The humble sandwich hardly seems a likely commodity for a smash business. Can you make a decent wedge from something that anyone with the most rudimentary ingredients and a butter knife could knock up? Back in the mid-80s, a pair of chartered surveyors took up just this challenge. Their friends must have thought they were a few slices short of a loaf.
Yet Julian Metcalfe and Sinclair Beecham, co-founders of Pret a Manger, pulled the trick off. Last year, Pret sold 25 million sandwiches, baguettes and wraps; meanwhile, turnover hit £190 million. It now has more than 160 branches in the UK, plus 22 in New York, Hong Kong and Singapore, and some 2,000 staff worldwide. And the company has this year been the subject of speculation over a flotation - worth an estimated £280m. Not bad for a partnership that started out, as the company's website will tell you, with 'woefully little experience in the world of business'.
The Pret story began in 1985, when the college pals, then in graduate jobs, began to despair at the lack of lunch options in the capital. Everything, they believed, was either over-priced or poor-quality. They decided to do it themselves, and despite losing £80,000 on their first deli, the pair saw promise in low-priced, high-margin food; the following year they borrowed £17,000 and set up the first Pret branch in London's Victoria Street.
They used trial and error to hone the Pret method - balancing fresh and healthy ingredients with convenience and affordability. Food was prepared on the premises, preservatives were banned. Serving food on plates, like a conventional deli, didn't work, but they soon hit on a winning idea: the boxed take-out.
While Beecham managed the numbers, Metcalfe spent every day cooking sandwich fillings. It was a classic entrepreneurial combo of the money man meeting the dreamer, wrapped in a 'hipper than thou' ethos: putting Metcalfe's phone number on the packaging, publishing the 'Pret mission' and projecting an anti-corporate tone in communications. Within a year, the Victoria branch was pulling in 7,000 customers a week; two years in, sales had topped £575,000.
Visit a Pret store now and you can see the formula working. It may be as hectic as a McDonald's, but its fare includes everything from crayfish sandwiches to celeriac soup, and the staff are chirpy and look customers in the eye. 'If you treat people beautifully, they will treat each other beautifully,' says Beecham, who pioneered a 'shooting star' system - high-performing staff receive vouchers to share among those who helped them.
All of which may paint an image of a firm rising smoothly, like a loaf in an oven. But Pret nearly met a sticky end in the early '90s, when the pair took on assistance from management consultants in exchange for 25% of the equity. The consultants started requesting that Metcalfe, a famously independent spirit, fax them his diary. It just wasn't going to work. The founders bought them out - at high cost.
More 'help' arrived in 1998, when the expanding empire started to take its toll on the founders' relationship (to this day, the pair barely speak). They drafted in former Pepsi executive Andrew Rolfe as CEO to allow Beecham to concentrate on overseas expansion. Rolfe was dumped in a high-profile bust-up five years later.
These incidents show that Metcalfe is his own man, and suggest that the mooted stock market float may be tricky to pull off. How will he react to shareholders? As with many ventures, Pret's success - and limitations - seem tied to the personalities of its founders.
In 2001, Metcalfe and Beecham sold a third of the business to an unlikely partner - McDonald's. Many Pret customers and staff swallowed hard at the potential culture clash: Pret preaching how it cares for its customers, staff and ethical living; McDonald's synonymous with globalisation, obesity and dead-end jobs. But the partnership has been smooth and most customers haven't seen a difference.
The future is looking eventful for Pret. The business opened 20 stores in the UK last year, and aims for 25 in 2007; with the help of the McDonald's international experience, it's also planning three more in New York, and four in Hong Kong and Singapore. Will it manage to gain a real presence outside the UK - or the capital, even? Then there's the small matter of possibly going public. Watch this space. The sandwich is looking a lot less mundane now.
Sinclair BeeCham: 'It's important not to kill ideas in the making. We've made zillions of mistakes, yet making and recognising mistakes is the way we've gone forward.'
Julian metcalfe: 'We're in the fast food business, but if you rush things you'll mess it up. It's important we keep the quality. When you're dealing with a commodity that costs £2, the real battle is service.
ACORN (1989) OAK (2007)
No. of staff Two More than 2,000
No. of stores One Over 160 in the UK,
(on London's 22 abroad
Annual turnover £575k £190m
(after two years)
Offering Homemade Range of sandwiches,
sandwiches salads, soups, desserts...