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Galley Slave

Fast Company contributing editor Scott Kirsner is ready to serve … you.

The only instructions I received in advance of my one-day immersion experience as a Pret A Manger team member were these: Wear jeans and black shoes.

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When I arrived before dawn at the Pret shop on Kingsway in west London, just across the street from the London School of Economics, I was shuffled into a small locker room and handed a long-sleeve white button-down shirt, a maroon baseball cap featuring Pret’s trademark gold star, and a maroon kerchief.

I was to be cycled through the kind of routine that a Pret job applicant endures on his or her so-called trial day — an opportunity to work with most of the team members at a given shop and to get a taste for the different tasks they perform. After an ordinary trial day, employees vote on whether they think an applicant would make a good addition to the team.

Since many of Pret’s bonuses are based on service quality — and since no one likes to work with a jerk — it’s in the team’s best interests to screen out people who seem untrainable or unpleasant. Ewan Stickley, Pret’s head of training, had informed me that about 75% of the applicants who pass an initial interview and get to a training day are hired.

The crew at the Kingsway Pret is upbeat — they’re on the threshold of a lengthy Christmas break — and multicultural. Many of them have moved to London from places like Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Sierra Leone to learn English.

After a quick 7:15 AM team meeting, I am told to make sandwiches in the kitchen, as other team members scamper around in the front, baking croissants and readying the cappuccino machines in advance of the store’s 7:30 AM opening.

I spend most of the morning assisting in the kitchen, assembling sandwiches. We make them in batches of 20 or 40. Most Pret menu items are made on the day they are sold, with ingredients delivered to the store that morning. (Unsold product is donated to food banks and homeless shelters at the end of the day.)

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At times, the kitchen feels like a scene out of a Pret training video, with team members singing along to American oldies played loud on the stereo and shouting encouragement at shy Claudine as she shakes her hips to the music. “Hey la, hey la, my boyfriend’s back,” we sing. The only downer is washing dishes after every batch of sandwiches.

The importance of spreading all of the sandwich ingredients to the edge of the bread is drilled into me. Customers don’t like sandwiches that are bereft of fillings in the first bite. Sandwiches also must look good after they’re slid into their triangle-shaped cardboard boxes. “They eat with their eyes, these customers,” says Dutch-born Johannike.

Sandwiches are checked twice by our team leader, Salome: first when they’re still open and on the counter, to make sure we haven’t left out any ingredients, and again when they’re in the boxes, for a final aesthetic nod. Salome silently plucks two of my Coronation Chicken sandwiches from the tray before they make it out on to the shelves. “It can’t just be good ingredients; it has to look great,” explains another team member, Davide, who had valiantly tried to doctor my defective grub before the inspection.

After a free lunch — I studiously avoid the sandwiches I’ve made and select a baguette with brie, tomato, and basil — I go out front and assist the two baristas with their afternoon cappuccino making. I keep a careful eye on the thermometer as I get the milk in a metal pitcher foaming, but at one point forget to turn off the steam nozzle before I pull the pitcher away, spraying hot milk on myself, the counter, and the machine as lines are beginning to grow for the first time in the day. I remember something that Stickley told me the previous day about the importance of customers getting their coffee less than 60 seconds after they pay for it.

At the end of the day, as I’m turning in my uniform, shop manager Diana assures me that, should I want a job with Pret, I would likely be approved by a team-member vote. But I suspect she was just being polite. I think Salome was glad to see me go.

Scott Kirsner (kirsner@att.net) in a Fast Company contributing editor.

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