Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 5-10 years in Britain, you’ll have almost certainly walked past a Prêt (or Prêt A Manger, to give it its full name), if not been inside. The full name translates from French as ‘ready to eat’, and the food it produces certainly is. Despite the fact that it used to be part of the McDonalds monopoly, the quality of the produce is almost certainly among the best fast food outlets on the high street.
I must admit that I am slightly biased: during my placement at IPC Media, I used to get my lunch there every day, and the lack of Prêt outlets in France (in fact, the lack of decent sandwich shops full stop) means that it is usually the subject of a short detour when I am in a British town centre (which is about twice a year these days). However, the bias has a good reason behind it: the food is affordable, and there is a wide range of it. You can either have a big sandwich, or a small one, or a filled baguette, or a big or small salad, or sushi, or a warm panini-style heated sandwich. With that, you can choose from a wide range of accompaniments (crisps, cakes, savoury and sweet popcorn, cereal bars…) and drinks (fruit juices, cordials, water, and hot drinks). You can easily have something different every time there, even if you eat there every single day. This is enhanced by the special, limited edition foods that they often have available at certain times of year (my Christmas work placement at H Samuel in 2007 is inextricably linked with Prêt’s special Christmas turkey and cranberry sandwich).
On this particular visit, the outlet in question was the Bicester outlet within the shopping village there. This outlet used to be insanely busy most of the time due to having only one other food outlet (Carluccio’s) as competition. However, since the expansion of the shopping village and the addition of a few other eateries, things are now rather calmer, but not in a bad way: business still seems to be ticking along very nicely. The food items were, as usual, well laid-out and easy to find, and we didn’t have to queue for long before we could pay. True to form, the Prêt staple that I chose (brie, basil and tomato baguette) was faultless – the bread was crisp and fresh and the filling ingredients were of equally high quality, balanced evenly so that the flavours mingled beautifully. The salad ordered by my mother and the ham and Parmesan sandwich enjoyed by my fiancé also attracted positive comments.
This particular branch of Prêt perhaps puts off some, though, due to its high proportion of visitors under the age of 1. This is due to the installation of a microwave on the premises that is intended purely for the purpose of reheating baby milk. This means that at times there can be a significant level of squealing and screaming. However, the inside seating space is expansive and roomy and there is also access to a garden with a play area, which may perhaps filter out some of the child clientele in more clement weather.
Perhaps Prêt’s biggest selling point, though, is on the ethical side: apart from in a few very small outlets, sandwiches are made every single day on the premises, with any leftovers being donated to the homeless rather than being thrown away. Packaging is also more often than not recyclable, with cardboard featuring heavily. The brand has built itself up successfully and ethically (especially now that McDonalds’ minority interest is out of the picture), appealing to all from students to busy city slickers to pensioners, couples and parents, and this unique ethos is perhaps worth all the screaming babies in the world.
Located: pretty much everywhere, though the majority of outlets are located in London. Outlets are also beginning to open overseas, including in Hong Kong, New York, and Washington DC.