Though Five Guys and Pret followed very different routes through the Covid-19 crisis, both entailed some intrepid decisions. Dominic Walsh considers the two men in charge of the high street brands.

Sometimes you need a bit of luck in life. When I started my first job in journalism, as a reporter on what was then called Caterer & Hotelkeeper magazine, little did I know that the third person I was introduced to when I was taken on a tour of the office to meet my new colleagues would become my wife and the mother of my children. The job was also the springboard to a 24-year career on The Times – and counting (hopefully!).

Lady Luck also played a not-insignificant role in the career of John Eckbert, the chief executive of Five Guys. The American, who had been a banker with Bank of America, came to Britain to study at the London School of Economics for a year in 1989 – the same year I started at The Caterer – and ended up living in a flat in Westbourne Park, London, the floor below a chap called Charles Dunstone, who at the time was selling computers for NEC.

They became good friends but after the LSE, Eckbert went back to the States to pursue a banking career, founding his own boutique bank. But having fallen in love with London whilst a student, he decided to sell the business and eventually returned here in 2010 to live full-time but “without a plan”. What to do for a job, though? He ended up linking up again with his old pal Charles Dunstone, by now chairman of both Carphone and TalkTalk, and between them they decided to pursue “something in F&B” – just as the American owners of Five Guys, the Murrell family, were thinking about crossing the Atlantic. In 2013 they launched Five Guys UK, with the Carphone Warehouse co-founder setting up a joint venture with the Murrells. Another stroke of luck.

You need more than luck to make it in business, however. So while a host of familiar high street rivals like Pizza Hut, PizzaExpress, Gourmet Burger Kitchen and Byron were forced to shed stores that had been rendered unprofitable by the pandemic, Eckbert and Dunstone took the bold approach: instead of retrenching and shrinking, they spent 2020 pushing the accelerator pedal down hard and opened 23 stores across the JV during the year. This year they’re targeting 55 openings, of which about 25 will be in the UK, representing an investment of about £75 million. Thereafter, their business plan calls for 40-45 openings across the JV, which includes Germany, France, Spain and (some time soon) Portugal.

The cynics will doubtless claim that it is all well and good to keep expanding when you’ve got gazillions in your bank account, but Dunstone is not the sort to throw good money after bad, as he showed with MOD Pizza, his other fast casual joint venture with American partners Scott and Ally Svenson, founders of Seattle Coffee Company. The nine restaurants did not reopen after the first lockdown last year and liquidators were appointed in September. Looks like a case of Dunstone doing the sensible thing and cutting his losses on a business that perhaps wasn’t quite right for the UK market and lost any chance of succeeding in the abyss of coronavirus.

One sector CEO who appeared to be heading into the same abyss was Pano Christou, of Pret A Manger. With no office workers, commuters, travellers or tourists, I genuinely feared that the brand could disappear. I also felt sorry for Christou who just six months after getting the job he had long dreamed of, found himself battling an existential crisis.

Fair play to him, though. He rolled up his sleeves, did the painful bit of shutting a bunch of uneconomic shops and laying off more than 3,000 employees, then set about creating a more appropriate, durable and innovative Pret business.

“Instead of Pret following the skyscrapers, for us it’s about bringing Pret to the people,” he said. In other words, Christou had realised he needed to wean the business off its reliance on white collar office workers and make it more accessible – both physically and in terms of affordability – to a wider cross-section of the population.

The first step in this strategy was the introduction of the coffee subscription scheme – designed to draw people in with a cheap-as-chips coffee offer in the hope of converting more consumers to Pret users and coaxing a few more pounds out of them once they’re in the shop.

The next step in that strategy involves opening Pret stores in Tesco supermarkets. Having already launched Pret frozen croissants and granolas on Tesco shelves and coffee in Waitrose and Sainsbury’s, it will next month open the first “shop-in-shop” trial at the Tesco Superstore in Kensington, west London, with another three or four to follow – “some in London, some outside London” – in the summer.

Like existing Pret stores, the Tesco sites will serve food freshly prepared in an on-site kitchen plus organic coffee and teas prepared by Pret baristas. The shops will all be operated as concessions run by Pret rather than by Tesco and the aim is to test different formats “from one that looks like a Pret store with a seating area to one that’s takeaway only to one that’s more like a kiosk”.

Since I wrote that story, I’ve had quite a few people in the industry questioning the logic of the more value-based Tesco and the more premium Pret.

For Tesco, of course, the partnership is a fresh attempt to bring high street brands in-store. A few years ago it made a disastrous - and costly - foray into buying and running its own in-store food and drink outlets such as Giraffe restaurants and Harris + Hoole coffee shops.

For Pret, the move appears to be part of Christou’s strategy of pushing into the less affluent suburbs although starting in Kensington might not tell the Pret boss anything he doesn’t know already.

But the admirable aspect of the changes being wrought by Christou is that he quickly realised that not changing was not an option and he’s made clear to his colleagues that they must not be afraid to try new things.

Christou said that, despite a tough year, he felt positive over the changes the company had made. “I said to the team, plant all those seeds now, see which ones come to fruition, and which ones don’t, so when we finally come through this, we will be much stronger as a brand and a business, and ready to grow the Pret brand.”

I wish him good luck.