How Parisians are getting used to Pret
13 April 2015
Duff Cooper, the British Ambassador to Paris, wrote a brief entry in his diary on 17th March, 1948: "I went to the Royal Empire Society at one o’clock, where I had an unpleasant experience called ‘a sandwich lunch’ which lasted only half an hour.”
Seventy odd years later, we all know the sandwich has become a national dish in Britain, but how have attitudes to fast food in France developed? Pret A Manger's experience in Paris is a good way to find out, and in my first blog, I'd like to describe how the British and the French are eating at Pret day-to-day. Admittedly, Pret has more experience of British habits after almost thirty years in London, but we now have eleven busy shops in Paris, and we are starting to learn the rules there too.
Let's start with breakfast. Unlike many Londoners, Parisians prefer a quick breakfast at home before they leave for work. The idea of breakfast as a feel-good fuel stop between the commute and the office is not yet ingrained. What is more, such Pret breakfast as there is in Paris is dominated by plain croissants and espressos. The Parisians scarcely eat anything else. We are trying to encourage them to enjoy the delicious porridge that sells in vast quantities at home but it's a struggle. Pret’s bananas in London outsell Paris six to one at breakfast time.
The differences at lunchtime are also pronounced. The lingering memory of a long lunch clearly hangs over the Parisian psyche. This is supported by three pieces of data: the prevalence of eating on the premises, the small percentage of Parisians eating alone, and the number of items each Parisian chooses per meal.
Bonjour, Paris! Opening of Pret A Manger Marbeuf in Paris, 2012
80% of Pret's sales are take away in London, whilst in Paris the corresponding ratio is less than 50%. Small take away shops, for so long the engine of Pret's business in the UK, are less busy in Paris. We now insist on substantial dining space on the ground or first floors of all our new Pret shops. (Our French MD tells us that Parisians won’t eat in the basement and I haven’t dared argue with him, yet.)
Parisians are also much less inclined to have lunch on their own. Whereas in London, some of our most productive seating is designed for single people wishing to feel comfortable, the Parisians nearly always eat in pairs or groups. The solo diner eating at a window bench is uncommon. It is clear that lunch in Paris is a social occasion, to be shared with other people.
The average number of dishes eaten per meal by the French is also instructive. A larger number of dishes indicates a sense of occasion, and on that basis the Parisians expect their lunch to be more of an event. The average Pret lunch in Paris consists of 2.9 dishes per person, significantly ahead of the more modest London total of 2.1 dishes. If the British do choose an accompaniment to their sandwich or salad, it is usually a packet of crisps. With the Parisians, it's a side salad, a pudding or preferably both. The Parisians adore chocolate mousse, lemon cheesecake and most recently rice pudding. We tried to sell rice pudding in Britain ten years ago and couldn't give it away.
Some of us may be sad that the Parisians seem to be moving steadily towards the London model. Whilst breakfast at Pret is growing and the take away % is on the up, I hope we won’t give up on the long lunch altogether. Next time I’m in Paris, I am going to make a point of spending the afternoon in one of those seductive French bistros, being ignored by a French waiter. Vive la difference!