Pret A Manger's rapidly expanding presence in Hong Kong is testament to a working recipe that already spans 120 employees locally and 5,000 worldwide.
"Our stores don't look uniform and it goes back to the fact that Pret doesn't have to be the same as everyone else," says Sarah Dempsey, operational development manager of Pret A Manger (Hong Kong). "It's also reflected in that we don't have a hierarchy. We have an open-door policy, and we are good at keeping everyone in the loop, from team members up."
According to Dempsey, this success not only lies with the appeal of freshly made sandwiches and baguettes, but also with three core behaviour characteristics that define its employees and gel staff members with each other and with customers.
"With regard to our recruitment, we look for personalities," says Dempsey. "The three important behaviour characteristics are passion, clear talking and teamwork. Passion means showing enthusiasm, expressed in a smiling happy personality and we look for people who talk to others and show interest. So that means that managers can't be terribly formal. They need to be able to muck in and help."
Baristas and team members make up the heart of the company, and its stores are where decisions are made and talent is nurtured, enabling staff to become creatively involved.
"The team votes on who to work with," explains Dempsey. "If someone comes in for a day's experience and team members want them to be part of a team, the manager has no decision. The manager might think they are wonderful, but if the team doesn't think they are the right personality, then he or she won't stand a chance. Leaving that decision to the team members, empowers them to think that it is their own company."
The extent of this staff engagement was put to the test during the financial crisis early last year as the company continued with pay rises, training and development. It focused on affordability with regard to food and creative solutions such as halving the size and price of products instead of cutting staff.
Corporate communication is not only encouraged through quarterly events with food and drinks in which everyone's efforts are recognised, but also with activities such as a sandwich Olympics in which team members are invited to come up with ideas for new sandwiches. Winners have seen their recipes included in the product range. Describing the company structure as a family tree, mobility is facilitated not only in a hands-on environment but also by training at the company's Causeway Bay-based Pret academy that focuses on nurturing personality as well as developing skills. "Many of the courses have nothing to do with making sandwiches," says Dempsey. "They are a mixture of a behaviour base or skills base and we do have a workshop to help people find their core behaviour."
As well as training in interpersonal, executive and kitchen skills, courses at the Pret Academy include a workshop called Buzz which addresses such things as shop ambience and music. It includes role playing aimed at getting people out of their shells. Most programmes are intensive courses.
Incentives also come in the form of an attractive salary package, bonuses, and up to 25 days annual leave. There is also a mystery shopper programme in which an external company sends a person into a shop to assess its staff and products. Staff who impress are rewarded with bonuses.
As the company keeps on refining its products and expanding, it continues to recruit with the hope of luring more local staff. Cantonese will thus be an integral of its skills base this year. But the emphasis remains on personality and the passion to learn, grow and be part of the company.
"At Pret, opportunities exist if you want them," says Dempsey. "However if you sit back and wait for someone to give them to you, they won't come. Passion and enthusiasm are the most important things and we reward the best ideas wherever they might come from."