SPECIAL REPORT: How the right kitchen kit is putting the power into Pret

Dirk Wissmann, senior equipment manager

Dirk Wissmann has his hands full. This year will see Pret A Manger open at least 32 stores in the UK and possibly a dozen more overseas. It will be a record roll-out programme for the chain and, coming off the back of the 36 stores it launched globally last year, supports a strategy to increase the size of its estate by around 10% each year.

As senior equipment manager, Wissmann heads a crack team whose job it is to equip Pret’s 400-store network with everything they need to make dishes on site, deliver the chain’s all-day menu and achieve the speed of service customers expect.

It is no exaggeration to say that Pret is one of the greatest success stories the British foodservice market has ever seen. It serves 300,000 customers every day, has exported the brand to the US, France and Asia and made profits of £84m last year. Founders Julian Metcalfe and Sinclair Beecham remain significant shareholders, but the majority of the company has been owned by European equity firm Bridgepoint since 2008.

Pret describes itself as “operating a bit like a restaurant — but with a difference”. It builds kitchens in or very near every shop, while everything is made fresh — you won’t find ‘sell-by’ dates on its sandwiches and salads, for example. Any unsold food, meanwhile, is given to charity at the end of each day rather than keeping it to sell the next day. Over three million food items were donated to charities in 2015.

It is a compelling story and one which is only made possible by highly efficient back-of-house areas that are carefully planned and constructed. For Wissmann, the task of creating a winning kitchen formula is contstant but no two days are ever the same.

“There is actually nothing like a typical day for me because we have a lot of projects that change — it is often just a case of attending meetings, looking at what’s coming up, what’s coming next. There is a bit of admin involved, obviously, but there is not a ‘typical’ day each time. It is what makes the job challenging and exciting, and that is why I am still doing it after such a long time. I spend the majority of my time in the office but I also have to go out to stores, service stores, look at installations and scope new projects.”

Pret A Manger shop exteriorWissmann is engaged on new shop projects from the outset. His first job usually involves scrutinising the initial layout to verify that the kitchen and back-of-house plans make operational sense. He’ll then assess whether the equipment Pret needs is available and ensures suppliers know what’s required and can deliver the quantities before approving the order. After that he works closely with Pret’s project managers to make sure the equipment is properly installed and, if everything is okay, will sign off each new kitchen and organise equipment training for staff. With Pret currently opening new stores at a rate of three a month, his diary is quickly filling up.

Pret made its name in London but with opportunities in the capital becoming fewer, it is increasingly finding success in the regions. But even that brings its own challenges as stores need to be laid out and equipped to mirror dwell times. “London is very fast — people go into a shop, they just want to grab their lunch and go, whereas in a regional shop people like to sit down for coffee. Therefore the approach we have to coffee in a regional shop is different than it would be in a central London store.”

Pret boasts an extensive menu based around sandwiches, baguettes, soups, sushi, wraps, fruit, sweet treats and breakfast items, as well as a growing vegetarian offering, which is largely produced in-house. If there is one thing that shapes Wissmann’s thinking towards procurement it is the need to eliminate complication.

We’d rather not have complicated, manual-operated things. Keeping it simple is the strategy that works for us”

“In general our approach [to catering equipment specification] is ‘keep it simple’,” he explains. “Whatever we have in our stores needs to be simple to operate and easy to clean from a safety point of view. We have very high standards for health and safety so everything needs to be on wheels and movable for cleaning. We’d rather not have complicated, manual-operated things. Keeping it simple is the strategy that works for us.”

Given that manufacturers are in competition to out-do one another with more elaborate designs and technology-enabled features, the user-friendliness of a product can sometimes get overlooked. Does Wissmann feel that catering equipment has become simpler to use over the years that he has been involved in the business?

“Yes and no,” he responds. “Yes, technology has advanced but that hasn’t always made it simpler. You now have more systems that are more complicated to operate, but you obviously have more opportunities. The majority of the items we use in our kitchens are slightly customised to what you would normally buy off the shelf and that’s just so that we can fit it into our specific operation. So we try to make the equipment work for our specific operation, rather than building our operation around the equipment that is out there. We modify a lot of the original equipment to fit our workflow, and we try to make it easier to clean, easier to operate and safer.”

Pret’s Dirk Wissmann with assistant equipment manager Karolis Zvikas (right) and coffee operations manager Colin Menzies (left).

While some chains may view equipment as a necessary evil, Wissmann takes the opposite view. He refers to its kitchen as the “engine room” of the business, acknowledging that without investment in the right kit it wouldn’t be able to generate revenue. And generating revenue it does well — Pret made sales of £676m last year.

