Pret a McManger

If your lucky enough to live in Manhattan, Hong Kong, London, or a few other
cities in England, you've got access to Pret a Manger. It's fast food that thinks slow. They've got breakfasts, sandwiches, soups, salads and desserts and you can be guaranteed that they are free of preservatives, artificial colorings, flavorings, sweeteners, and partially-hydrogenated fats, and that their turkey, chicken, beef, and ham all come from small co-ops and family-run farms that don't give their animals any antibiotics or hormones. They also do what they can to source Organic ingredients. At this point, at least, their milk, eggs, coffee, tea, juices, chocolate and popcorn are all organic. And the taste? Well, reports are good. Their menu was developed with the help of the amazing Claudia Fleming, formerly one of America's top pastry chefs.

It sounds like the perfect green story. But is it?...How does this little sandwich shop that started in the mid-80's grow to more than 100 stores worldwide and still keep their morals in place? Ay, there's the rub. In 2001, McDonalds helped them out with about $25 million and took a 1/3 stake in the company. Pret claims that "McDonald's do not have any direct influence over what we sell or how we sell it; nor would they want to. They have invested in Pret because they like what we do."

They like what they do? Yes, if they make money.

It's a tough call whether this is good news or bad news. If we want a good company that is supporting small, organic producers to thrive and survive, they need capital. And whose got the cash and the interest? Big food business.

Just look at the history: Dean Foods Co., the nation's largest milk producer, purchased Colorado-based Horizon for $216 million dollars in 2003. General Mills Inc. acquired Cascadian Farms, French food giant Groupe Danone bought a stake in Stonyfield Farm, and H.J. Heinz Co. has invested in Hain Celestial Group Inc.

So, is this good news or bad? Well, if organic companies continue to grow, so do the acres of organic farmland. That means less pesticide use and better treatment of the soil. The question is whether the small companies could have continued to grow on their own, and whether as organic agribusiness expands, will the quality of organic produce decline. The biggest issue, though, is what will happen to the Organic standards as the big corps become more involved? Will they ultimately wield the influence to dilute them to meaninglessness? And what of Pret a Manger? Will McD's continue to "like what they do" if they stop making the big bucks? We'll see.

All right, let's stop worrying about the future for a sec. Enjoy your Pret sandwich. Oh and they deliver.::Pret a Manger [by Tamara Holt]