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Target to open natural foods restaurant in Chicago store

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Get hungry while shopping at Target and, odds are, you may end up downing a slice of pizza and a soft drink — and hunger for something better.

Target hears you.

When it opens its newest Target — dubbed CityTarget — in downtown Chicago Wednesday, the store will have something more inside than gleaming floors and shiny shelving: a better-for-you restaurant.

It's called Pret A Manger ("Ready to Eat" in French), a tiny but respected chain recognized for quality food made fresh daily with natural ingredients.

That's right, a Target store with a restaurant inside that sells only preservative-free food, antibiotic-free meats, items made with cage-free eggs and even vegan salads. Oh. yes, Pret also posts the calories on every item on the menu.

While the move, for the moment, is just a single store, it is bound to be watched by the major retail chains and by others in the better-for-you food business. At a time when obesity in the U.S. is at record levels and the mayor of New York wants to limit sugary drink sizes, any movement toward more nutritional offerings is certain to garner attention.

"If Target can make this work, it will be incredible to watch," says Christopher Muller, dean at the hospitality school at Boston University. Each Pret has its own kitchen, and the menu features fresh soups, salads, sandwiches and freshly baked baguettes.

There are few examples of quality restaurant chains opening inside major retailers. Back in 2004, Cosi opened restaurants inside several Macy's locations in Florida, but those restaurants have since closed.

For the moment, Target executives say, there are no plans for more Pret operations in other Targets. Even then, says Shawn Gensch, senior vice president of marketing for Target, "where it goes from here remains to be seen." As Target opens more urban locations, he says, it will at least consider healthier food options on a one-by-one basis.

"Who knows where this will lead?" says Martin Bates, president of Pret.

One problem: Pret is little-known in the U.S, says Muller, the hospitality school dean. While Pret is big in the United Kingdom, it is tiny in the U.S. — with 43 locations in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Which may explain why Pret pushes hard to stand out, such as with this website self-description: "We are a cross between a good restaurant, an Italian coffee bar and a bullet train."

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