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Time to Take a Big Sip of Coffee and Look at This Incredible Pret a Manger Tableau

Just how in thrall to the maroon behemoth is this country?

Two bags of Pret-a-Manger branded coffee, with hand-thrown ceramics and an avocado in the background
The office staple is moving into Waitrose
Pret a Manger [Official Photo]

Pret a Manger makes its move into supermarkets

One of the chains worst hit by the novel coronavirus pandemic has formalised its move into retail, as bizarrely adored sandwich pitstop Pret a Manger puts its coffee beans on Waitrose shelves. It will offer a filter blend, pre-ground, and whole espresso beans, also a blend, with the former coming in at 200g and the latter 450g.

The chain’s ubiquity in urban office culture in the U.K. is at once self-explanatory and puzzling. There are so many Prets that workers can claim their “local” as part of a daily ritual that is supposedly unique, even though every Pret is choreographed to be exactly the same. As the New Yorker observed in September, “For a disproportionate quantity of Britain’s politicians, business executives, and journalists, the Pret buzz—tactile, hectic, caffeinated, everything tasting somehow the same—stood for work itself.” Reactions to its tumbling fortunes became bound up in the summer drive to “get back to the office,” some of them so earnestly fervent — Pret vans in the suburbs! — that it became hard to tell what was a joke and what was Stockholm syndrome for a crayfish and avocado salad and a 99p filter coffee.

This might explain the absolutely incredible piece of marketing in the photo illustrating this piece. It simultaneously aims to be everything Pret is not — slowly brewed into bespoke ceramics; vaguely pastoral — and everything it is — a dead promise of sameness. There are coffee beans strewn in front of a Kilner jar, but the three to its left have been placed meticulously in a line; the coffee bags are unopened and there is no water to brew with; there’s an avocado, the most clapped food signifier of the new millennium, and literally nothing else to eat. It says, definitively, “let Pret into your home,” while also saying, definitively, “Pret is absolutely not supposed to be in your home.”

And this is the clutch for the company that has offered commuters 155 coffees for £20 while putting its bags on Waitrose shelves. Pret’s brand loyalty, unlike that of Greggs, Starbucks, McDonald’s, and maybe every other large U.K. food chain, is not exactly to Pret itself but to its slotting into the banal routine of corporate work: the trudge from the commute, the walk to the desk, the discussion of Great British Bake Off. This is what gave it its greatest asset — a lot of premium central London real estate — which has now become a millstone, with chief executive Pano Christou admitting that the rent moratorium until the end of 2020 has saved it from total collapse.

But these retail bags of coffee are asking customers to care about the coffee — not 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.

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