Pret A Manger Climbs a Steep Trajectory

Demand creation never happens “once and for all”—with the triumphant launch of a product, for example. If it happens at all, it happens day after day, in a prolonged and complex process that unfolds in hundreds or thousands of often unlikely places.

Consider, for example, the surprising demand-creation role played by Tracy Gingell, general manager of the Pret A Manger sandwich shop at 60 Broad Street in New York’s financial district.

When Gingell took over the job in 2009, he quickly made a discovery concerning his store’s chief obstacle to successful demand generation. It wasn’t competition from the many other food vendors in the neighborhood. It wasn’t the difficulty of getting enough super-fresh tomatoes, lettuce, and avocados to make a new batch of crisp and flavorful sandwiches every morning, or the high price of the free-range organic chicken he ordered for the shop’s most popular sandwiches. It wasn’t even the economic woes that had forced many regular Pret customers to start brown-bagging to save a few dollars.

You are reading an excerpt from Adrian Slywotzky’s Demand: Creating What People Love Before They Know They Want It.

Demand, to be published by Crown Business in October 2011, is available from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and 800-CEO-Read.

Tracy Gingell’s biggest enemy was none of these. It was entropy.

He figured that out the first time he climbed a ladder to inspect the crystal chandelier that was one of the most striking decorative features of his shop.

It was dusty.

If you’ve ever been in a Pret store, you know that they are all remarkably clean. (People tend to use words like sparkly and dazzling to describe the typical Pret.) And Gingell admits that his Broad Street store was perfectly clean as far as any customer was likely to see. But when he got within a few inches of the chandelier, he realized that the crystals bore a thin layer of dust and that a few burned-out bulbs had gone unchanged.

As a Pret A Manger veteran, Gingell was horrified—and energized. He got right to work. “I spent two hours taking all those crystals off and polishing them, four at a time. I replaced all the lightbulbs with big, bright new ones. It ended up looking great. I felt so good!”

The dusty chandelier turned out to be only the most obvious symptom of a bigger problem. Talking with the store’s staffers, Gingell gradually pieced together the story. During the previous year, as the economy worsened and sales slumped, the previous store manager had cut back on workers’ hours, causing Pret’s sky-high standards of cleanliness to slip just a bit. Employee morale suffered, and the perpetually cheery service for which Pret stores are famous became inconsistent. Sales declined further. Downward spirals start small, but they tend to keep going. After a while, they are very hard to reverse.

The shop at 60 Broad was succumbing to entropy—the gradual dissipation of energy and loss of order that is the natural tendency of any system that is not constantly reinvigorated from outside.

Gingell got on the phone to his boss. “I’m not going to make any money here for a while,” he explained. “I’ve got to fix the store, and I’m going to do it according to the Pret recipe—the right people, amazing service, delicious food and drink. Then the shop can grow and get profitable.”

Over the next six months, Gingell carried out his plan. He recruited new employees, including some he’d personally trained at other Pret locations. He organized a storewide cleanup and freshening campaign. For several weeks he deliberately overstaffed the shop and stocked the stainless steel display shelves with too much fresh and appealing food. The idea was to combat entropy, and start the flow of demand, through an unmistakable infusion of energy.

It worked. Within a few months, the shop at 60 Broad had been transformed into a gleaming store plentifully stocked with delicious-looking sandwiches, soups, sweets, and other treats and staffed with smiling workers who serve a steady stream of customers with efficiency and charm. It’s “the best Pret in the city,” according to a friend who has visited them all, and Tracy Gingell is “the quintessential Pret person.” And Gingell’s team has continued to push the shop up a steep improvement slope. “We have three people who spend two hours a day doing nothing but organizing the food displays. We want our food to look sexy at all times. The avocados have to be placed at just this angle in the salads—for aesthetics, but also to make sure that every item in the salad is visible so you can see what you’re purchasing. We have a bin here in the back where food that the chef doesn’t think is picture-perfect gets rejected and thrown away.”

Entropy is a persistent danger in business—and never more so than in fast food, where thousands of stores in far-flung locations must serve millions of meals both quickly and affordably, all while maintaining consistently high standards of quality, flavor, nutrition, and service.

Fast-food industry behemoths fend off entropy through rigid standardization, the creation of vast centrally managed supply chains (starting with industrial-style factories for “manufacturing” foodstuffs from beef and chicken to apples and potatoes), and the breakdown of labor into its smallest possible components, so that employees with minimal skills and training can be shuttled in and out of jobs interchangeably at a moment’s notice. The standards are strict—but also low.

That isn’t Pret’s model. Like other fast-food companies, Pret wants to grow, eventually providing fresh, wholesome, and delicious sandwiches in cities around the world. Yet even as they expand, a few stores at a time, Pret is also working to create a steep trajectory of improvement—one that rival chains will be hard-pressed to match.

The sheer energy required to pull this off is difficult to overstate. Much of it radiates from Julian Metcalfe, one of today’s most high-energy, high-intensity business leaders. When Tracy Gingell climbed that ladder at 60 Broad Street and set about polishing each of the crystals on the neglected chandelier, he was channeling the soul of Julian Metcalfe.

* * *

Back in 1986, Metcalfe was not a restaurateur, chef, or small businessman, but a twenty-three-year-old former art student and a chartered surveyor who had dabbled in several fields and formed an attachment to none. He was also highly opinionated and demanding, with a tendency to become obsessed over hassles that other people preferred to ignore or merely accept. One he found most irritating was the abysmal quality of lunches available in the busy heart of London. All the choices were bad. You could reserve a table at an overpriced white-tablecloth restaurant and invest a couple of hours and quite a few pounds for a meal of unpredictable quality served by a snooty and perhaps hostile waiter. Or you could duck into a storefront sandwich place and wait in line for the privilege of choosing from a narrow selection of unappetizing foods—soggy lettuce, day-old eggs, stringy meat, flavorless tomatoes—served by a surly clerk in a smelly apron.

“Why should people put up with this crap?” Metcalfe wondered.

It was a classic eureka! moment of demand creation. Metcalfe looked at the hassles most people shrug and accept, and saw opportunity. As Metcalfe puts it, “We developed Pret . . . not by being caterers but by going through a long list of things that annoyed customers and getting rid of them.”

Metcalfe teamed up with Sinclair Beecham, a friend he’d met at Central London’s polytechnic college. They lost eighty thousand pounds in their first twelve months and labored through several “miserable” years of trial and error. Metcalfe spent countless hours in the kitchen behind their first shop on Victoria Street, cooking chickens, baking breads, tinkering with sauces, trying different varieties of tomatoes, avocados, and eggplants in search of the perfect combination of texture, flavor, and color for a mouthwatering sandwich or salad—a veritable mad scientist in his own laboratory of lunch.

By 1990, Metcalfe and Beecham finally had a menu that worked. The Victoria Street shop turned its first profit. They tried opening a second shop, plowing money from the first shop into equipment, décor, staffing, and supplies. The second shop paid for itself within fifteen months.

Pret A Manger was on its way.

More About Demand >

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