While in London last spring, I discovered a sandwich shop chain that I fell absolutely in love with: Pret a Manger. I ended up eating lunch most days at one of their many locations around the city. The food was great. They had sandwiches on small baguettes, in wraps, and between two “normal” square slices of bread (which have been cut into triangles, as everyone knows triangle sandwiches taste better). The flavors of sandwiches included ham and cheese, egg salad, and brie, tomato and basil. The ingredients were fresh and real–meaning ham of the bone, not sliced deli ham, and arugula instead of shredded, nondescript “lettuce.” And then the sides to go with the sandwich were interesting, exciting, and tasty. The chip flavors I remember were “cheddar and red onion” and “sea salt and apple cider vinegar.” Both delicious! I was also attracted to the Pret sodas (I normally skip the soda options at restaurants). I enjoyed the Grape & Elderflower, Apple, and Ginger Beer sodas.
Pret was the first place I had lunch in London and from the first bite, I couldn’t wait to come back and try another flavor of their sandwiches, chips, and drinks. On my third day in London, I was ready for lunch, but could not find a Pret anywhere near where I was, so I went to another sandwich chain that I had been seeing around. The style of this other place, the name of which I forget, was similar to Pret, but the taste was no comparison. After trying this other place, I made sure that I was near a Pret at lunchtime for the remainder of my trip.
Besides the taste, I also enjoyed the convenience of the chain. All the sandwiches are premade, so all you have to do is grab-and-go. You don’t have a clerk staring you down while you decide what flavor you want today and you don’t have to wait for it to be made once you’ve made the decision. All of which suits my personality better.
I cannot think of a sandwich shop in the US that has premade sandwiches. It seems to me that one of the things the Subways, Quiznos, and the others are after with the don’t make it until it’s order deal is to prove that their food is fresh. Blimpie’s for example doesn’t even slice the meat and cheese until you’ve put your order in. Despite being premade, the sandwiches at Pret always tasted fresh and satisfying because they were made with solid food such as dense, but small bread, and chunks of chicken meat. The chain’s website explains the secret: “Pret opened in London in 1986. College friends, Sinclair and Julian, made proper sandwiches avoiding the obscure chemicals, additives and preservatives common to so much of the ‘prepared’ and ‘fast’ food on the market today….They created the sort of food they craved but couldn’t find anywhere else.” “Our partners drop off the very best ingredients to our shops everyday. We don’t mind that good, natural food goes off quickly. We don’t keep our sandwiches, baguettes and wraps overnight.”
One of my biggest disappointments on returning home was that I might never get another Pret sandwich (unless they’re still there the next time I’m in London) and instead the only options for buying sandwiches out would be places like Subway and Quiznos. It was quite devastating. Like the partners who started the Pret chain, I was going to be craving fresh, “proper” food, but unable to find it anywhere….
But then, I went to New York City for Christmas. Walking around the first night there, I was thrilled to spot not one, but two Prets. Needless to say, I went there every opportunity I got. The options were somewhat different, particularly the chips–there were only boring, regular American flavors and styles to choose from (though they still weren’t national brands like Lays)–but the food was still good. The egg salad wrap was melt-in-your-mouth delicious. The roast beef, arugula, mustard-mayo and chicken, bacon, mayo baguettes were also yummy. They also had the Pret Ginger Beer Soda, which tasted as yummy as the Ginger Beer I had in London, both Pret and non-Pret. I’ve found Ginger Beer in Pittsburgh, but it’s just not the same.
It turns out that Pret a Manger has set up locations in New York, Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. As Chicago is one of the next US Cities I hope to visit, I know I will be getting another Pret sandwich soon. I wonder though, if the large, diverse populations of these cities are necessary for a place like Pret a Manger to be successful. Is it possible for a truly fresh sandwich shop to succeed (and set up multiple branches) in a smaller, less diverse city like Pittsburgh?