How automation became crucial to Pret A Manger’s success
Jordan Montgomery speaks with Pret A Manger’s Coffee Development Manager, Stephen Welch, to understand how automation has helped the brand expand beyond UK borders.
It has been almost four decades since Pret A Manger first graced Britain’s high streets – and in all that time it has rarely dropped the ball.
Having begun as a modest food-to-go shop with the goal of solving London’s “lack of a proper sandwich” shop, it has grown from strength to strength, surviving recessions, pandemics, and energy crises.
Although the majority of its outlets are located in London, it has expanded its successful model globally, operating in the US, Hong Kong, Singapore, and France, among others. By the latest reckoning, it serves around 300,000 customers each day worldwide and turns over more than £700 million per year.
Underpinning Pret’s success is a commitment to speed, convenience, and quality. Its ready-to-go food is made fresh either on or near the premises and its coffee is roasted in small batches each week. On average, hot drinks are served in under a minute, which has long made it a hit with commuters and office workers.
However, Pret is not the only coffee and food chain to prioritise quick service and quality ingredients. So how has it been able to grow and, more importantly, stay on top for so many years?
Automation: A key ingredient of success
For any customer-facing business, speed of service plays a crucial role.
According to a study by Omnico, a global retail technology provider, the average UK consumer will tolerate a queue time of 5 minutes and 54 seconds before “abandoning” the purchase. The survey also found that over half (56%) would be less likely to return to a store if they’d had a bad queuing experience.
Pret, whose target audience is predominantly those on tight schedules, have long understood the importance of minimising queuing times to keep people coming back. However, they also recognise the toll it can take on staff when they feel constantly under pressure from impatient customers.
Stephen Welch is the Coffee Development Manager at Pret A Manger North America. He explains that the use of automated coffee machines has allowed the coffee shop chain to offer both quick service and consistency as it expands globally.
“We were an early adopter of superautomatic espresso machines in our shops to make sure that we’re able to deliver our customer’s drinks in a timely manner, while still maintaining the quality that we look for in all our products,” he says.
Having spent most of his career in specialty coffee, Stephen explains that one of the most frustrating parts of his time as a barista was dialling-in espresso shots and adjusting brewing recipes. He believes that using automation in coffee service helps Pret A Manger achieve more consistency, while sparing baristas both time and stress.
“There’s something entirely dissatisfying about making a customer wait while you dial in your coffee because your recipe has shifted. Likewise, as a customer, I’m willing to wait within reason, but it shouldn’t take the bulk of my day.”
“[Good coffee and food] just needs proper planning and regular spot checks to execute the quality standards we have in place.”
Despite concerns in some corners of the coffee industry that automation replaces baristas, this view is generally shortsighted. Although this may be true in some locations where coffee is not the primary product, such as gas stations, coffee shops like Pret rely on well-trained staff to work in tandem with the technology.
In some stores, for example, baristas will manually steam milk while the superautomatic machine extracts the espresso. Pret baristas are also needed to engage with customers, and perform regular quality checks. If anything is amiss, they are able to calibrate automatic equipment in a short amount of time – even across countries.
“An average calibration takes between five to ten minutes, which is still less time than I ever spent dialling in and wasting coffee to try to nail the perfect shot in my bespoke [specialty] days,” Stephen adds. “We’re able to calibrate and update recipes across markets with ease, and we’re in regular communication with global markets to make sure we’re aligned with our international offerings.”
Will the future of coffee be automated?
As Pret A Manger continues to lead the way in delivering speed, convenience, and quality – while also accommodating new trends and changing consumer habits – automation will undoubtedly play a central role.
The more it transitions to automated technology, the more it may appear that Pret is taking a step away from specialty coffee. However, Stephen claims the use of automation isn’t driving away customers. On the contrary, he says its offers a balance that keeps people coming back time and again.
“Some people will say that automation leads to a ‘flattening’ of coffee quality – and to that I say that many customers and coffee drinkers are simply not interested in the extremes of quality. There’s enough space in the market for the specialists and the people who want excellently extracted coffee quickly so they can continue on with their day.”
Indeed, a report by World Coffee Portal suggests that approximately one-third of UK customers are open to fully automated coffee service, and that the automated coffee market has already doubled in less than five years. It seems likely, then, that automated machinery will play an integral part in managing workflow and efficiency in the coffee industry as a whole.
In the specialty coffee sector, businesses are already following the example of brands like Pret A Manger by embracing new technologies to streamline waiting times, maximise consistency, and improve customer service.
Brands such as Elektra and Heylo design equipment specifically to cater to the specialty market. These provide baristas with a range of customisable parameters, including brew temperature and pressure, so that they can unlock each coffee’s full potential. However, they also provide staff with the opportunity to focus on other areas of the workflow, such as milk steaming or customer interaction.
It’s only natural that Pret, which has been a bellwether for the UK coffee industry for so long, will continue to adopt the most innovative tech while staying true to its original purpose: to bring high-quality food and coffee to the high street.