With Pret A Manger set to open its first Veggie Pret outside of London and launch its latest indulgent vegan snack, its food and coffee director Clare Clough spoke at the Lunch show about the trends driving its food-to-go offerings, the future of meat, how to deal with failure and its innovation process.
The original site in Soho was planned as a pop-up for two weeks, but is still open three years later, and was joined by two other shops in the capital. Now, Veggie Pret is also launching in Manchester on October 8.
“I couldn’t really talk about trends and not touch on Veggie Pret, so clearly one of the biggest trends we have seen in recent years is an increase in plant-based eating or a reduction in the consumption of meat,” she said. “Veggie Pret will continue to be a part of our story and that certainly is one of the biggest trends we will continue to back.”
Clough said there is an opportunity to help customers in their journey to reduce their meat consumption, whether their reasons are driven by health or sustainability.
“The biggest thing that Veggie Pret has brought to us as a brand, other than three beautiful shops which is about to be four, is it really challenged my team to have a better offer for vegetarians. So I think I could call us lazy in our approach to that previously, so if you were a vegetarian and you came to Pret, you could pretty much choose cheese or egg and we might put it on different bread for you but we hadn’t really gone beyond that,” she admitted.
“But when we suddenly had a shop that we had to fill, we had to become much more innovative in our recipes and that’s translated back into the main estate, so we have now got a much better, flavoursome, more innovative range of products for vegetarians and vegans in all our shops.”
The biggest demand within vegan is for treats, according to Clough.
“We launched a dark chocolate and almond butter cookie earlier in the year and it pretty much went viral, it was ridiculous, and it became overnight our second best selling cookie, which I think in my time we have launched six or seven different cookie flavours which have come in at number four and left at number four and churned through. So the vegan cookie just blew us away on that front,” she said.
On Tuesday, Pret is launching its next vegan treat and there’s a theme – it’s a dark chocolate almond butter bite.
“We posted that on social media last week and have got about 20,000 likes and comments thus far and we haven’t even put the product out there yet. So I think we are seeing this increase in plant-based eating but we are also seeing this crazy customer engagement in vegan snacks and I imagine that’s because people are trying to tell themselves or reassure themselves that they are making a healthier choice.”
Clough also foresees more vegan ranges replacing meat-based products. “What we try and do now is be vegan where possible rather than just vegetarian, so that again shifts the number of traditional vegetarian lines into vegan lines as well. Everything through our numbers says that they will continue to grow as a percentage of our range.”
But that doesn’t mean the bacon brioche or chicken sandwich is done, says Clough. “I don’t believe that the days of the chicken and bacon baguette are over, that is our biggest selling line significantly, so I don’t think that has quite seen the end of its time yet,” she said.
Anyway, Clough can already say when the biggest day of the year will be for the bacon brioche – it’s December 14. That’s the day after most Christmas parties and demand will spike through the roof, she said. The tuna baguette and chef’s Italian salad are also consistently in the top 10 – a list that hasn’t changed in five years, she said.
The flatbread wraps that she launched about four years ago that stormed out the door.
“We had taken out quite a big category, we had taken out bloomer sandwiches to make space for them, and that was quite a risk at the time as that was a decent performing category. I took it out as I wasn’t particularly happy with the quality of bread that we were able to achieve in that product, so it was a quality reason not a commercial reason that we made the space, but the flatbreads more than filled the gap,” she explained.
She puts the success down to two reasons – the merchandising of the product as the flatbreads were displayed front facing with all the colourful ingredients on show, which captured customer’s imaginations, and it was the chain’s first foray into “more innovative recipes” from different cultures.
Despite the success of the chain, Clough admits it’s not immune to failure, but it has learned to walk away quickly. She said despite a robust testing process, sometimes products don’t translate from development into something easy to make and execute in the shop kitchen.
“I think at that point you have to say we have made it too hard. In Pret we definitely don’t go back to ask the teams to do better, it’s the responsibility of myself and my team to make their jobs in shops easier and to make it brilliant for our customers, so learning to walk away when we’ve made it just too difficult is a good thing. Sometimes that’s quite difficult for some of my chefs, they want to push on and get to the product, but its better just to walk away.”
The development process
Pret does about five launches a year and ideally it likes to have a nine month window between concept and launch, but it can be reduced to as little as three months or take as long as two years. In summer, an annual food plan is written but there is flexibility as the nature of innovation means they need to keep it live, said Clough.
A team of development chefs work from scratch designing the recipes for the sauces and dressings, which are then briefed out to suppliers, as well as finished products. The chefs work to quite a wide brief, but can also bring in their own ideas.
Every Thursday a session is held in the development kitchen where the team presents projects to Clough, along with Pret’s head of food and head of buying, who participate in an interactive panel. “It’s not a cold presentation and then feedback, it’s not like Dragon’s Den, it’s meant to be more of an opportunity for us to work as a team to decide how this project is going to go,” she said.
The final process involves a “show and tell” of all the products up for launch to CEO Clive Schlee, the UK managing director and the marketing director. “It’s not a pass or fail, again it’s an opportunity to know what’s coming up, to have a conversation about how it might affect the shops and how we might want to position them and for Clive to stay close to the direction of travel of our food and products at all times,” Clough said.