes? This does seem a little excessive as it’s lunchtime and there seem to be plenty of the other two on display, especially as I’m also told later that the Jalapeno is the best seller of the three, so an earlier appearance might be morecommercially beneficial But a free coffee is pressed into my hand accompanied by the widest smile from the sweetest team member called Ayan, who, true to her promise, hand delivers the wrap to me at my table with another overwhelming genuine apology. No one on the planet can ever fault their fabulous staff and superlative service.

So, here I am on tenterhooks about opening this first one, the All Day Breakfast. The wrapping is not unlike brown parcel wrapping paper, certainly just as thick, probably thicker. I am reminded of the children’s game Pass the Parcel. You know when the music stops and you can peel off layer after layer, after layer.

The wrapping has clear instructions: “Tear away and eat like a lollipop”. What sort of lollipop? There isn’t a serrated line within the paper to help you do this, so I’m tearing and pulling and unwrapping and the paper just goes on and on. I’m not sure if this is for extra insulation or good measure, but like Pass the Parcel I can only hope to be the one to get to the goodies in the end.

When I do get to that eureka moment I discover that the filling has leaked out of both ends and stuck hard to the wrap which has then stuck to the paper, which has then burnt a bit, and its all gone very crisp. (I shan’t let this spoilt it and pick all these bits off).

Once upon a time, many sandwiches ago, I worked with two chefs at Pret: David Ball (nowcooking happily in Sydney and Rich Edney, still very much in command) who I constantly challenged to come up with just a small but nevertheless vital twist on the norm.

Pret Baked Beans appeared at many a Food Meeting but never quite got through. Cold beans didn’t seem to cut the mustard. So, well done Rich for persevering because your All Day Breakfast is just fantastic with them in. A million miles ahead of the tinned version, they are so very tomatoey and moreish, and delicious put together with such good bacon, sausage and egg.

It’s 12.15 and I notice that the Hot Salt Beef Wrap mysteriously has 12.30 written on it in bold blue biro letters. Strange. What ever will happen in fifteen minutes? After finally unwrapping it I think I’ve found out, as it’s barely warm to the touch and is disappointingly tepid when I bite into it. (The ends on this one have done the same seeping, sticking burning thing too).

There’s no doubt it’s a very generous fill indeed, absolutely packed with Salt Beef but apart from the Sauerkraut and a little mustard this is a little dry and dull if you’re going to eat a whole one and could do with far more Pret magic.

The Jalapeno Chicken is very full of goodies; peppers, roasted and raw (why both ?) tomatoes, onions, cheese and chillies along with the chicken. It lives up to the warning on the sticker they all have telling you it’s very hot inside and clearly the temperature it leaves the oven in the kitchen is a rocket high one. I just think the time in the holding cabinet might be a tad too long. There is no doubt the three products I tried all were all very different temperatures and perhaps keeping them warm enough needs a little more focus.

Few things in life are absolutely perfect and everything has to start somewhere. The foundations have been completed, the equipment well designed and thought through. The packaging is functional though a little over the top, the recipes with perhaps a little fine tuning are wonderful and there is huge scope for more. At last there’s a viable and tangible, more delicious and better filled hot product, on the market to outsell the squashed Panini. On a cold autumn day when only something hot will suffice I know exactly where I will be headed, and you can be absolutely guaranteed I certainly won’t be alone.

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