David Usborne: A little bite of the Big Apple

In the US, the handmade deli sandwich reigns supreme. Now Pret A Manger's pre-packed snack is in town. Usborne, a Brit in New York, says: three cheers for the slimline sarnie
Click to follow
The Independent US

The girls behind the counter at Pret A Manger shared my frustration today. It's Friday in New York, the sun is shining and I had my heart set on the newest addition to their selection of sandwiches: crayfish and mayonnaise. I had even read about its arrival in my favourite magazine this week.

The girls behind the counter at Pret A Manger shared my frustration today. It's Friday in New York, the sun is shining and I had my heart set on the newest addition to their selection of sandwiches: crayfish and mayonnaise. I had even read about its arrival in my favourite magazine this week.

I searched the length of their shiny, stainless-steel cool cabinet but there was nary a crustacean to be found. What, I wanted to know, was the explanation? This is the biggest-selling sandwich for Pret back home in Britain and with such ballyhoo about it coming here I wanted one at once.

"Customs," one of cashiers said with a brilliant smile. "We have $50,000 worth of crayfish brought over from London and they are holding it in customs because they are looking for drugs or something." She assured me the shipment would be released very soon and when the sandwiches were ready the place would be festooned with all kinds of shellfish decorations.

Pret A Manger is just now introducing itself to the New York market, making a big push for a slice of the sandwich action in Manhattan. When a branch opened near me, I dashed in and marvelled. It was, I suppose, one of those expat Marmite moments. Familiar food from home! Here were sandwiches I might want to eat. What was that – Coronation Chicken? I was transported for a moment back to summer Sundays at my mother-in-law's in Surrey.

It is not altogether clear to me whether Americans will have the faintest idea what Coronation Chicken is. Maybe the royal allusion will appeal to them somehow. But there seemed to be lots of Coronation Chicken sandwiches waiting to be selected. Pastrami on rye was almost sold out.

You begin to see the challenge for Pret, which hopes to have 16 branches open in Manhattan this year. The company, which recently sold a few slices short of half a loaf of itself to McDonald's, thinks the office-tower denizens are ready for something new at lunchtime. But sandwiches to us and sandwiches to a New Yorker are two different beasts.

A whole hind leg of a beast is precisely what you find crammed between the bread if you ask for anything vaguely carnivorous at any deli around where I work. You may have experienced this yourself on a trip to the city. If Americans have a reputation for excess, then their manner of making sandwiches is surely partly responsible.

It is a wonder, in fact, that the fare from such famed places as the Carnegie Deli on 7th Avenue hasn't turned me into a vegetarian already. It is shameful, I know, but I have been known to pick up my order, open it up, and discreetly chuck half the meat inside into a rubbish bin on the street before starting to eat it. Otherwise, I sometimes can't get my jaw open wide enough.

Nationality aside, I am the perfect test audience for Pret in New York. I buy some kind of fast-food lunch for myself nearly every day. And I am bored of the choices. Only recently I had started going to a fancy Italian place called Mangia, precisely because their sandwiches are dainty. Plus, they have a few that are already prepared, wrapped and on the counter. That is rare here. New Yorkers like to queue up for 15 minutes until someone is free to construct their sandwich exactly as they like it. I panic under this pressure. Mayo or no mayo? Perhaps mustard. Do I actually like roasted tomatoes? Help. And it wastes time.

So you see why I am in love with Pret. The sandwiches are there waiting and winking for my attention and they are all slim! My roasted ham with cheese on rye is pretty good, by the way. As for US Customs – don't they have more urgent matters to deal with nowadays?

Who's who in the sandwich wars


*Business magazine Fortune found Pret A Manger one of 10 "great companies to work for in Europe". Pret was also found to have "one of Europe's most pumped-up work forces". Each worker is taught exactly how many grinds of the pepper mill to add to each sandwich.

*Less than a third of Pret's employees in Britain are British: Spanish, French and Swedish are the most common nationalities.

*Tony Blair is reputed to have had Pret A Manger sandwiches delivered to 10 Downing Street.

*Pret A Manger boasts 26 sandwich fillings: in the New York outlets, the All Day Breakfast Sandwich (bacon, sausage, egg, and mayonnaise) is not on offer, and there is cream cheese on the smoked-salmon (lox) sandwich rather than butter, which the UK versions use. New York outlets also sell pastrami on rye: the first option available which did not originate in London. There is less mayonnaise in the US Pret offerings; Americans prefer a "drier eat" apparently.

*Pret's chicken mayonnaise sandwich has more calories than a McDonald's Big Mac.

*In 2001 McDonald's bought a 33 per cent share in Pret A Manger.

*On average, the customer spends approximately 90 seconds from when they get in line to leaving Pret shops. In a busy New York deli, the wait can be 15 minutes.


*Formed in the States in 1965, Subway now has more than 15,000 restaurants in 76 countries; it is the second largest restaurant chain in the world.

*Subway first came to the UK in 1996. Since then, it has opened 56 outlets, but its mission statement says it "won't stop there". It aims to double that number within one year, and within 10 years to match the number of McDonald's outlets in the UK (2,000).

*Subway operates under a "7 under 6" philosophy – seven sandwiches with 6 grammes of fat or less. This is promoted in the US by a student named Jared Fogle, who lost 17 1/2 stone eating them. Subway say this is particularly relevant in the UK, where obesity has tripled in the last 20 years.


*Boots is still the favourite lunch-on-the-hoof sandwich vendor to UK workers. There are around 80 different Boots sandwiches, 20 per cent are vegetarian, and they have a shelf life of two days.

*Starbucks, with nearly 300 outlets in the UK, but which presumably would like to shift as many sarnies as it does lattes, say their new sandwich range has quality ingredients and new, improved labelling to help consumers "quickly determine which products contain ingredients such as dairy, nuts, wheat and more".