The clearest challenge facing Wissmann on a daily basis is how to manage a store network that now encompasses some 400 sites worldwide, particularly when a new menu item or concept is introduced as it invariably has implications for kitchen design and equipment usage. This is particularly pertinent in existing shops with unconventional footprints — more common in London anywhere else — or those with space constraints.

Pret’s approach when rolling out a new concept is to trial it in a handful of stores first before agreeing to a full-scale roll-out, as it did with a smoothie menu last year. It is now going through the same process with iced tea, while it has also launched a new vegetarian menu and vegetarian pop-up store.

When we roll things into shops we always do it without disrupting the operation. Everything goes in overnight or without interrupting the actual trading”

When a project is green-lighted Wissmann and his team must be ready for action. “Everything in Pret moves fast, so if somebody has an idea and it works we try to get it out there as quickly as possible,” he explains. “You would think we’d look to have it the next year, but it’s more like the next month. That is a challenge because time is always against us. I think we did all the smoothie machines in about three or four months. There was a very short time available for us because when we roll things into shops we always do it without disrupting the operation. Everything goes in overnight or without interrupting the actual trading.”

Pret works with around five to 10 core suppliers — “we are usually very loyal until something goes wrong, and that is usually bad service”, says Wissmann — and considers its relationship with these companies to be tight, especially given the level of product customisation it commands.

“We do a lot of development work with our core suppliers,” says Wissmann. “When we have a new piece of equipment it’s usually not right for us as it comes off the shelf, so we do a lot of tweaking and modifying until it is right for our operation. One example of that is the toastie machines that we rolled out. We did a lot of development work with the manufacturer until we got it to the point where we actually liked it.”

Pret A Manger interiorOne of the biggest challenges for any modern food-to-go operator is the changeover between service times and menus. 58% of Pret’s sales, for instance, are now outside of lunchtime, driven heavily by increased demand for breakfast-on-the-go. Such trends ultimately impact the type of equipment that Pret chooses.

When Wissmann began working with Pret, the shops opened at 7am,  shut at 3pm and didn’t trade at weekends. Now it’s a full-time operation. “The majority of Pret shops are open seven days a week from 6.30am and don’t close until 11pm. Trading patterns have changed even through the peak is still at lunchtime. We treat all the day-parts in different ways, which means the equipment needs to be flexible. The unit displaying croissants in the morning will need to hold cakes in the afternoon, so it needs to be adaptable. We recently trialled our evening concept where we change the kitchen to do hot food served to the table, and we try these things out without endangering our core operation, which is making sandwiches for our lunchtime business. We try to make sure the kitchen layout is as flexible as we can to allow these different day-parts.”

Easy to use, reliable, hygienic and now flexible. Pret A Manger knows exactly what it requires from the catering equipment it specifies. And it’s that assurity that will undoubtedly provide the bedrock for the dozens of new stores coming its way this year.

Pret equipment Q&A with Dirk Wissmann

On the responsibility of equipping 400 stores…

“The big challenge is getting roll-outs done within a timeline as the deadlines we face are often very short. There will always be constraints in the shops because of the available power or the available space, so we need to alter what’s in the store. It is nothing that we can’t overcome, it just sometimes gives us a big headache!”

On keeping an eye out for new catering equipment innovations…

“We never stand still. When you’ve done a project you always think you can relax a little bit, but there is always an idea around the corner that somebody wants to trial. And if somebody in the business has a idea it usually gets pushed through pretty quickly.”

On the attention paid to what competitors’ back-of-house areas look like…

“It is part of the job. You need to know and sometimes we even go on tours to see how other businesses do things. Usually, though, people in our team have an idea of what they want to sell or develop and then we are given the challenge of creating something that fits into our operation.”

On the project he is most proud of…

“I think it was when we changed our soup operation many years ago and the way, at the time, that we went about rolling out soup. We had to make sure that all our shops could sell soup, so it was a big challenge and a big project. I think that was my first big project when I started this role.”

On Pret’s expectations for the lifecycle of catering equipment it uses…

“As long as possible! The minimum lifecycle for a piece of equipment, in my view, should be about five years so if anything is below five years I don’t think it’s good. If it last longer, it is great!”

On the factors that would make it switch out a supplier… 

Bad customer service! If I get bad customer service from a supplier that’s the main factor for walking away from them. And, yes, it has happened!

On what he enjoys about the role and what motivates him…

I have been working for Pret for 17 years now and it is a wonderful company to work for. They look after their people, and it is a vibrant and ever-changing company, and that motivates me.

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One Comment;

  1. Cathy Wilcox said:

    Really fascinating article – I’d love to know more about the soup operation that Dirk rolled out – must have been superbly planned and executed.
    very interesting to hear how the scale of their operation means that equipment is adapted to suit THEIR food operation – I find that we need to offer equipment that best suits the needs of our customers and often they then need to adapt their menu slightly in order for the food offer and presentation to be correct

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