Trouble in the happy factory: Pret A Manger faces its biggest crisis yet

The tragic deaths of two customers have left the sandwich chain strugging to maintain its image of wholesomeness and honesty. 

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It’s difficult to say when, but at some point over the last ten years Pret A Manger became ubiquitous. With more than 530 branches in the UK – and 300 in London alone – the grab-and-go trailblazer has posted growth figures for 34 consecutive months, according to its annual reports. Pret A Manger is the Metro of coffee shops: huge numbers of commuters will pick one up every day. 

Founded in 1983 by Jeffrey Hyman in the leafy London neighbourhood of Hampstead, Pret A Manger was soon liquidated. In 1986, however, it was started again by Julian Metcalfe and Sinclair Beecham, who opened their first Pret A Manger on Victoria Street, near one of the capital’s biggest transport hubs. A third of the business was sold to McDonalds in 2001, and bought out by private equity giant Bridgepoint for £364m in 2008. It was sold again in May to German investment fund JAB holdings and will give its 12,000 employees £1,000 each when the deal is completed as a way of “thanking the people who really matter”.

Pret’s coffee is organic, its sandwiches are handmade, its marketing is self-aware and it wants you to know that doing the right thing is “what makes Pret, Pret”. While Costa, Café Nero and Starbuck jostle over dominance of the UK’s coffee shop economy, Pret has carved out its own place on the high street as purveyor of “freshly prepared”, “good” food. Pret is where you can get a filter coffee for 99p (50p if you bring your own cup!) with a “chakalaka” wrap or an “avo, olives & toms” baguette. There’s never a shortage of “avo” at Pret.

The people at Pret are always happy, so happy that they might give you a free sandwich if they like you. “Staff have to give away a certain number of hot drinks and food every week,” CEO Clive Schlee told the Independent in 2015. “They will decide ‘I like the person on the bicycle’ or ‘I like the guy in that tie’ or ‘I fancy that girl or that boy’.”

In fact, the staff at Pret are so happy that in 2013, the chain was accused of using “emotional labour” tactics – monitoring staff to ensure they retain a cheerful demeanour – on its own workforce. “The first thing I look at is whether the staff are touching each other,” said Schlee in 2013. “Are they smiling, reacting to each other, happy, engaged? I can almost predict sales on body language alone.” The Daily Mail revealed in 2013 that mystery shoppers visit branches every week to ensure that “Pret perfect” vibes are on display, and the list of “behaviours” staff must exhibit reportedly contains over 50 items.

Pret ran into trouble earlier this year, when the Advertising Standards Authority took issue with two ads the company had run in 2016. Pret was found to have been “misleading” in its claims that products were “good natural food”. Whilst this didn’t grab headlines, it was a chink in the armour of a firm that’s clean and ethical image has been a source of its success. It was an early caution, perhaps, to the crisis that has engulfed the firm in the last two weeks where two of its customers were believed to have died after allergic reactions to is products.

Celia Marsh passed away last December after eating a Pret “super-veg rainbow flatbread”, which was allegedly sold to her as dairy-free. Pret says that the dairy-free yoghurt was mis-sold by its then-supplier COYO, which denies responsibility, saying that the “true cause” is unknown.

It follows the death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who passed away in 2016 after eating a Pret baguette that did not have any allergen labelling on its packaging. Her father accused the chain of a “complete dereliction of duty”, and the coroner for the case said that the labelling on the sandwich was inadequate.

Pret CEO Schlee said that the chain would “ensure meaningful change”, and will start “trialling full ingredient labelling, including allergens, on product packaging” from November. “We cannot begin to comprehend the pain the family have felt, and the grief they will continue to feel,” said Schlee. "We've listened to everything the coroner and Natasha's family have said this week and we will learn from it."

Was Pret too late to act? It is not legally required for stores to put allergy labels on food made on site, but the warning signs were there. According to the Times, Pret “ignored” nine cases of allergic incidents related to sesame, including six related to its “artisan baguettes”. The lawyer for the Ednan-Laperouse family told a West London court that there was a “clear concern being repeatedly raised that artisan baguettes were causing sesame seed allergy problems, which were not properly responded to by Pret”. Pret’s compliance director said the firm responded appropriately to each individual complaint at the time. 

Schlee, who is reportedly set to pocket a £30m windfall when the JAB sale goes through, didn’t write to the bereaved relatives personally until this August, the family claims. Not a good look for a brand that trades on an image of wholesomeness and honesty.

Despite being undoubtedly the biggest crisis in its history, no one expects the burgundy star to vanish from the high streets anytime soon. Its ruthless expansion under private investment is widely expected to continue stateside thanks to JAB’s experience in the American market (JAB also own Douwe Egberts coffee and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts). Nevertheless, its reputation risks crumbling. Pret’s public image has been carefully cultivated though word of mouth recommendations (compared with its competitors, the chain’s advertising is minimal) and “good” food. This matters in the competitive market of lunch-stop chains, where punters make split-second decisions on what they want to eat. Pret often wins this battle because it is omnipresent and reliable. If the chain loses its avocado-driven charm, no number of free coffees will pep it up.