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Good piece in the New York Times about Pret A Manger, the British sandwich shop chain that after several years of trying to get its footing in the US, now “is slowly expanding in New York and other American cities with its own brand of grab-and-go food and, more significantly, a fresh approach to fast-food service.”

The fresh approach, beyond the unique food offerings centered around quirky British-style sandwiches, focuses on speed and smiles.

The Times writes:

“Pret feels almost nothing like an American chain. At a Starbucks in Midtown, you can wait 10 minutes for your latte during the morning rush. At Pret, the goal is to serve customers within 60 seconds. At some fast-food outlets in the city, cashiers might fling your cheeseburger across the counter, Frisbee-style. At Pret, they compliment your earrings.

“What makes Pret A Manger a compelling business case study is its approach to customer service and to training and motivating its staff. Yes, Pret happens to make sandwiches — but the lessons are worth knowing, whatever your line of work. Many businesses have trouble getting longtime employees to work well and, in particular, to work well together. But, Pret has managed to build productive, friendly crews out of relatively low-paid, transient employees. And its workers seem pretty happy about it. Its annual workforce turnover rate is about 60 percent — low for the fast-food industry, where the rate is normally 300 to 400 percent.”

At lot of this corporate culture is keyed to constant training and evaluation, along with a tangible reward system.

Here’s how the Times fleshes out the story:

“How does any company encourage teamwork? At Pret A Manger, executives say, the answer is to hire, pay and promote based on — believe it or not — qualities like cheerfulness.

“There is a certain ‘Survivor’ element to all of this. New hires are sent to a Pret A Manger shop for a six-hour day, and then the employees there vote whether to keep them or not. Ninety percent of prospects get a thumbs-up. Those who are voted out are sent home with £35 ($57), no hard feelings.

“The crucial factor is gaining support from existing employees. Those workers have skin in the game: bonuses are awarded based on the performance of an entire team, not individuals. Pret workers know that a bad hire could cost them money ... Pret reinforces the teamwork concept in other ways. When employees are promoted or pass training milestones, they receive at least £50 in vouchers, a payment that Pret calls a “shooting star.” But, instead of keeping the bonus, the employees must give the money to colleagues, people who have helped them along the way.

“There are other rewards. Every quarter, the top 10 percent of stores, as ranked by mystery-shopper scores, receive about £30 per employee for a party. The top executives at Pret get 60 ‘Wow’ cards, with scratch-off rewards like £10 or an iPod, to hand out each year to employees who strike them as particularly good. Pret has all-staff parties twice a year, and managers get a monthly budget of £100 or so to spend on drinks or outings for their workers.”
KC's View:
Coincidentally, I was in NYC last week and had stopped by a Pret A Manger shop for a quick bite; it always has felt like a bit of London to me, which is a good thing. And during my quick visit, I was impressed by the level of engagement that the employees seemed to show with their customers, and the high degree of friendliness that they demonstrated. And the roast beef sandwich was pretty good, too.

But I am struck by the idea that when employees get bonuses, they have to distribute the money among the people they perceive as having helped them achieve a level of excellence. That seems like an extraordinary policy, and one that ought to find greater implementation at other businesses.