Last month the pizza chain Domino’s shuttered the last of its 29 stores in Italy, marking the end of its failed imperial expansion into the dish’s ancestral home. The Italians simply had no time for the stodgy, cakey imitation of their proudest culinary output. With the clarity afforded by hindsight it seems that this was always a project destined headfirst for failure.
Last week queues wended their way down Dawson Street to mark the opening of Ireland’s very first Pret A Manger — a high street sandwich retailer. Even 98FM showed up. It was like Ireland’s diminutive answer to Pushkin Square on the day of McDonald’s 1990 arrival in the Soviet Union.
Except this time it is not Gorbachev declaring his nation open to the shining totems of the liberal West but instead South-of-the-river Dubliners succumbing to an Anglo-French cultural invasion.
In Zone 1 of London Underground you are very rarely out of the eye line of a Pret a Manger. Its ubiquity speaks to a particular character of the city
Many might hope that Pret will suffer a similar fate to that which befell Domino’s in Italy. Their concerns are myriad: Dublin will be destroyed top down at the hands of greedy corporations (as though we have never had a chain restaurant before); Pret’s arrival is the ultimate sign of Dublin’s decline (a tall claim in a city currently full of abandoned and derelict buildings); time to kiss goodbye to the Independent locals you hold so dear (a statement as fatalist as it is premature). Pret is “sad”, it’s the “death” of the city, and worst of all? It’s English.
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Contrary to the prevailing discontent, it seems unlikely that Pret will hasten Dublin’s demise into a soulless, homogenised city, an identikit of every western financial centre. London — the spiritual home of the sandwich shop — is hardly monotone and culturally barren. Pret has not killed its spirit nor every Independent cafe in its reaches. Whitehall is not a giant refrigerator aisle of ham and mustard baguettes.
At worst Pret is a neutral addition to the fabric of a city. But, all the signs point to Pret being even more than a merely anodyne force, its arrival might even be an encouraging sign for Dublin’s post-pandemic recovery.
They say in London you are never further than 5m away from a rat. That strikes me as unlikely, but in Zone 1 of London Underground you are very rarely out of the eye line of a Pret a Manger. Its ubiquity speaks to a particular character of the city: a hub of busy workers looking for food that is quick and transitory, something that slots neatly into the architecture of a hectic life.
People like Pret because it is convenient, it is always the same, and it is cheap enough
In many ways the rise of Pret from the 1980s was reflected in London’s transformation into a modern metropolis whose growth was driven by its financial centre.
So Pret is more than just a sandwich chain, it holds a mirror up to working life and can even be a helpful economic indicator. Observing this phenomenon, Bloomberg developed the Pret Index — an analytical tool to track how many workers are returning to the office in a post-pandemic world.
In September 2020 the company announced that the pandemic had obliterated “almost a decade of growth” and it announced it was cutting almost one-third of its entire workforce. The calculations seem obvious: without people in the office there is no one to spend money in the shops. And so these lay-offs and closed stores were just physical manifestations of philosophical quandaries besetting cities world wide. How ought they adapt in a world so radically changed by Covid-19? What brick and mortar businesses — if any — were going to survive?
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In March 2021 transactions in London’s financial district were down one-third of what they were before the pandemic. But now Pret has returned to profit and is trading close to its pre-pandemic levels, in spite of erroneous arguments about the death of the office and the triumphant rise of home-working. The gloomy images of cities totally devoid of people have gone away. And the reanimation of the city into the lively force it once was can be tracked in how many coffees and croissants are sold.
So rather than writing it off as an act of cultural vandalism we should see Pret’s arrival for what it really is: a vote of confidence in Dublin city, ravaged by the pandemic but perhaps on its way back.
Pret’s most likable feature is its lack of pretension. The menu rarely changes. The food is better than most equivalent places. People like it because it is convenient, it is always the same, and it is cheap enough. It understands that not everyone — in fact not that many people at all — want an artisan three-cheese plus home-made relish sourdough sandwiches for a quick lunch on Monday. Pret is populist.
And if its return to profit post pandemic is proof that London city is back in action, no longer a victim of those years wiled away from home-working, then maybe Dublin is on the right trajectory too. Pret is not just cause célèbre for the city’s sandwich-making scene, it might be the harbinger of better days.