Pret’s head of global innovation Hannah Dolan talks to Food Spark about food innovation sprints, the future of Veggie Pret and why the chain prides itself so much on the colour of its food.

“Pret’s great at trying new things,” says Hannah Dolan, Pret’s head of global food and drink innovation. “What other companies would just open a veggie shop?”

It’s true that Pret has carved a brave new path within the fast-casual sphere by opening Veggie Pret. There are now eight of those outlets in the UK and one in Manchester, suggesting the idea is commercially viable. And it’s still a concept that hasn’t been tried by any Pret competitors - despite huge market growth in vegan and vegetarian food.

And as the brand launches nineteen new products for Veggie Pret, Dolan tells us there’s more “very exciting” food additions to launch in stores in May.

“Bowl flavours, smoked and fermented, aged flavours,” are on Hannah’s mind at the moment across the whole range. She says her innovation team “start off with crazy ideas - if you put in financial constraints you stop the creativity,” but she urges that it’s near-on integral for new products to have protein and carbohydrate elements.

“We’ve launched products which are less protein led or carb led and they don’t sell as well,” she says. As for meat replacements, they “just feel less like something you could make at home, whereas vegan tuna you could make at home if you had the recipe,” so she’s avoiding those, although never say never.

Pret has recently acquired 90 sites from the brand EAT and hope to turn a proportion of those into Veggie Prets.

With a big year ahead, Hannah discusses her personal love for food, the Pret food innovation creative process across the whole range and explains why cost is never a factor over creativity.

At Pret, it’s really exciting to start with so many ideas. With my food innovation team, we start with 50 ideas and only five get on the shelves. You can be as creative as possible, you start off being crazy, and then you work it through into a product. Going from that process to seeing the product on the shelves in so many shops across the country is a proud moment.

We work in food innovation sprints, which happen a couple of times a year. Now we’re a global company [Pret has branches in the UK, USA, Hong Kong and across Europe]. For the sprints, we have all the team together, which is me and my managers and representatives from each of the international markets. We recently wanted new veggie and vegan salads and breakfast pots, and there’s always a wild card - which is anything you think can work for Pret - so we all split into teams, look at trends and independents, then present back with ideas for products. Then we develop the product into a Pret product for how it’s going to work in shops.

I have five innovation managers globally, while in the UK we have two product managers and in the US there is one. The whole innovation group is 15 people. At this stage right at the beginning, we don’t want to be bogged down with thoughts like, ‘Is it too expensive?’ ‘Is it going to technically work?’ It’s just about being super innovative, and then we work out how to make it work down the line. If you put in constraints at the beginning you’ll stop the creativity.

We have a weekly food meeting, every week for half a day or sometimes a whole day. It’s not quite like Dragon’s Den, but almost like it. In terms of other research, we also eat out as much as we can. We’re a really foodie team, so we spend a lot of time saying, ‘let’s go here, let’s go there’.

When we’re in a food meeting we look at everything from flavour, texture, colour and aroma. But at the end of the day the first thing you see in the fridge is the colour. We always pride ourselves on the colour: super lush, super colourful. Obviously with a tuna baguette, people know what that is and it doesn’t need to be super colourful, but you can play around a lot with salads and breakfast bowls, and how you put things in a box, and the layers of the sandwich. You’d be surprised if you change a layer of a sandwich how different it tastes each time, because you’re moving different elements. We spend a lot of time going, ‘move that to there’ or ‘add a bit more seasoning’.

The thing I love about working at Pret is we try not to substitute cheaper products in when we can’t afford something. Pret, of course, is a business, but we’re definitely much more around quality of food first. It’s an interesting dynamic. At a lot of companies the buyers have a lot of control, but at Pret it’s much more equal, based on the quality of the ingredient. We will challenge ourselves if the process slips too much. We’ll always check we’ve achieved what we intended to.

Not everything can be a top seller. We know our chicken and bacon baguette is always going to sell really well, because it’s a classic product and has been around for a long time. We’ve also just launched an apple cider and vinegar shot. That’s not going to be a top selling juice but people know it, and it adds interest to the range. It brings someone else into the category that doesn’t normally shop that category. Similarly, some of our chai pots are very much in the healthy, health food arena. At the time we thought they would be okay sellers, but actually they became some of the best-selling items in the category.

We’ve just launched nineteen new products into Veggie Pret. 15 new vegan lines, 19 new veggie in total. I love the new Mexican bowl. It’s super delicious and one of the top selling items now. It’s a mix of chipotle, sweet potato, feta cheese, cos lettuce. We’ve also launched a watermelon bowl which is really fun.

We’re questioning how we take plant-based eating and make it super interesting. Poke bowls have been around a while, but how do we make that vegan? So, it’s watermelon instead of tuna, and it’s super visual. It’s a specific type of watermelon that keeps its texture because obviously watermelon can go very soft. It has a delicious flavoursome dressing you can put on tuna, and it’s paired with black rice, edamame and pickled cabbage, it’s a filling dish.

When it comes to innovation, we don’t have set rules. It’s a sense for getting the right balance across the range. The protein element is definitely important. We’ve launched products which are less protein led or carb led and they don’t sell as well, so we’re really conscious that people want protein: chickpeas, beans, edamame beans, hummus, and all the salads have rice in them so they’re filling. We shouldn’t just be making veggie and vegan food for vegans - it should be for everyone and that’s how we try to develop.

When it comes to feedback, we have a whole office full of people who are very vocal. Everyone tries the food, then we have a show-and-tell with the CEO who signs off every product.

We’d never rule out meat replacements because it’s a massive growth industry, but if we can do something different, that’s almost cleverer. We launched four vegan takes on classic lines, such as the shiitake BLT which replaces the bacon with shiitake mushrooms, roasted until they’re super crispy with loads of salt. That gives you the fattiness and the texture.

You’d be surprised our dishes are vegan if you ate them. We’ve got a vegan tuna with chickpeas, seaweed, gherkins, capers, and an eggless mayo which uses tofu instead. The egg’s got a bit of black salt in which gives the sulphur flavour. I think we’ve been clever with store cupboard ingredients which I would prefer to be the route we take [over meat replacements]. Replacements just feel less like something you couldn’t make at home, whereas vegan tuna you could make at home if you had the recipe.

In 25 years’ time, there will be a bigger proportion of veggie and vegan people. When we started Veggie Pret, we wanted to make good veggie food for everyone. Five or ten years ago, veggie food was hippy - now it’s much more mainstream. I imagine as people become more savvy they’ll eat less meat but I can’t imagine people won’t eat meat.

Veggie Pret will grow to be very different to normal Prets, which is exciting. Pret’s great at trying things. What other companies would just open a veggie shop? There’s a culture of trying things, trying different initiatives. It creates a culture of, ‘nothing’s a stupid idea!’ so then it feels like we can evolve and evolve.

In terms of sustainability we’re conscious that certain ingredients are becoming more in the media. So we’re definitely being more conscious, working with our sustainability team and getting guidance from them. [We work towards having] a balance of what we bring in and what’s local.

There’s also a trend for people being conscious of what food does to them. It’s not just about eating something, but how I’m going to feel afterwards. CBD is quite interesting, there’s a lot of conversation around that at the moment.

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