Simon Kelner: We owe a debt of gratitude to the Earl of Sandwich

Kelner's view


A few years ago, I was walking down the street when I encountered Julian Metcalfe, one of the founders of the Pret a Manger sandwich chain, and a man I have met socially a few times.

He proudly brandished a copy of the newspaper I was working for. "I'm sorry, Julian," I said. "If only I was carrying a rocket and crayfish sandwich!" Pret is one of modern Britain's success stories, and the news yesterday that they are creating 550 more jobs in the UK at a time when many businesses are going in the opposite direction says much about the durability and sustainability of Julian Metcalfe's original vision (not to mention the peculiarly British passion for the simple snack named after the fourth Earl of Sandwich).

Metcalfe is a poster boy for the new breed of British entrepreneur, having launched his idea on the British public in 1986, a good year for new ideas that have stood the test of time. (The Independent was also born in 1986.) The concept was simple: at the time, Britain was not the gastronomic paradise that it is these days, and Metcalfe - together with college friend Sinclair Beecham - wanted to create an outlet selling fast food they themselves would find appetising.

It sounds bizarre now, when there are posh sandwich shops and takeaway options of every ethnicity populating the nation's high streets, but, in 1986, the idea of a shop selling sandwiches using only well-sourced natural ingredients and avoiding additives and preservatives sparked a revolution in the British way of eating. Sandwiches with avocado in them? Or houmous? We'd never seen such a thing. Baguette? We only encountered them on holiday.

Added to which, Pret adopted a very modern corporate philosophy: even the lowest-ranking staff were made to feel part of the company's success. They get a silver star made by Tiffany for exceptional performance - and the final say on new recruits is given to their prospective workmates.

For all this - and notwithstanding Pret's well-publicised practice of delivering leftover sandwiches to the homeless - the company has had its share of criticism. In 2001, a chunk of its equity was sold to McDonalds, whose culinary principles, ethics and working practices would seem to be antithetical to Pret's own, and Metcalfe says now that "it was a PR mistake. I hoped we we'd gain a greater understanding of training, discipline and opening in foreign countries, but we didn't learn that many lessons." McDonalds sold out in 2008.

More recently, the Mayor of London criticised Pret for employing too many non-UK nationals, but yesterday's announcement of expansion included a rebuttal from the company, saying that staff in the stores reflected the ethnic breakdown of the population of the particular area, and as 85 per cent of Pret's trade is in London, it is hardly surprising that they have a multi-ethnic staff.

Nevertheless, Pret is a very British institution, built on the fact that, while Italy gave the world pasta, Germany gave us sauerkraut and France gave us the filet de loup de mer et langoustines grillées, purée de pommes de terre fumée, and sauce a l'anis etoilée, Britain's contribution to global gastronomy was two slices of bread with something in between them. Sounds like a brilliant recipe for a business to me.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer Trustee opportunities now available at The Society for Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Volunteer your expertise as Tr...

Early Years Educator

£68 - £73 per day + Competitive rates of pay based on experience: Randstad Edu...

Nursery Nurse

£69 - £73 per day + Competitive London rates of pay: Randstad Education Group:...

Primary KS1 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Scottish referendum: To the victor, the carping and the criticism

John Rentoul
Into the blue: Alex Salmond resigned as First Minister and SNP leader in Edinburgh on Friday  

Scottish referendum gives hope for the dawn of a new, cleaner politics

Kenneth Roy
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam