The Real Reason Why You May Get Free Coffee at Pret

I tend to find myself getting my coffee fix from Pret more often than from anywhere else. On a random Thursday, I went in desperate for caffeine. Once I ordered, the barista (in his twenties at the most) winked and said it was on the house. Confused and flattered, I thanked him and took it. After all what student would turn down something free? Especially when nothing was required in return. I left it and didn’t think much of it. Then it happened again. Different Pret outlet, different area, different man; “it’s on the house sweetheart,” he said smiling. I thanked him too, but as I walked out, I was now more confused than anything else. Do they not get in trouble for doing this? I definitely did not think I was worth such a risk. So I decided to google it. The fact that it both occurred at Prets  seemed way too big of a coincidence. Here’s what I found.

Pret’s boss, Clive Schlee told the Evening Standard in London that “the staff have to give away a certain number of hot drinks and food every week.” According to him, this is a better option than a loyalty-card scheme both cost wise and convenience. I won’t lie, that feeling of getting something free with a wink can be a real mood booster. However, it has sparked a debate as to whether there’s a certain level of discrimination behind this. Baristas have the freedom to choose which customers they want to give free coffee to. These could be regular customers, individuals they find attractive, or maybe on a completely random basis. More times than not, baristas have been known to give them to customers they may fancy, but there isn’t enough evidence to prove there may be some bias towards younger customers.

Another question that comes into question is whether it was right for Pret to reveal the policy (it was disclosed in 2015). In a Guardian article written by Jessica Elgot and Esther Addley, John Gabay, a psychologist and author said that he thinks this was a mistake. “Knowing that a branch has a certain amount of coffees to give away kills the authenticity of the moment” and that when customers know that there’s more to it, “the gesture doesn’t ring true.” This makes a lot of sense because knowing that they actually need to give these away takes away a lot of the realness of the action. Still, knowing this also made me feel less guilty for accepting the coffee, even if it meant that the barista may land in trouble for it. At the end of the day, to be chosen by the barista to be on the receiving end can still leave a smile on one’s face. It may not be so great for the person behind who may even have to pay for their coffee (have been in this position as well).

It’s a simple policy that’s clearly still practised at Pret, and it may come as a surprise to some (it definitely did for me being a first-year international student). It also opens up a discussion on such policies for customers; their effectiveness and its consequences for the brand. It’s a small way to make someone’s day, but it can also leave someone who did not receive the same gesture, feeling not so great. It’s just coffee after all. But are there more profound implications we need to think about?