Every weekday morning, at approximately 09:48, I endure the worst five minutes of my day. For only a meagre reward, I stomach a dysfunctional, overcrowded, anxiety-inducing room, only to repeat the process both before and after lunch. I’ve done this hundreds, if not thousands, of times, without ever giving my misery a second thought until one grey January morning the other week.
I was running late for work, and the Pret A Manger opposite my office was quieter than usual. Before I could muster my customary, uncaffeinated smile, the barista greeted me: “Ah it’s the flat white guy.”
“The flat white guy?” I croaked.
“The flat white guy.”
“I’m the flat white guy?”
A fleet of baristas were now looking at me, nodding and smiling at the flat white guy. They all knew me. I, too, recognised their faces – I even knew some of their names – but, in a space occupied by so many fleeting, taciturn visitors, I never imagined that I would hold such a lofty title among their rank. For I wasn’t any old flat white guy or a guy who liked flat whites, but rather the definitive, indisputable flat white champion of the boorish hellhole I thought I frequented in a cloak of invisibility.
Always one to overthink, I left unnerved. A barrier had been broken – a wall smashed beyond repair. I’d been polite, exchanging ‘mornings’ and ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous’, but no jokes. Certainly no nicknames. Any sort of personality would compromise the one redeeming quality of my Pret A Manger experience – presumed anonymity. Now, as the flat white guy, that was over.
I spent the next 48 hours grappling with my sense of self. It wasn’t just that my identity had been reduced to a common beverage, but that it was a beverage I barely enjoyed. Bitter and mass-produced, there’s nothing special about a Pret flat white, and yet here I was, the very embodiment of the drink according to its own makers.
Two days later, as I was beginning to emerge from the throes of despair, there was an even more catastrophic event. Following in the footsteps of Spotify’s wildly popular end-of-year wrapped service, an innocuous email revealed Pret have implemented one of their own. I clicked on it, hand shaking, to discover that though not as detailed nor as likely to be shared on social media as Spotify’s music breakdown, the findings from my Pret subscription were more illuminating than any amount of minutes listening to music could be.
Let’s start with the main revelation: my Pret subscription saved me £1,141.95 in 2022. Pret readily points out that works out to roughly £100 a month, or ~£5 a working day. Also shocking was the fact that – apparently, at least – I’d ordered 13 different drinks in 2022. Having only just begun to make peace with my new identity, I felt a pang of adulterous guilt. I wasn’t even good enough to be the flat white guy.
I was, at this point, utterly lost. All I knew was it was unhealthy, this arrangement of mine. I do not like Pret. I do not awfully like Pret’s coffee. I do not like my inability to buy a coffee from anywhere other than Pret, incapable of spending £3 when I can avoid it. I do not like that coffee is now a mere necessity, needed to restore equilibrium rather than ever climbing above it.
It wasn’t always this way. I remember a time, not all that long ago when Pret A Mangers represented a treat of sorts. Personally, when compared to the instant coffee I drank at home, the warm embrace of a proper flat white was a luxury, as were the sandwiches when compared to a meal deal. Even more broadly, the prices were lower, the quality better, and the throng of caffeine-starved Londoners marching through Pret’s doors was never nearly as numerous nor spoiled as today’s crowd. Pret A Mangers used to be a space you could enjoy.
The subscription changed everything. Originally for £20 – now £25 – a month, you get five drinks a day. Hot or cold, tea or coffee, hot chocolate or smoothie, so long as your drinks are at least 30 minutes apart, the choice is nearly endless. For coffee drinkers working anywhere near a Pret, the choice is a no-brainer. Let’s say I drink 60 Pret A Manger coffees a month; it works out at less than 50p a pop.
While the value is incredible – for all my complaints, I cannot escape that £1,141.95 figure – what price am I willing to put on my sanity? At what point is it worth cutting down my consumption and going to a pleasant coffee shop again? Could I ever possibly enjoy a coffee again while on the Pret A Manger subscription? I know, deep down, the answer is no.
Because for me, at the moment, in the words of the immortal Simon Brew:
Coffee not working.
— Simon Brew (@simonbrew) January 6, 2023