Bunhill: Burger's a dog in the manger

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The Independent Online
SOME entrepreneurs never stop selling. They can't switch off. They have to harangue you with the merits of their products. Roy Bishko of Tie Rack is the ultimate example of the breed, forever peddling the virtues of his ties. The evangelical fervour can be a bit wearing, but it is undeniably persuasive.

Julian Metcalfe, who I met last week at one of his growing string of sandwich bars, Pret A Manger, is another Bishkovite. He insists on my admiring everything - the bagettes, imported from Lille; the chicken, from corn-fed birds; the eggs, free-range only; the Danish pastries, Egon Ronay approved, and so on.

He is fanatical about quality and dismissive of the 'bullshit food' served by McDonald's and Burger King. The tragedy, he says, is that 'the ingredients cost of a delicious meal and a disgusting one are about the same.' Yet the British, if they want food fast, have little choice but the burger chains.

Metcalfe, 33, and his business partner Sinclair Beecham, 34, set up their first Pret A Manger in 1986 in Victoria, London, at a cost of pounds 17,000. They now have 18 in central London and are opening new cafes at the rate of one or two a month. Several copycats, seeing their popularity, have tried to emulate the distinctive metallic decor.

Office workers flock in at lunchtime, attracted by the quick service and the good grub. The prices aren't cheap, compared with those at traditional sandwich bars, but a meal works out no more expensive than a trip to McDonald's. Turnover reached pounds 8m and pre- tax profits pounds 500,000 last year, and the group is on target to double that in the current year.

Metcalfe, an Old Harrovian and former chartered surveyor, cut his entrepreneurial teeth with two off-licences and a supermarket in his 20s. He believes there is massive scope to expand Pret. He thinks there is room in the UK for 200 Prets and next month opens his first cafe outside London - his largest so far and licensed to boot - in the Queensmere shopping centre in Slough. Others will open at the Tower of London, the Lloyd's insurance market and Selfridges. But Metcalfe has turned down an invitation to open an outlet at the Folkestone terminal of the Channel tunnel.

Pret is now starting to franchise the format, so expansion could easily accelerate. The workforce is incredibly young. The operations manager, who oversees the day-to-day operations, is 21.

The sandwich business has wonderful attractions. You get cash from your customers a full month before you have to pay your suppliers. And if you get it right, the cash floods in. The Oxford Street store takes up to pounds 30,000 a week.

Metcalfe has no great philosophy about what makes entrepreneurial success, beyond hard work, attention to detail and sheer doggedness. 'It's like a racehorse. At the end of the day it's the last fraction of 1 per cent that sorts out the winners and losers.'

BUNHILL'S Law of Excessive Salaries goes like this: anyone who earns more than me is on one. It's a pretty universal law. Even Lord Weinstock, the managing director of GEC, subscribes to it, judging by his heroic performance on Radio 4's Today programme last week to comment on boardroom greed. People earning several hundred thousand pounds a year were merely 'adequately paid', opined Arnie, who by a strange coincidence is paid pounds 600,000 a year. However, he then tut-tutted: 'When salaries start approaching seven figures or higher, it's a bit more doubtful whether it's entirely proper.' QED.