Smiling or crying: which one got me a free coffee at Pret?

Staff at the sandwich chain give a number of free food and drinks to customers they like, according to their chief executive. But how do you make them like you?

Would you like to know how to get a free coffee in Pret A Manger? I think I can help. On Tuesday Clive Schlee, chief executive of the sandwich chain, revealed in an interview that staff give free drinks and food to selected customers. “They will decide ‘I like the person on the bicycle’ or ‘I like the guy in that tie’.”

I ride a bicycle, which gives me hope. If I go to enough Prets, will I get a free coffee?

My colleague Susan gets two free soya lattes a week. She rides a Vespa and wears her helmet in the shops. She lends me the helmet. “Hi-i,” I say at the counter, hoisting it up. “Can I please have one of your delicious cappuccinos?” I am still smiling while Mario shouts “Cappuccino!” over his shoulder. Then he turns and crushes me with the words: “£2.15p.” Maybe Mario saw me arrive and is wondering what sort of weirdo rides a bike but carries a motorcycle helmet.

At the Pret in St Pancras station, I order a macchiato. I say “Hello” and “Please” and bubble gently but I still have to hand over £1.40. “Thank you so much,” I say, hoping that sometimes they give refunds to people who are very polite. According to Schlee: “28% of people have had something free.” You can find these happy people on Twitter, sharing their happiness. Such as Matthew Reynolds:

Got a free coffee from @Pret Liverpool yesterday from a nice guy for no reason. Made me happy and that's all you need in life init #buddhist

— Matthew Reynolds (@_mattreynolds) April 22, 2015

“I asked [the barista] what’s the reason for the free coffee and he said: ‘I’m feeling generous,’” Matthew says.

I am at the mercy of the Pret baristas. I’ve been doing this thing all wrong. This is not about me, this is about them.

At the Islington High Street branch I approach the counter. “Hi, how are you?” I say to Lionela. I’m not asking for coffee until we’ve made friends.

“Not so bad,” Lionela says. “Yourself?”

I tell her I’m fine, and then, because I am rubbish at small talk, I say: “Could I have a dry cappuccino, please?”

Lionela asks lots of questions – do I want it in or out, would I like a receipt, but the relationship is stalling. After I have paid, I ask: “So, do you guys really give away free coffee?”

Lionela nods and hands me the cappuccino. It feels nice and light. “This is a really good cappuccino,” I say. Lionela looks at me kindly. “Next time you’ll be the lucky one,” she says. Outside, I offer a fresh, untouched cappuccino to a couple sharing a cigarette. “Free of charge.” They thank me profusely. It’s quite a nice feeling, giving coffee away. I should be on the other side of the counter.

Down the road on St John Street, the branch is quiet. The assistant takes my money. She says the freebies are “the joy of Pret”, which sounds cultish. Can she give me some tips?

“There are no tips,” she says. “We give random coffees to anybody. You have to be charming. Or, sometimes, if we see tired or unhappy customers we give them a free coffee to cheer them up.”

Pret at King’s Cross station is full of lunchtime customers, the chatter intercut with train announcements. This time, I am not asking for coffee, I am telling them my life story.

“Hi, I’m having a terrible day,” I say to Kamil. By now, this is not a lie. “I need a really strong coffee,” I say. “I just lost my job.”

“What kind of coffee?” Kamil asks.

“Something strong,” I tell him again. “Double espresso?” I gesture to the motorcycle helmet and say: “And now my motorbike won’t start!”

Kamil is punching buttons on the till. “Take away or to have in?” he says. Kamil is a machine. Kamil has no heart. Kamil is interested only in the coffee.

“How much is that?” I say, wondering how far I will have to cycle to the next Pret, how long this must go on.

Kamil looks up and smiles. “It is on the house.”

So there you have it. Pret does give away free coffees; but you have to be lucky – or sell your soul – to get one.

  • With apologies to Kamil. Let me know the charity of your choice, and I will make a donation.


Paula Cocozza

The GuardianTramp

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