Since its first shop in Hong Kong opened in February last year, Pret A Manger has grown healthily, with six shops now operational in the city and staff numbers reaching 130. The company is passionate not only about handmade sandwiches and food, but also about every employee. It puts emphasis on employing the right people to provide good food and service to its customers. Initially, the company encountered difficulties in recruiting local Chinese staff. This was linked to the brand not being well known to the public. 'A year ago, we were quite new to most Hong Kong people, not like other American fast-food brands. However, we do have a fairly long history in England,' says Alison McLaughlin, head of human resources. Pret A Manger has gradually overcome the challenge and more than half its staff is now Chinese. The company tends to recruit people more on the basis of their personality rather than their experience. 'We want people who are enthusiastic, energetic and have a natural empathy for servicing,' Miss McLaughlin says. The ideal candidates are those with experience in quick-paced customer-service environments, not necessarily from the food and beverage industry. A major selection criterion for candidates is proficiency in English. 'It is important for our staff to speak good English when dealing with customers,' Ms McLaughlin says. Pret A Manger adopts a rigorous recruitment and interview process. Besides face-to-face interviews, applicants are required to attend and perform in group exercises and presentations. For the final-round candidates, shop staff meet them to determine whether they have the potential to become team members. 'Our shop staff will vote on the candidates. It is not only the shop manager who has the say.' Applicants for certain positions have to work at a shop for a full day to learn about the operations, brand and the staff. 'We put the stress very much on team work. Every morning, we have to make 1,000 fresh sandwiches on site in every shop. This is when and where teamwork is most required.' Staff acquire multiple skills so they can take on different roles to get the shop up and running. In return for high staff quality, Pret A Manger offers a fourfold package to its staff: fun, rewards, openness and career development. 'We are pleased to say that more than 80 per cent of the staff who joined us at the first shop have been promoted to senior positions,' Miss McLaughlin says. This may reflect the company's willingness to reward and recognise staff contributions. 'Our compensation is more competitive than most of our rivals'.' The company has run a mystery shopper system to offer a chance for staff to earn and share a team bonus every week. Any staff nominated for providing exceptional service to a mystery shopper would receive a special bonus. To achieve its goals, Pret A Manger has developed a structured training programme for staff orientation: a combination of classroom and practical training. For shop management staff, the company offers training programmes such as team building, time management and coaching skills. 'We invested heavily in training and development. This year, we shall introduce the 360-degree appraisal programme, which is a big investment in time. However, we want to help staff develop their careers.' Last year, Fortune magazine named Pret A Manger as one of the '10 Best Companies to Work In' in Europe, and its British operations were named by a newspaper as among the '100 Best Companies to Work For'. The recognition has made the company move forward to bring their best practices to Asia. Pret A Manger has not initiated any customer service programme because, Ms McLaughlin says: 'By our philosophy, if we have the right people with the right personality, we can train them to run the Pret standard. The service will come naturally. Our staff share with us a passion for food, development and customer service. 'Long before Sars, we placed strong emphasis on our hygiene levels. 'All shop staff have to wash and sanitise their hands every 20 minutes. The stringent requirements are also extended to our suppliers. This has made our products and shop environment clean and safe. 'Though Sars has hit us a bit and slowed down our expansion plans, we are still performing encouragingly. We have not laid off any staff. 'We have a very low staff turnover rate of 4 per cent. The staff are very supportive, and despite the gloom and doom around us in Hong Kong, ours is still a happy and friendly atmosphere to work in.'