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How will Pret A Manger, official lunch of office workers, survive the pandemic?

A COVID-era Pret in London
A COVID-era Pret in London
Photo: BEN STANSALL (Getty Images)

Pret A Manger exists for just one reason: to feed office workers. It takes literally a minute or even less to walk in, grab a prepackaged sandwich and a bag of chips, run your card through the reader, and walk back out again. There’s no waiting in line to place your order, no repeating your order to an employee who can’t quite hear you through the plexiglass barrier, no second wait while your sandwich gets slapped together. As an extra bonus, the food is also pretty good, and it holds up well if you throw it in your bag as you rush off to somewhere else. In some parts of London, where Pret originated and is still headquartered, you can’t toss a bread roll without hitting another Pret location.

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But now that most workers are no longer in offices, Pret faces an existential quandary. Who will it serve, and how?

“I don’t think customers should help Pret. I think it’s down to Pret to figure out what it does and how it evolves,” Pano Christou, the company’s CEO, told The New York Times. (Christou began his career at Pret 20 years ago as an assistant store manager.) Accordingly, Pret is trying all sorts of new strategies to serve its customers in these interesting times. These include delivery, ghost kitchens, hot dinners, and a coffee subscription program that offers five drinks a day (prepared at intervals of at least half an hour) for £20 a month. Conveniently, the subscription model, which requires customers to scan a QR code, will allow Pret, for the first time, to track customer orders.

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The Times did not talk to customers to find out how Pret’s experimentation was working in practice. However, Sam Knight, The New Yorker’s London correspondent, ordered a Pret sandwich for delivery after his own interview with Christou. “It took thirty-two minutes to arrive,” he reported. “It cost me almost four pounds in delivery charges. It made me feel sad.”

So, okay, there are a few kinks to be worked out. But you have to respect a large chain like Pret (533 stores worldwide) for admitting that things are not going to return to normal anytime soon and that it’s up to the business to provide what customers needs instead of merely begging people to come back.

Aimee Levitt is associate editor of The Takeout.

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DISCUSSION

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Related: I work in an office building that doesn’t have a cafeteria, just a “mini mart” style thing with a couple of coolers of pre-made sandwiches/frozen things plus chips and soda and whatnot. (There are also the standard fridges/microwaves on each floor.) There are a decent number of restaurant options nearby, but last year a service called Foodsby started offering delivery - you put your order in from a choice of 4-5 rotating restaurants by a certain time in the morning (usually around 10 a.m.) and for a flat delivery fee Foodsby drivers collect it all from the restaurant and bring it to a designated spot in the office building lobby. It’s fairly easy and convenient and we were all pretty glad to have the option.

Well, for months nobody was in the building at all and even now, the number of people working in the office on any given day is extremely limited. So Foodsby tried to pivot - promising to bring food right to your house instead! I wonder how that’s working out for them.