February 25, 2021

Would You Like a Smile With That?

It’s not all those quirky British sandwiches, thin and understated with ingredients like free-range egg mayonnaise and avocado-and-pine-nut filling.

No, it’s the employees. The cashier is asking New Yorkers how they are doing — and genuinely seems to want an answer. The guy who is throwing out the garbage offers customers a cup of water. The manager swings by to commiserate about the sweltering weather.

This is fast food? In Manhattan?

Pret A Manger, the veddy British chain, has gained a foothold in our McWorld of burgers and fries, where you can fun-size this, combo that and, let’s face it, sort of expect sullen service.

Next to, say, McDonald’s, Pret A Manger amounts to a fleck of relish, if that. Last year, Pret posted sales of £327.5 million, or about $534 million at current exchange rates. The take at McDonald’s: $24 billion. But Pret A Manger — the name means “ready to eat” in French — is slowly expanding in New York and other American cities with its own brand of grab-and-go food and, more significantly, a fresh approach to fast-food service. Pret feels almost nothing like an American chain. At a Starbucks in Midtown, you can wait 10 minutes for your latte during the morning rush. At Pret, the goal is to serve customers within 60 seconds. At some fast-food outlets in the city, cashiers might fling your cheeseburger across the counter, Frisbee-style. At Pret, they compliment your earrings.

What makes Pret A Manager a compelling business case study is its approach to customer service and to training and motivating its staff. Yes, Pret happens to make sandwiches — but the lessons are worth knowing, whatever your line of work.

Many businesses have trouble getting longtime employees to work well and, in particular, to work well together. But, Pret has managed to build productive, friendly crews out of relatively low-paid, transient employees. And its workers seem pretty happy about it. Its annual workforce turnover rate is about 60 percent — low for the fast-food industry, where the rate is normally 300 to 400 percent.

At the request of Sunday Business, Francis Flynn, a professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, reviewed some of the management practices of Pret A Manger. He liked what he saw.

“A lot of people think about these jobs as almost hopeless when it comes to motivating the employees who work there, and it’s kind of sad, and I also think it’s incorrect,” Mr. Flynn says. “My sense is there’s a really holistic approach, a comprehensive approach, to development.”

Pret is succeeding with just such an out-of-the-box approach. So far this year, the sales in its 34 American stores — in New York, Chicago and Washington — have increased 40 percent from the same period last year. The company’s total profits, with its approximately 225 British shops contributing the most by far, rose about 37 percent, to £46 million ($75 million) in 2010. Pret plans to expand further in the United States, and in — yipes! — Paris, where it plans to open two shops this year.

How does Pret A Manger do it? To find out, I went to London to learn about the company’s approach to training and teamwork, as well as how to make a proper Pret sandwich. When I landed, I grabbed a coffee at a Pret shop across my from hotel and watched a thin, shaggy-haired employee pick up garbage and sweep the floor. He was skipping as he worked.

This, I thought, was going to be interesting.

CLIVE SCHLEE, the chief executive of Pret A Manger, steps out of the company’s headquarters near Victoria Station and into the morning bustle of central London. Over the next hour or so, we walk to five Pret A Manger shops, two Starbucks, two branches of Eat (a London competitor), an outpost of Le Pain Quotidien, a Sainsbury’s grocery store and a local sandwich shop. We also visit a variation on a Pret store that the company may take to the suburbs.

Along the way, Mr. Schlee, a lanky Brit with a patrician-but-friendly air, recounts the history of Pret A Manger.

It all began in 1986, when Julian Metcalfe and Sinclair Beecham, who had been college friends in London, felt that they couldn’t find a decent sandwich. Many other Britons apparently felt the same way. By 2001, Pret A Manger had 100 stores in Britain and was moving into the United States. Mr. Metcalfe and Mr. Beecham sold a third of the company to, of all companies, McDonald’s, for an estimated £26 million ($43 million).

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=6eaf2120d6515f64b312ac75fedf0d86

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