Pret a Manger will sell frozen croissants in Tesco in its latest drive to get people to care about Pret a Manger when they are not a) in an office or b) in a Pret a Manger. The maroon sandwich behemoth will sell the viennoiserie in over 700 stores, according to the Times.
The tie-up is being promised as a forerunner to suburban and residential expansion from a chain most associated with London’s rail termini and commuter hubs. That expansion is a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has hammered Pret’s business model, closed over 30 stores, cost over 3,000 jobs, and left it relying on eviction protections to survive at all. It is currently attempting to salvage rent deals with its landlords that will allow it to make that expansion, with the government yet to meaningfully intervene on rent debt. U.K. managing director Clare Clough says that that expansion will include franchising, as well as opening fully fledged new stores.
There was a time in summer 2020 when Pret a Manger’s place in the commuter psyche seemed unmovable. The government and press were urging people back to the office, to be fuelled by Pret’s maniacal new coffee subscription and railway season tickets; they espoused the joys of water cooler chat, office camaraderie, and even commuting, in a bid to endorse a narrow path to economic “recovery” which involves doing things exactly as offices did before, rather than asking whether working from home and spending more time in local areas is actually positive.
Pret’s recent moves — putting coffee into supermarkets with dead pastoral marketing; trying to make Pret dinner a thing; this frozen croissant range — suggest that the company knows it can’t do things exactly as it did before, but they also suggest that it has little will or desire to change what those things are. The dinner menu is a hot mess that plays it fast and casual with global cuisines; the coffee is never going to come for free in a random-not-random act of kindness; the croissants probably aren’t better than those already in the freezer aisle or in the local cafes whose neighbourhoods into which Pret wants to expand.
Despite the brand’s devoted fandom, which, in that heady office summer, extended to people pleading for Pret-branded ice cream vans, its appeal remains largely situational. Fundamentally, all of Pret’s new innovations are asking customers to care about the coffee, the sandwich, or the croissant more than the act and performance of getting it — more than the fact that the coffee costs 99p, or that it happens to be where they get their preferred sandwich from, or that they might get a free one in a company-restricted random act of kindness just when yet another office workday has angle-ground a little more shiny marble from their soul. Its executives clearly feel it has little choice, and its current situation likely prevents it from just opening the stores that people might actually go to, instead of deploying this series of mildly desperate stop-gaps.
The implication is that Pret has miscalculated the power of its brand as being founded on its individual products, as opposed to their part to play in its whole deal. When embedded in the geographical and social dynamics of office culture in London, the chain’s convenience and ubiquity can be artfully converted into a mythos that overrides its other key proposition: Being founded on never being terrible. Never terrible is fine in a race against five other fast-casual brands which don’t have its brand pull even if they might have better food; never terrible is fine when speed and pleasing an entire team is more important than individual taste preferences. But take all of that away, and never terrible starts to look more like not very good.