Back in November, I wrote about how I had thought my way out of some free mash in a branch of EAT.

On that occasion, I turned down the offer of free food, but yesterday, I was gifted a sandwich. I had gone into Pret, as I do on most days. I stood in front of the chiller cabinets and chose what I wanted (a Classic Super Club) and went to pay. There was a bit of a queue, so I waited and then when it was my turn to be served, I put the sandwich on the counter and took out my wallet. At this point in the process, the other person usually asks if I want the sandwich to eat in or take away. I say “Eat in” (each time I say this, I always point down with my finger at the same time to emphasise the point. I don’t mean to do this, but it happens every time), and then I pay, the sandwich is put on a tray, along with two paper napkins and I go to find somewhere to sit.

This time, however, things didn’t follow this pattern. I placed the sandwich on the counter and as instead of asking if I wanted to eat in or take away, the woman said “It’s on the house”. I paused. “It’s on the house” she repeated. “Eat in” I said in panic. “It’s on the house” she said again. I put my wallet back into my pocket, took my sandwich and slowly walked over to a nearby table.

Today, I went back. I stood in front of the chiller cabinets. I made my selection (Tuna Nicoise Salad) and queued up. I got to the counter and saw same the woman from yesterday. I placed the salad on the counter and assumed everything would be back to normal. “Is that to eat in or take away?” were the words I hoped to hear from her. Instead, she said “It’s on the house.” The second day in a row. I went to sit down and eat my salad, confused by what was happening in the world.

Pret are known for the enthusiasm of their staff. Sometimes this enthusiasm can be intimidating:

Sometimes their enthusiasm can be over-bearing:

As this article in the New York Times explains:

Every new employee gets a thick binder of instructions. It states, for example, that employees should be “bustling around and being active” on the floor, not “standing around looking bored.” It encourages them to occasionally hand out free coffee or cakes to regulars, and not “hide your true character” with customers.

So I have been identified as a regular. This makes me uncomfortable. When I was in sixth form, we would go to a shop across the road during our free periods or at lunchtime. I’d always buy the same thing. A packet of Jaffa Cakes and a can of Dr Pepper. I did this for several months until one day, the woman behind the counter said “Oh, the usual is it?” As soon as she said that, I knew I could never go back to that shop. I started going to the newsagents two doors down instead. But not only that, I stopped buying my “usual”. I started buying two packets of Salt & Vinegar Discos and a can of Cherry Coke instead. I didn’t want the two shopkeepers to somehow identify me. Possibly during a late-night meeting of the Malden Manor traders association, where one shopkeeper complains that one of their regular customers has disappeared and discovers that I’d changed allegiances. I wanted to disappear completely. I wanted to be invisible.

If I get a free sandwich on Monday, I’m never going back.

UPDATE: I went to Pret on Monday. The same woman served me once again. I paid for my sandwich.


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