NEW YORK -- A meals concept from across the Atlantic is cooking up some success here with a rare blend of ingredients: freshness, quality, quick service, popular prices -- and smiles.
New Yorkers must wonder what's going on. They're not used to service with a smile, but they're getting a lot of it at London-based Pret A Manger's first site on these shores.
The menu is simple -- sandwiches, soup, coffee, cold drinks and single-serve desserts like miniature pecan and key lime pies and cake slices. The sandwiches and pastries are produced all day long in an on-site kitchen and merchandised in a gleaming self-service case. Aromas of fresh-baked goods fill the air. Customer traffic is heavy. Lines are short. And cashiers ring up at least 1,000 sandwiches at lunchtime alone. There must be a lesson here somewhere.
"It's a good lunch option. When you taste the sandwiches, you know they're fresh. And they're very tasty, like roast beef and chutney. I think Pret A Manger is a well thought-out concept and it's been borne out. All you have to do is look at their success in England," said Jim Riesenburger, managing partner, Riesenburger, Leenhouts, & Associates, LLC, a Rochester, N.Y., consulting firm that works with supermarkets.
Riesenburger, who has clients overseas as well as in the United States, said he has bought sandwiches at several of the 100 Pret A Mangers in Britain, as well as at the one here. The privately owned, quick-service chain (the name is French for "ready to eat") chose for its first site here Lower Manhattan -- an area that has an impressive density of lunch seekers every weekday.
Set right in the midst of elbow-to-elbow competition like Starbucks, Au Bon Pain and Cosi Sandwich Bar, Pret A Manger is posting sales that are beyond the owners' projections. Indeed, officials are so pleased with sales after four months that they're speeding up plans to open additional locations in New York, said Paul Reason, operations manager, for Pret A Manger in the United States.
"The owners are very happy with how well we're doing here. In fact, they're making arrangements to open 10 more shops in Manhattan by the end of next year. We're not certain yet exactly where the next one will be located, but as we move forward, we'll have them in Midtown and Uptown as well as more in the Financial District," he said.
Reason explained that the company fills a niche by simply giving people what they want, which Pret A Manger's owners believe to be healthy, good-tasting food and a pleasant experience at the cash register. Seating is provided for 80 people, but much of the business is takeout.
"Basically we're a sandwich shop. We sell a wide range of sandwiches and baguettes, hot and cold beverages, cakes and pastries. We just added soup this month," he said.
"Soup is definitely here to stay. We sold so much of it just in the first few days," Reason said of the latest menu item. Two varieties, made fresh to Pret's specifications by a local supplier, are offered daily.
The 3,000-square-foot store, open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., begins the day baking off croissants from frozen dough it brings in from Belgium. Later in the morning, another round of baking includes frozen dough baguettes from France. Some baked items are made to Pret's specifications by local suppliers and delivered to the store each morning, but there's always a lot going on in the kitchen. Even nuts and spices for some items are roasted in-store, and coffee beans are ground on-site.
But to keep labor intensity and shrink manageable, the menu is relatively simple. Customers will find no wine-braised lamb shanks or shrimp Alfredo here.
The same 24 sandwiches are available each day and prices range from $2 for an egg salad on country white bread to $5 for smoked salmon and egg on rye. The latter, and a roast beef sandwich, $4.75, are the best sellers, Reason said. The dessert menu offers such favorites as brownies for $1.75 each, and carrot cake and banana cake at $2 a slice. A miniature key lime pie is $2.50.
For the last two weeks, the "Turkey Lunch" sandwich, at $4.75, has been a big hit, Reason said. Introduced to herald the holiday season, the new addition, on granary bread, contains oven-roasted turkey, cranberry sauce and bacon.
"We've designated that our 'charitable sandwich,' too," said Reason, explaining that for each of those particular sandwiches it sells, Pret donates $1 to New York's City Harvest, a non-profit organization that feeds the poor. In fact, all of Pret's unsold fresh-food items are donated to charity at the end of each day. Nothing is held over, Reason stressed.
"We offer very fresh, natural, inexpensive food and great service, and we think we do much better at that than our competition," Reason said.
SN observed on a recent lunchtime visit that in addition to a friendly atmosphere, the store features really quick service.
"First off, we have 10 checkouts, which keeps lines short," Reason said, noting that convenience -- as supermarket operators well know -- is an important factor in keeping customers happy.
"You can walk into our shop, grab a sandwich, get your coffee or other drink, and be out in a couple of minutes. In fact, once a customer is standing at the back of a queue, our aim is to have his or her transaction completed in 90 seconds. And we are doing it," Reason said.
Meanwhile, at nearby Au Bon Pain and other fast-food restaurants a customer can wait in line five to 10 minutes just to get his order taken, SN observed.
Pret customers make their own selections and bring them to the register, where associates go out of their way to be helpful. SN saw one associate lean over the counter and ask a customer who was lingering at the sandwich case if he needed some help.
A shiny, multi-tiered, stainless-steel case, running the length of the right side of the sales floor, perpendicular to the checkouts, shows off the lunch fare.
The look of the place is reminiscent of the Horn & Hardthart automats, a familiar sight in New York not too long ago. Even the way the sandwiches are packed brings H&H to mind. Cut corner to corner, the sandwiches are placed one half on top of the other in triangular, see-through clamshell containers that are set on the shelf so the sandwich's cut side, revealing its contents, faces the customer.
Associates are constantly unloading trays of sandwiches, fresh from the kitchen, onto the shelves. The fact that nearly everything is self-service here keeps traffic moving -- and sales volume up.
Volume is particularly crucial at Pret A Manger's location here where the price of real estate is high and the store closes at 6 p.m. because all the business people scramble out of the area as soon as their offices close.
"People say you can only survive in New York if you have more than one daypart, but 90% of [Pret's] trade in England is lunch, and they do very well. Success will all depend on what kind of lunch volume they can maintain here," Riesenburger said.
Reason is counting on word-of-mouth to keep that volume growing. In that regard, he said so much relies on the company's associates that Pret A Manger hires very selectively, employs an incentive system, and has contracted with a third-party mystery-shopper firm who sends auditors to the store at a different time every single day.
Pret A Manger's owners are not believers in "a warm body is better than none." Indeed, in England, Pret A Manger hires only 4% of those who apply, and that has proved to be true here as well. The applicant's attitude and personality has to be right, Pret managers told SN.
The company makes no bones either about the fact it pays "a little more than the competition" and associates get bonuses for service beyond what's expected. Making a note of an associate's extra effort is part of the secret shopper's job, and an associate could get a bonus for one particular act. The shopper also checks the display cases, and the general appearance of the premises, as well as the appearance and behavior of the staff.
If an associate doesn't make eye contact and smile, it's noted. If tables are not cleared quickly, it's noted. To maintain the volume it needs, the company cannot let its standards drop, officials said.
"If there's a secret to our success so far, it's been putting quality before profits. Quality not just of our food but of every aspect of what we do," said one of the co-owners at the opening of the store here last summer.