Food fighting for style

The popularity of quality fast food has taken the country by storm with groups such as Pret A Manger flourishing. But will customers tire of the branded outlet?

It started with Pret A Manger back in 1992 – highly branded outlets serving consistently good quality sandwiches in modern, clean environments.

Since then the concept has been copied or adapted by a host of players getting into niche fast food and drinks markets.

Many of these concepts – coffee, soup, juice, bagels – are borrowed from models in the US. Entrepreneurs make the trip to San Francisco and New York, spy a successful string of refreshment outlets, and recreate the image – tailored to the new audience – for the UK high street.

As a business model it’s working very well; everybody is talking about expansion – in London, outside London and even on the Continent. But is there a risk the target market could start to suffer from branded outlet overkill? And how will these offers fare in the predicted recession?

Unsurprisingly, most chain operators and the designers behind them do not expect their audience to get fed up with their concept. “The pattern of buying is established. If you do it properly there is a market for it,” says Pocknell Studio founder David Pocknell, who created the Seattle Coffee Co branding and designed the branding for bagel chain, Oi! Bagel.

“The customer base will welcome an infinite number of niche players,” says Martin Vintner-Jackson, creative director of Enterprise IG’s Enterprise Zone. “People are no longer wedded to brands.”

Lippa Pearce creative director Domenic Lippa takes it one step further: “I don’t think the public sees it in terms of brands. They don’t choose on brands [meaning design], they choose on service.” Lippa created the graphics for the Soup Opera chain which launched earlier this year. “You can over-intellectualise brands,” he adds.

However Adrian Kilby, creative director of The Formation which designed the Pret branding and still works with the company, thinks that the marketplace is getting “crowded”.

Pret A Manger marketing manager Sarah Jenkins recognises that in some areas the company has reached saturation point, hence the expansion outside of the capital.

Despite this, quality and service will prevail. “Although many of us are reaching Pret saturation, we are not prepared to return to the stewed Styrofoam doorstep challenge,” says Vintner-Jackson.

And of course not everyone is offering exactly the same product. For example, Parisa Group’s planned chain is more of a wine bar than a café, the first of which opened last month.

The general belief is that there will be a shaking out of the marketplace, with the best chains thriving and poorer ones failing.

Continual innovation is seen as key. Pret has achieved this: “We are always improving the offer,” says Adrian Kilby. New softer finishes are being introduced to outlets outside London, as the customer base shifts from office workers to mothers with children.

And with the focus on good quality and service in pleasant environments, these operators feel bullish about any impending recession, pointing out that even in bad times, people need to eat.

“A bagel is an affordable foodstuff and, on that basis, will fulfil the need to buy a sandwich, even in a recession,” says Pocknell.

“This kind of business is relatively recession proof,” says Steve King, managing director of

Henderson & King which set up Oi! Bagel. “As long as we keep up our standards I don’t think [Pret will suffer],” says Jenkins.

Kilby makes a parallel with estate agents operating in the late Eighties. After an initial rash of companies setting up in boom-time, only the good ones survived the down-turn.

In the meantime, King has his eye on outlets for Mediterranean flat breads called wraps, the latest US craze which he expects will catch on over here – with a little help from our designers.

The chain gang

Pret A Manger has 73 outlets, seven outside London. A new Pret opens every five weeks

Starbucks Coffee Company plans 500 retail locations in Europe by the end of 2003.

Other concepts with chain aspirations:

Joose International – nine new outlets to open in European capitals over the next two years.

Soup Opera

Matthew Freud and Damien Hirst’s mooted kebab chain

Ten to twenty Easy-Cafés planned for airline EasyJet

Queensborough Holdings plans up to 200 Fresco cafés

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