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Away in a Manger

Pret a Manger is the the mother of all pseudo-sophisticated sandwich outlets.

I pitched this column to the New Statesman because I wanted to write about Pret a Manger - or "Pret", as it's known to its habitués. I had an overwhelming urge to write about this particular sandwich chain, even though I'd never knowingly entered one. Now I discover that Pret is basically a London business - there are only 50 or 60 outlets in the rest of the UK, and even fewer overseas. How does that make me feel?

Well, like shit actually - shit, ready to go. Like shit - and fraudulent shit at that; after all, this is meant to be about real meals that people really do eat, not some pseudo-sophisticated exercise in metropolitan navel-gazing. Still, bear with me if you've never clapped eyes on a Pret, because it is the mother of all pseudo-sophisticated sandwich outlets.

The chain was started by a couple of metro-dudes when they met on a property law course in the 1980s. Whoa! And it gets worse: the signature Pret decor is a disturbing vermischen of Bauhaus, art deco and New York loft apartment - very 1980s, indeed. From clear across busy roads, your eyes are dazzled by its distinctive, riveted-zinc interiors; decor that makes it the ideal joint for superannuated electro-pop stars to sup spinach and nutmeg soup while chomping on an artisan baguette.

But step in under the etiolated lettering that spells out "Pret a Manger" beside a faux-commie, five-pointed star, and you discover not Depeche Mode, but the dernier cri in free wifi-ing, iPhone-a-fondling yoof.

Slice of life

I mentioned I was writing about Pret this week to a table full of middle-aged diners, and lo how they did pour scorn on the establishment. However - and this is a big however - the entire table then began to detail their favourite Pret sandwiches, and so it transpired that they were all, in fact, regular customers!

In fairness to Pret, its sandwiches are good - it boasts that everything is made fresh on the premises with premium ingredients, and it certainly tastes that way. I had some cheesy-meaty concoction, the name of which I can't remember, and the aforementioned spinach and nutmeg soup, which was on the tepid side but slipped down easily enough.

As I sat there, looking up at the exposed ducts snaking across the ceiling - very steam-punk, very Alien, very indicative of how modernity is ineluctably becoming more dated - I considered all the negative press that Pret had gathered when, in 2001, it flogged a 33 per cent stake in the US branch of the company to McDonald's.

Surely, Pret's touchy-feely fans said, this goes against the company's ethos, its organic vibe and its programmatic beneficence? After all, you can't imagine the Big Mac Monster giving away any of the food that's left at the end of the day to charities for the homeless. But, in fact, McDonald's has sold on its stake to Bridgepoint Capital, so it's out of the frame. And besides, so far as I know, Pret's superb hiring policy remains in place, whereby new applicants do a day's trial in an outlet, and then the other staff members vote as to whether they should be hired.

Conservative tastes

Vote! Vote for someone to receive an eight-quid-an-hour wage - well, cynics might say that it's like concentration camp inmates voting their own selections, but I'm not one of those bitter folk. I'm more the kind of person Pret is looking for. It divides positive and negative staff attributes thus: "Don't want to see" or "Pret perfect".

In the former category are such no-nos as blaming others, getting flustered and being there only for the money; whereas to be Pret perfect, you must have a good sense of humour, love good food, paint a clear picture. Come to think of it, it isn't so much me as genial Dave Cameron that the Pret management team is describing. Yes, on reflection, I think that may be it; after all, he's emphatically "just made", unadulterated and yet remains curiously dated, even in his apparent futurity.

Could we dare to hope that we may soon see a Pret a Prime Minister? One whose policies can be consumed on the spot, or else carried off to be absorbed at one's desk, or even on a park bench? I do hope so - although there's just one problem: the Pret a Prime Minister has plenty of branches in London and the south, but there's bugger all up north.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Hold on tight!