At the end of 2017 Pret opened their first city-centre branch in Sheffield. I have nothing against Pret; they make reasonable food and their hugely commendable charity partnerships ensure daily excess stock is distributed to those who need it. So far so good.
However, what is odd is the fanfare their arrival created both locally and elsewhere. A local councillor in Sheffield (and the council's food champion - yes this is a thing) recently said “I think [Pret's arrival] is a sign that people are taking Sheffield seriously. People are excited about the developments in the city centre and we’re on the up at last"... Pret a Manger will have recognised that Sheffield is ‘a place to be’. “It’s forward-looking, exciting and we’re finally gaining on Leeds and Manchester and becoming a driving city of the North.” His ‘one gripe’ was that there were not enough local food ventures in the city centre.
Reflecting on this I have two main takeaways (pardon the pun):
1. as a local authority, Sheffield is now officially benchmarking the arrival of a purveyor of fridge-cold sandwiches, once part-owned by McDonalds, as a key metric for the city's position in the 'Northern Powerhouse'. The provision of up to 20 low-value jobs (with profits and high value roles not held in the city) in direct competition with locally owned businesses doesn't feel like a triumph of local economic prowess or social mobiity potential. I'm aware this is set against the backdrop of a city centre that has been struggling since the opening of Meadowhall shopping centre on the city's periphery decades ago, and that new business, any new business is valuable. I just don't get quite why it's Pret that seems to generate such a festishised response. There are six thriving branches of Greggs in the city centre and for a long time Greggs has been talked about as a shining example of a socially responsible business, but you don't hear a peep when a new location opens.
2. For the councillor to lament the lack of local food ventures in the same statment seems paradoxical. The arrival of Pret will clearly not help this. That's something for another time perhaps.
If the arrival of a large private company registered in London (and not the Caymans at least) providing competition to local businesses, offering low value jobs and a uniform, albeit reasonable quality food offering indicates Sheffield 'is being taken seriously' then the quesiton begs; should we care what people who judge the value of a place based on metrics such as this think? How should we view a local authority, the custodians of the future of the city, if this is how they mesaure being taken seriously? And who are the people they are referring to who will now take Sheffield seriously?
Giving the councillor the benefit of the doubt, I guess he sees Pret as a metaphor for 'The Market' deciding there are enough of the kind of people who like to eat in Pret now in and around the city centre to sustain a branch. There's therefore an assumption that the kind of people that eat in Pret are the kind of people in high value jobs that sustain the economic hearbeat of a thriving city, and that perhaps, with a Pret now in town, more of these people will be attracted to live and work here.
And to my surprise, I think he could be right, at least judging by the wider reaction in most of my social feeds and a signifacnt number of 'real life' conversations. Living in a filter bubble like the rest of us, I follow and speak to a disproportionately large number of upwardly mobile 'creative types'. The overwhelming message I'm getting is my demographic seem to concur that Pret's arrival is indeed a sign of civilisation finally arriving in South Yorkshire. I've been involved in several conversations where the fact that "Sheffield doesn't even have a Pret yet" has been a reason for gently mocking my choice of home city, and a clear indicator for others not moving themselves. This is anecdotal but it does feel like perhaps this is a sign the city will be taken seriously by some where it may not have been before.
Sheffield has got some of the best and most affordable independent businesses (including many sandwich shops) I've ever had the pleasure of visiting anywhere. It's also got a National Park within it's city boundary, over 70 local breweries, and property prices that would make anyone with a mortgage in London wince, but apparently a cold egg mayo sandwich, not made to order and sold for £2.99 genuinely is the thing that will put Sheffield on the map in the eyes of people who themselves 'put cities on the map'.
Generally speaking when I've been to Pret my egg sandwich has tasted pretty good, if a little cold. Equally if there are any left at the end of the day, Pret will make sure they fill the belly of someone who needs a full belly which is clearly a positive. It just makes me feel a bit weird that perhaps our most mobile, creative demographic - the one every city courts and nurtures - seems to now be wired to measure the value of a place, and therefore their the quality of their potential lifestyle, by the presence of a chain sandwich shop.
*I received an email in reply to this blog from someone in London:
"I saw your Pret piece and thought it was very interesting. Thanks for sharing it. I have a very high view of Pret and I buy coffee and food there a lot. They consistently make business decisions that are not the usual playing lip service to 'responsible business' but are leading examples of how chains can operate more sustainably.
The treatment of staff is probably the most instantly noticeable. Although they are a large chain, Pret manage to give their staff freedom to be people. This is painfully rare. I know a few Pret staff having been served by them over the years and what you meet when you go in the shop is a real person. The managers are friends with their staff and the staff often seem very satisfied with their lot, with most pret managers being promoted rather than hired. They also encourage a relationship between staff and customers by giving their staff the right to gift the occasional hot drink to a favourite or friendly customer (why I'll always ask how their day is going ).
Recently, their commitment to the environment has been notable. First, they began their experimental veggie pret shop, which only served veggie and vegan options. They then expanded the veggie range in their normal shops which if you look at the sandwich rack is unavoidable because the big green labels are the most attention grabbing thing in your line of sight. They're using behavioural economics to impact their customers choices (and taking responsibility for their customers choices). Lastly, they recently doubled their reusable cup discount to 50p. This means I can walk into a pret with my keepcup and walk away with a 49p filter coffee. 0 waste.
I agree that the proliferation of big chains and global corporates on the high street is gutting the sense of community, belonging and togetherness in areas along with screwing up local economies (george monbiot's 'Out of the Wreckage' explores this really well). However, I think Pret could be a good example of a big chain that works to humanise workers and (if the issues around delocalisation become more widely appreciated), I can imagine them taking similar actions in line with that.
two points: 1. Mcdonalds sold their share back in 2008 or something when Pret realised how bad it was for their image. 2. I believe that most of the sandwiches are made on site in most if not all the shops (actually this is already a localising policy).
I'm clearly very much in the congregation of the Church of the Immaculate Pret but hope you might appreciate my cult devotion to overpriced cold sandwiches given the above.
I'd still prefer an independent shop whose profits stayed in the area though. It's such a shame that chains can set up shop anywhere with just a fraction of the risk that an independent has. They are already recognisable, have a steady flow of workers and have worked out all the nasty hiccups of the model. I would bet that councillors and local authorities welcome them in with open arms - especially when they are upwardly social and cosmopolitan like Pret and not like that builders' bakery, Greggs. Maybe they're right to as you say. Most importantly though, what are those local authorities doing to promote and help real local and independent business. Why not put it to that councillor that as the chains swarm in, the local businesses will need more support. Otherwise you end up with a high street owned from 200 miles away."