The death of the office lunch? A cultural and corporate history of Pret a Manger

As the sandwich shop turns to supermarket ranges, coffee subscriptions and suburban branches to stay afloat, Harry Shukman asks: is this the end of the speedy weekday lunch?

The well-heeled shoppers of Earl’s Court would have been forgiven for doing a double-take when they stepped into their local Tesco superstore this May. After a year and a bit of working from home – and avoiding the daily self-flagellation of the modern office lunch – it would have been a confusing sight to see the installation of Pret a Manger right there in the supermarket, appearing suddenly and unexpectedly, much like the bloodthirsty stalker that hounds Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man.

Pret is trying to snag new business while their typical office-worker customers spend their weekdays at home. The opening of petrol station and supermarket locations – Earl’s Court being the first – and the launch of grocery ranges of granola and frozen croissants marks a new chapter in the fast food chain’s life. It is a long way off what Pret’s old buyers are familiar with.

Until now, a weekday lunch from Pret — as its white collar customers will attest — consisted of a jambon beurre and a work-related panic attack in the downstairs seating area. Pret might very well pride itself on freshness and flavour but its principle advantage is surely speed and ubiquity. Has the suggestion “How about Pret for lunch?” ever been met with feelings of genuine excitement?

Recall the occasions, pre-Covid, that you decided to spend your brief moments of lunchtime freedom at Pret. The average British lunch break, according to surveys, is somewhere in the region of 15-20 minutes. How much of Pret’s appeal was tied to its proximity to your office – merely the distance of a few sad breaths of trafficky air between the till and your desk? The food itself is an afterthought. It only needs to be edible and marginally more sustaining than two Marlboro Reds and a can of Monster Ultra Fiesta Mango.

Pret is proud of its origin story, as well it should be. It has been singularly impressive in inspiring louche poshos with names like Julian and Sinclair to give up their jobs at Goldman and set forth upon the wilds of Leather Lane in search of green gold, flogging salad boxes to agitated office workers. Back in 1986, Julian Metcalfe and Sinclair Beecham launched their first Pret at 75b Victoria Street, about five minutes from St James’s Park. Metcalfe, an old Harrovian whose grandfather was an equerry of Edward VIII, met Sinclair at a polytechnic now called the University of Westminster.

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