Saturday, 10 April 2010

Prêt à Manger recipe keeps working

Prêt à Manger, the chain of healthy sandwich options, announced yesterday that it is looking to open a record number of outlets this year. Founded in London in 1986 by Julian Metcalfe and Sinclair Beecham, two university friends working in the City who were constantly irked by the lack of good, healthy sandwiches on offer despite the obvious demand, the chain has continued to grow. It has remained private, after a non-controlling share was sold to McDonalds, who then sold it onto its current owners, Bridgepoint Capital, a private equity company.

This growth statement is quite something, given that Prêt's inception and obvious success brought a whole series of companies into the market looking to emulate and help fill the gap in the market. So what have been the key to its success? I'll have a stab:

Remaining private - has allowed the company to be undistracted by shareholders looking for quick, and constant returns. No doubt cashflow and exit strategies plays a pivotal role in board conversations. Yet, it has avoided having to trade off investment for customer need with a concern over share price.

Julian then cites three values on top of this that have remained core to the company throughout its life:

Its passion for food - Fresh and interesting are core to its purpose. Says Metcalfe "It would be easier to get tubs of guacamole instead of cutting fresh avocados in each kitchen in each shop but we stick to quality and taste".

Its staff - what a surprise. Another top notch services company citing its staff as its USP. And it's true. As a frequent consumer when in London, I have always received top notch service, despite it lasting maybe no more than a minute, and potentially quite transactional. They commit to ensuring there are opportunities, and always an energetic culture within the outlets.

Not corporate just proud - says Andrew Rolfe, Chairman of Prêt à Manger, "We make and have made mistakes but we remain proud of what we do and we try not to get distracted by a corporate approach".

One final thing I have noticed: virtually all of the staff serving are not from the UK. Apparently over 60% are foreign. I wonder whether Metcalfe and the executives felt that creating such a can-do and positive customer-centric culture has always needed a majority of non-Brits in which to make that possible.

It's great to see such a great demonstration of the basic tenet: listen to and look after your customers, and they'll look after you.

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