Business

Pret A Manger boss relishing fresh challenge of Northern Ireland market

Clare Clough, Pret A Manger's UK & Ireland managing director, and the signage on the food chain's first Belfast store on Donegall Square West, which opens on Thursday.
Clare Clough, Pret A Manger's UK & Ireland managing director, and the signage on the food chain's first Belfast store on Donegall Square West, which opens on Thursday. Clare Clough, Pret A Manger's UK & Ireland managing director, and the signage on the food chain's first Belfast store on Donegall Square West, which opens on Thursday.

ALTHOUGH synonymous with sandwiches and coffee in London since the 1980s, it took almost four decades for Pret A Manger to cross the Irish Sea.

The food-to-go specialist, which has hundreds of outlets in Britain, and a presence in more than a dozen international markets, finally announced its Irish move in April 2022.

Through its long-time franchise partner Carebrook, Pret is planning 20 shops across the island over the coming decade.

Four have already opened in Dublin since August 2022, with the first northern outlet set to open next to Belfast City Hall on Thursday.

But Clare Clough, Pret’s UK & Ireland managing director, said the performance of the Irish stores to date mean the food chain is unlikely to stop at 20.

“Success breeds success, so I wouldn’t say 20 was an upper limit.

“I think it was a starting target, and we want to bring Pret to as many locations across the island of Ireland that makes sense to do so.”

Given the proximity of Ireland and the fact that one of its most important franchise operators in Britain (Carebrook) is run by two Irishmen, it might surprise some that it has taken so long for the group to take a crack at the Irish market.

Clare Clough said while discussions around the move probably began in earnest in 2018, it has been on the cards for much longer.

Tipperary native Gerard Loughran, who runs Carebrook with Dubliner Ray McNamara, first worked for Pret before becoming its first franchisee.

“He always had a personal desire to be part of the story of bringing the Pret brand to the island of Ireland,” said Clare. “And we were very, very supportive of him doing so.

“He’s a brilliant partner, and one of our most trusted franchisees.

“So those conversations I think probably had always been ongoing with him at a conceptual level.”

It was during the period when the Irish move began to formalise that Clare succeeded Pano Christou as managing director in September 2019.

“I was ready for my next career challenge and was delighted to get the opportunity when Pano moved to the CEO role.

“If had known what was coming in March 2020, I may have taken a different decision,” she mused.

With a business model focused around urban workers and airports, the Covid-19 pandemic represented the perfect storm for Pret A Manger.

Within months the company was announcing plans to shed a third of its workforce to save the business.

“It was obviously a very challenging time,” said Clare. “It was publicly reported the structural changes we had to make and unfortunately the loss of team members and some permanent closures as well.

“What also came was impetus for change, and recognising how Pret would adapt itself to the new normal that was starting to emerge.”

The new strategy has resulted in Pret opening in more regional locations around Britain and expanding into new international markets.

The franchise model has proved a significant factor in both cases.

With the pandemic initially delaying the move across the Irish Sea, the new strategy proved the final impetus for putting the plan into action.

So what can customers who have never experienced Pret before expect?

“We pride ourselves on having a kitchen in every shop, or very close by. And that means the food is produced fresh on site,” said Clare.

“We believe our customers can really taste that difference. We think there is a real difference in tasting a sandwich that has been made metres away from you rather than miles.”

The new Belfast store is unlikely to be Pret’s last in the north. But the managing director said the decision on how many of the 20 new outlets are based north of the border, will be largely down to location availability.

Finding the new locations will be left to the Carebrook Partnership.

But the experience of Dublin means additional Belfast outlets will be expected before any potential move out of the city.

Clare Clough said the company is sourcing plenty of produce locally, but some goods will be imported from Britain.

And despite new checks on food products crossing the Irish Sea courtesy of the Windsor Frameowrk, it’s all working to plan so far.

“We do import some other goods from the UK, and that’s all working to plan.

“It hasn’t been a barrier,” she said.

“I think some of the framework is still relatively new, so we’re still working through that.

“But as we stand today, there are no particular challenges to flag.

“We’re just keen to bring Pret to Belfast, having had the successful openings in Dublin.”