Lunchtimes for office workers in the heart of Belfast may never be the same again after Pret A Manger opens its first store in Northern Ireland today.
The franchised business, known as Pret and synonymous with commuter-heavy big cities in Great Britain, has planted its flag in the city centre.
But one food critic warned that Belfast’s loyalty to homegrown coffee brands could stand in the chain’s way.
Pret set up its first unit on the island of Ireland in Dublin last year and now has four in the city.
Belfast is following suit with a shop employing 20 people on Donegall Square West.
The chain is known for products like its crayfish and rocket sandwich, with its chicken Caesar baguette in the headlines in 2018 after an aide divulged that former minister Dominic Raab had one for lunch every day.
For £30 a month — with the first month £15 — its Club Pret discount offers up to five barista-made hot drinks a day, with 20% off its entire menu.
Ahead of its full opening, excitement was building, with a long queue at Donegall Square yesterday as it gave away 500 lunches after a low-key publicity campaign.
Belfast Telegraph restaurant critic Joris Minne said the level of consumer interest did not surprise him.
He added: “It’s no wonder there’s a long queue at the new Belfast Pret A Manger. Tried and tested over many years throughout Britain, Pret has become as much part of the office worker’s lunch hour as the smoke breaks of old — and for good reason.
“Their sandwiches might not set the world on fire, but there are one or two classics that I’d go back for.
“The jambon beurre with cornichons, the posh cheddar and chutney, all of them on small but tasty baguettes, are quite classy.
“But Belfast is a city of independents, and Pret has a lot of work to do to build a loyal base.”
Rob Bell, owner of the east Belfast independent coffee shop and supplier SD Bell & Co, felt local businesses had nothing to fear from Pret, which aims to have 20 cafes across the island of Ireland in the next 10 years, with five north of the border.
Mr Bell, a member of the Federation of Small Businesses, said: “In the business we’re in as a specialist, I welcome fundamentally the expansion of choice.
“It increases customer demand in a marketplace where we compete extremely well, and because we are a specialist, we can meet that head-on as a challenge and win.
“Way back when Starbucks, Caffe Nero and Costa started turning up in Northern Ireland, we saw that the rising tide lifts all the boats.
“So, I embrace Pret opening and think there’s no problem. I would understand opposition if they were going to open up right next to my coffee shop. I’d think, ‘Mmm, not so sure’, but in general terms, I think it’s to be encouraged.”
He summed up Pret as a “grab-and-go” operation, where customers can get what they want from the fridge, order a hot drink, then go, though there is seating in stores.
“Pret will do harm in the area to other operators who are also offering a standard grab-and-go service,” Mr Bell continued.
Queen’s University economist Graham Brownlow said Pret catered to a niche market craving a higher-end lunch, and that customers of the cheaper Greggs chain were unlikely to be swayed by Pret’s arrival.
But he also predicted that it could result in a hit to Marks & Spencer’s lunchtime trade at its flagship store, five minutes’ walk from the new Pret.
He was also sceptical as to how far into other towns the business would spread.
“Usually, I’d expect a network to follow, but with Pret, it’s really difficult to see many Irish locations opening outside Dublin and Belfast and public transport hubs,” Mr Brownlow said.
Pret said it aimed to work with Northern Irish suppliers where possible but that some ingredients would also be sourced from Great Britain.
“At Pret, we always strive to ensure only the best ingredients make it into the products on our shelves,” it added.
“We’ll be working with a mix of local suppliers, such as Lynas Food Service in Coleraine, while also importing certain ingredients to bring our customers in Belfast Pret’s range of quality, freshly-made products.”
Its prices compare relatively well to rivals in Belfast.
An Americano costs £3, compared to £2.90 in Costa, although the independent chains generally charge more, sometimes up to £3.40.
A tuna and cucumber sandwich is £3.45, while a more upmarket chicken, avocado and basil sandwich is £4.99.
Its famous festive sandwich, known as the Christmas lunch, is £4.60.
Source: Belfast Telegraph (link opens in new window)