Starting with a job in McDonalds, one member of the diaspora is now on a growth story driving globalisation at a high street sandwich chain finds PAUL LAMBIS

Regarded as one of the most successful high street food chains in Britain, Pret A Manger was established in 1983 and has since become a vital part of the nation’s business culture as well as a regular stop for many on their way to and from work.

Pret A Manger’s promise of ‘freshly prepared food’ sets it apart from its competitors who ship their sandwiches in from faceless caterers, which is why the company has been so successful. With new stores opening in Germany, Northern Ireland, Spain, Italy and Greece among other countries, the brand currently has over 700 stores in the UK and abroad.

Although the franchise was founded by university friends Julian Metcalfe and Sinclair Beecham, who purchased the branding from a liquidated Hampstead shop with the intention of providing Italian-inspired sandwiches as a substitute for the ‘very grim’ dining options of 1980s London, it was Pano Christou, a British Cypriot from Tooting, South London, who was appointed CEO of Pret just before its most difficult period.

“It was undoubtedly the most challenging and defining experience of my career so far to guide Pret through Covid-19, which hit just months after I became CEO,” Christou told the Cyprus Mail. “Our company and our people suffered greatly as a result of office workers staying at home, which took away almost a decade of growth and forced us to reevaluate Pret’s entire business model.”

feature2 pret a manger carnaby street london

Pret a Manger Carnaby street London

Since Christou assumed leadership, the franchise’s goal to enter five new markets by the end of 2023 has been surpassed. In addition to his emphasis on client fulfilment, Christou has earned a reputation for putting his employees’ needs first and rewarding them with pay raises and additional rewards. “My goal is to make Pret a global powerhouse, but it is important to give your staff the credit and benefits they deserve.”

Christou grew up himself with limited resources as his parents struggled financially. His father drove a minicab, while his mother was a nurse and also worked as a cleaner to earn an additional income.

“The phenomenal work ethic of my parents is what gave me the drive to start working. They taught me the value of applying yourself, pushing outside your comfort zone and committing to a job – something I’ve taken with me throughout my whole career.”

Although his parents wanted him to attend university after finishing school, “and possibly become an accountant or lawyer rather than going straight to work,” Christou chose to pursue a job at McDonald’s, “which turned out to be the right decision.”

For the past 23 years, Christou has worked in multiple shops, held ten different positions, and gained a wealth of knowledge about both business and self-awareness. “At 16, I was drawn to the hospitality sector since it provides a wide range of career pathways and many opportunities for advancement. The most essential thing to remember about hospitality is that it’s all about people and connections.”

But there weren’t many stops between falling in love with hospitality at McDonald’s and Pret, which he joined straight afterwards, rising quickly through the ranks to become CEO of the high street sandwich chain.

“While the industry has faced several changes and challenges over the years, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, I firmly believe hospitality is a rewarding career with long-term job prospects,” he said.

“I’m grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had with Pret and the incredible people I’ve met. It’s a privilege to be leading Pret into the next phase of its growth and I am looking forward to seeing what lies ahead.”

Christou is an advocate of Pret’s entrepreneurial culture and commitment to providing clients with fresh, high-quality meals and organic coffee along with exceptional service – all the while taking care of its own employees and creating cohesive, thriving teams. “Back then, we were a very London-centric business, but I always believed Pret had the potential to become a household name with widespread appeal outside of the capital. I wanted to be part in its exciting growth story.”

Christou asserts the brand will stay laser-focused “on building a strong and sustainable business for our people and our customers” as they continue to innovate to deliver the best Pret experience possible. This includes their talented food teams creating delicious new products, expanding into more shop formats, and evolving digital offerings such as their highly successful Club Pret subscription.

“We will also be increasing our support to The Pret Foundation, whose goal is to tackle homelessness, hunger, and poverty in our communities.”

Christou’s most important life lesson, nevertheless, is to always maintain humility and remember one’s roots. He acquired this from his parents as well as from all his experiences in his line of work. “I believe that being approachable and grounded helps me connect with people throughout the Pret business. I would never be a leader who sits in an ivory tower.”