Pret A Manger thriving on a macaroni diet

Pret A Manger, led by Clive Schlee has 288 shops in the UK, 60 in the USA, 14 in Hong Kong, 11 in France and one in Shanghai
Quinoa and coffee are the order of the day, Clive Schlee tells Jenny Forsyth

PRET A Manger boss Clive Schlee is talking quickly and excitedly. Perhaps he’s just feeling upbeat about the British cafe chain’s record yearly figures – showing a total sales rise of 16 per cent to £594m.

Or maybe he’s had a large Pret coffee. Goodness knows, his business is selling enough of them – 1m a week.

“Yes, I’m very pleased with our figures,” he says. “A 9.7 per cent like-for-like sales rise is a big achievement and 12 per cent of those sales have come from new innovations.

“Hot and healthy are the key words. Our quinoa rice pots and macaroni cheese have been big sellers. The macaroni cheese is made with cauliflower as well as pasta and comes with either kale or prosciutto. We sell around 50,000 a week.

“The other big seller is our Green Goodness juices. We sell more of them now than the signature chicken and avocado sandwiches.

Times have changed since Pret opened in 1984, when fresh, “ready to eat” sandwiches were a revelation. In the crowded “fast food” market, the chain aims to become a global brand with expansion – it now has 374 outlets worldwide, including one in Shanghai, China – and by keeping abreast of changing food trends. Last year profits rose 14 per cent to £76m.

“There’s been a move towards healthy food which is dairy or gluten free,” says Schlee. “The other thing that’s changing is people want to sit down. Ten years ago we’d open a shop and we wouldn’t bother about seating but now we know that shops do better if there’s more seating.

This year he predicts grain-based salads – with rice noodles or quinoa – will be having a moment.

And the other big leap is away from lunch-time takeaways and into evening dining. Pret A Manger has recently opened its shop on the Strand for evening meals and is considering rolling out the idea throughout its central London locations.

“It’s only going about 10 days so it will take a few months to bed that in,” says Schlee. “I have no idea how that will go. But the Strand between 6.30 and 7.30pm is busier than the busiest hour of breakfast, so it has potential.

“We give you a nutritious and delicious fresh dinner and a glass of wine for under £10, which makes it very competitive in Theatreland.”

Or, if you’re lucky, it could be less. According to Schlee, shop staff are encouraged to give away free food and drink to whoever they fancy – or meets the daily criteria.

“The teams decide it could be anyone from people in red ties to someone riding a bicycle. We looked at loyalty cards but this seemed a less mechanical way to pick our lucky customers.”

CLIVE SCHLEE

■ Chief executive of Pret A Manger for 12 years and co-founder of Itsu. Current job follows 17 years in Hong Kong working for Jardine Matheson. He is 56 and married with three children
■ Lives in Westminster and travels by tube and on foot. “I must walk around 40 miles a week around the Pret shops and visit 1,000 shops a year.”
■ Favourite Pret lunch is the classic Pret smoked salmon sandwich – or a banana on the go. Drinks macchiato coffee
■ Favourite restaurants: Itsu (of course) and Spanish restaurant Barrafina

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