London’s question: Why is Pret so expensive now?

London’s question: Why is Pret so expensive now?

I can measure my life in Pret sandwiches. The first, bought by my mother more than 15 years ago, a respite from browsing the clothes racks of suburban England in the hope of finding any suit that would fit. The second, in my late teens, an inaugural “professional” lunch on the first day of a two-week internship with National Geographic Traveller, with travel paid for and a £5 stipend for a bite to eat at 1pm. I stopped at the one outside Farringdon station and grabbed a BLT and a flat white. Five quid covered it all, with change for a Freddo.

Today, £5 barely covers the sides. I wouldn’t even pay for some of the sandwiches on their own – the more complex baguettes packed with flavour, the limited-edition specials – let alone one with a coffee that now costs more than £3.

Why? Possibly because Britain is in a state of financial disarray: since Brexit, food prices have soared. In 2019, a loaf of bread cost an average of £1.04, according to the Office for National Statistics. Today, a loaf of bread costs more or less £1.40. Inflation has soared chaotically following the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. And energy bills have been volatile, shop rents are rising, wages are high. Pret-shop bosses may also be looking to make more money.

One of the most striking price increases concerns Pret’s best-seller, the tuna and cucumber baguette, which cost £2.99 in late 2021 but costs about £4.25 today in commuter-heavy areas of London — a 42% increase, according to Bloomberg data. The chicken Caesar and bacon baguette, meanwhile, has risen from £3.99 to £5.25, an increase of about 32%.

One of the most impressive increases concerns Pret’s tuna and cucumber baguette, up from £2.99 in 2021 to £4.25

So buying a sandwich, a drink and a packet of crisps or a sweet treat – Pret brownies have been a pleasant option while on foot – means, as many have (angrily) pointed out on social media, that suddenly a £10 lunch is taking shape and what should be a relaxing hour becomes a bit of a downer. Especially when a Greggs sausage roll remains well under £2 – even in busy transport hubs.

Pret’s chief executive, Pano Christou, went on record last year saying that yes, those rising energy bills, higher wages and spiralling food prices all played a role. This story has been told before. The same Bloomberg data said Pret’s salmon supplier raised prices by 50 per cent after the pandemic and staff’s annual pay increased by as much as 20 per cent. All this during a time when offices are less frequented, for better or worse, especially in areas where Pret has made inroads: in the City, long a hotbed of jambon beurres, the pain is everywhere. So give the chain a break.

But here’s what piques my interest the most: Pret is charging 50 to 75 percent more for some sandwiches and baguettes than it did before the pandemic, but between 2020 and 2023, inflation has been around 20 percent.

I’ll put the statistics to bed here. Allow me a dose of conjecture: Pret is expensive because it has nowhere else to go. It is possibly, and only in part, the architect of its own downfall. That’s because the trickiest arena when it comes to food and drink is the middle ground.

Pret is lunch’s version of Prezzo, Pizza Express, Cafe Rouge: once reliable, regular haunts for those with a bit of cash to burn but no time to care how it was spent. None were quite as good, but they represented a sort of metropolitan vibe.

These days, people have to look for better value, because no one except the wealthiest in society has any spare cash to spend. And then there’s the fact that dining out in London has improved immensely, not to mention that tastes have evolved to be more adventurous. Restaurants in the middle, offering OK food with little atmosphere or feeling, or, dare I say, narrative, are hardly worth considering.

Similar changes have affected Pret. Lunch, if it is going to be very expensive, cannot be a wasted interlude these days. And in London, there are all sorts of independent places to find lunch for a tenner or so.

It has to be said that Pret’s prices vary. Visit a branch in a nondescript, less busy part of town and you can find menu items at the lower end: tuna baguettes for £3.99 and BLTs for £3.75. And then there’s the Made Simple range, where simpler sandwiches, such as the egg mayonnaise, remain firm at £2.99. “We have made an average price increase of 0.4% across our menu to offset some changes in our operating costs,” Pret told the Standard. “This is well below the current rate of food inflation. We regularly review our prices to ensure we remain competitive, while offering good value for our fresh food and never compromising on our high-quality ingredients.”

Still, add a coffee and a snack to even the cheapest sandwiches and customers are still approaching the £10 mark. That’s not just Pret, of course, but Pret is the high street’s flagship through thick and thin.

And through all this, Pret has tried to stay relevant, to show its hand. It hasn’t wanted to fall into Greggs territory, where value matches quality, but has moved to try and justify its place at the top of the high street. I’m just not sure it’s winning. It just doesn’t need to be so expensive, does it?

Josh Barrie is a food and drink writer for the Evening Standard