Eating like a Londoner

On my recent visit to London I was overwhelmed by the amount of food that was on sale. Every second store in central London seemed to be a ready-to-eat food store. One could find the same stores repeated every 100 yards or so. Definitely more food than people! The stores, each with a catchy by-line that stood out in number are EAT. ( Food worth Sharing), Itsu ( Eat Beautiful), Garfunkel’s, M&S ( Simply Food ) …the last one being the retail giant Marks & Spencer’s foray into food. These apart from the regular Tesco outlets, Burger Kings, Star Bucks and the small diners and beautiful english pubs. And then there was one which seemed to be on a mission to devour every inch of food-retail space and to out-do every other store. This was the always full, always busy Pret-A-Manger ( handmade, natural food).

It is impossible to ignore the phenomenon that is Pret-A-Manger. You see one and then you turn around casually and there is another one. Before you can say Queen Victoria, there is yet another one. Each one more busier than the other. Full of the “suits” types during lunches and all odd-shapes rest of the time. Pronouncing its name was a bit of a mystery and it took me a bit of surfing on the free wifi at the hotel to figure it was a take on the french term Pret-A-Porter ( ready to wear) and is pronounced Pret – A – Mahnzhay ( ready to Eat).

I definitely had to try it.

The first time I entered Pret store was more out of lack of choice and time trying to find lunch for the hungry daughter during a brief stop in the city of Bath. I went in expecting cold sandwiches, but was surprised to find hot-wraps and a coffee-choice that instantly found my approval – Flat White! ( after many years of telling Starbucks – “no foam please”, this was great). They also won over my heart with the small, perfect sized bottles of healthy smoothies – Mango, Beetroot & ginger, Spinach with something else. That is us devouring our first Pret meal.

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My interest was piqued big-time about these little stores. Further reading revealed this on their website:

Pret opened in London in 1986. College friends, Sinclair and Julian, made proper sandwiches avoiding the obscure chemicals, additives and preservatives common to so much of the ‘prepared’ and ‘fast’ food on the market today. The two of them had woefully little experience in the world of business. They created the sort of food they craved but couldn’t find anywhere else.

Because Pret is private we don’t face the same pressure to grow that a public company does. We will develop slowly, one shop at a time. There are about 335 Pret shops worldwide at the moment. Most of them are in the UK and between them we turn over roughly 450 million pounds a year.

They don’t mention that they also make a profit close to 90 million pounds!

So what makes Pret different?

My next few visits revealed more. Their hearts seem to be in the right places or atleast thats what all the branding in the stores screamed in your face. The food also seemed to be so healthy, fresh and inviting. Racks of fruits calling out to you under “Good stuff”, options of breakfast cups of my fav Bircher Muesli topped with pomegranate seeds and raisins, lots of greens in all sandwiches. All this comes with friendly, smiling staff and very clean and functional spaces ( lots of plugs for your electronics, long tables for social mingling etc). Yes you are charged a bit extra if you sit and eat at the store.

Here are some examples that will give you the correct picture of their food and their values:

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So one goes in feeling good, eats and leaves with a sort of halo around one’s head having eaten a healthy meal and done something good for the earth. But i have my own doubts about how much of the food can really be called “fresh” as it ought to be. Yes, they are baking fresh croissants and cakes and brownies. Perhaps they are also making fresh bread and eggs as well. The leaves are fresh yes. But the meats – part of most of the offerings is still processed, it comes to them from the farms processed ready to be made into sandwiches or wraps. There is an element of excess salts, seasonings and taste-makers. I had the Duck-Hoisin wrap for instance, which was full of a sweet sauce which i am very sure add on the calories.

Is it expensive? Whilst you cannot say it is over-the-top expensive, it is also not cheap either. You are essentially paying that little bit extra for healthier food ( which then, it should be). For example, at the italian diner across my hotel i could get a full english breakfast ( sausages, fried eggs, beans, mushrooms, bacon, toast and coffee) for 5 GBP. If i would step into Pret to eat healthy, i would end up picking up a Smoothie, a Muesli cup, a small sandwich with eggs & bacon and coffee coughing up close to 8 GBP. Those 3 Pounds of mine and countless others are all adding up to that tidy profit they make every year!

I have seen cities obsessing about their favourite comfort-food suppliers – from the Darshinis of Bangalore to the Starbucks cafes in Manhattan, but Central London’s love-affair with Pret takes the (organic, handmade) cake! Most certainly, you cant be in London and remain immune to the entity that is Pret-A-Manger. Next time give it a try and let me know what you think.

( They are also opening up / opened up in New York and Paris)

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