“You ready for this?” Can Britain Resist America’s Fast Food Giants? | Restaurants

aAt midnight on 1 October – less than two weeks after 250,000 people queued for up to 24 hours to bid farewell to Queen Elizabeth II – Nottingham residents began their own queue: outside the former Burger King in the city centre.

Gradually, over the next 11 hours, more and more people joined. Some arrived at five in the morning, others around seven in the morning; Many were wrapped in padded jackets and beanie hats as they waited to walk into an orange shop with “Are you ready for this?” above the door. This was the launch of Nottingham’s first Popeyes, a fried chicken restaurant established in New Orleans in 1972.

“It’s been a long wait but it’s really nice to finally dig in,” 18-year-old McKinley Chambers told Local News after waiting 11 hours to get some chicken and broth. Being the first to enter the door, he and three friends won free chicken sandwiches for a year.

Such scenes will likely become commonplace in the next few years. Britain’s appetite for American fast food is showing no signs of saturating, and a slew of American chains are lining up to get a part of the action. The first British Popeyes store opened in November 2021 in Westfield Stratford in East London; Within a decade, the brand hopes to have 350 branches in the UK. In June 2021, Reading welcomed the first Wendy’s to the UK in 21 years. The burger brand first came to our shores in 1980 but left at the turn of the millennium due to rising ownership and operating costs; It aims to have 35 outlets in the UK by the end of 2022. Rival burger giant Carl’s Jr is also planning to enter the UK market. Meanwhile, after short rides across the pond in the ’80s and ’90s, the Mexican-inspired Taco Bell chain is making a coordinated push: It has opened 115 outlets across the country since opening an Essex branch in 2010. Then there’s Wingstop, with its spicy chicken wings , which landed in London in 2018 and plans to open 100 restaurants in the UK, to label the country as a “chicken-consumed market”.

Amelia Tate trying to make Popeyes milkshakes in Westfield, Stratford. Photography: Terry Bingley/The Guardian

Why did the chicken cross the pond? What inspired this foray into fast food, and why now? In May 2021, research by the CGA and AlixPartners found that the number of casual dining venues in the UK fell by nearly 20% during the first year of the Covid-19 crisis, meaning valuable spots were vacant for potential investors. But Popeyes had his sights set on the country before the pandemic.

“The owner of the brand, RBI, has been looking at the UK for several years now,” says Tom Crowley, CEO of Popeyes UK. Covid just ‘late it a bit’. That same company, Restaurant Brands International, also owns Burger King, as well as Canadian coffee and cake chain Tim Hortons, which came to Glasgow in 2017 and opened its first branch in London in July. Crowley says the UK is an attractive market for US brands, due to “cultural similarities”.

The global dominance of American popular culture means that the British know all about American restaurants before they even set foot. Teens across the land were introduced to Taco Bell in the 2004 movie Mean Girls (“I can’t go to Taco Bell – I’m on a zero-carb diet!”), while Popeyes says many customers refer to Adam Sandler’s 2000 movie Nicky Little. (“Poppy’s chicken is schnitzel!”). A number of rap songs also feature the brand, from Lil Wayne’s Family Feud To 30 hours for Kanye West.

“We have a strong sense of borrowed nostalgia for all things American,” says Shukoveh Hegazy, an expert on food trends. “Because many of us grew up watching American movies and TV shows, we have warm feelings and nostalgia for dishes like sable and corn dogs, deep pizza, delicious biscuits, fried chicken and waffles, even if we didn’t grow up eating them.”

Taco Bell and a car tour of Monks Cross, York.
Taco Bell and a car tour of Monks Cross, York. Photo: Christopher Tommond/The Guardian

Then there is the Internet. “Social media has played a huge role in this,” says Monica Paul, Taco Bell UK and Europe marketing director. Paul says there was a “market gap” for Mexican food when the brand launched here over a decade ago, but since 2019 its presence has grown rapidly, doubling from 50 to more than 100 stores.

TikTok has helped drive the chain’s “bold expansion agenda.” In March 2022, rapper Doja Cat submitted an organic, unpaid video of Taco Bell that was viewed nearly 40 million times. “Yes! I have beans, I need meat, I need a crust with sauce and cheese,” she sang. As Paul says, people “want to be a part of what’s happening in popular culture.”

It’s fast food PR’s comeback after years of bad press in the early 2000s thanks to works like Eric Schlosser’s bestselling Fast Food Nation exhibit and Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Super Size Me. In 2003, the New York Times quoted a 26-year-old as saying that eating at McDonald’s was “uncultured, unfashionable, and unremarkable. Nobody brags about going to McDonald’s.” However, in 2020, the brand partnered with rapper Travis Scott and saw a nearly 5% increase in sales. Scott also released a line of 60-item merchandise, including a $155 hoodie that reads “I ordered a Travis Scott meal at McDonald’s.”

However, there is also the potential for cultural clashes to occur. In 2020, American chicken sandwich chain Chick-fil-A left the UK after just six months; Activists have protested the brand’s charity’s history of donating to anti-LGBTQ+ organizations. (In the United States, conservatives had previously supported the brand for its standing.)

Spicy wings at the Wingstop branch in London.
Spicy wings at the Wingstop branch in London. Photography: Ray Tang/Shutterstock

American and British consumers also have different tastes. “We’ve improved the spiciness a little,” Crowley says at Popeyes: The restaurant is best known for its spicy chicken sandwich, but it seems the Brits can handle the heat more than the Americans. It took British consumers a while to come to grips with “biscuits” – a southern US staple that looks like a savory cake. Crowley says initial market research showed we were confused by Popeyes’ offer: “This is a cake, so why would I have it with fried chicken?” The product was almost never released in the UK. Now Popeyes has “sold thousands”.

However, success in the UK is not guaranteed. Hegazy notes that price inflation, chronic staff shortages, and a shortage of delivery drivers are all risk factors for food chains.

In 2020, American burger chain Wahlburgers closed its only UK restaurant after a year. The shutdown was ostensibly due to Covid, but there were six months of business downturn by the end of 2019. The co-owners, representatives Mark and Donnie Wahlberg, likely won’t have the same cultural impact in the UK as in the US. Food writer Grace Dent also notes that references to “Mom” recipes and cute family photos on napkin holders reflect an “unshy, glam, American” attitude toward family “who sits curiously with us in Blighty.”

The cost-of-living crisis may also affect the plans of large US chains, but not necessarily in a negative way. “What I’m seeing all over Europe in my restaurants now is people are trading off casual dining,” says Tim Luther, general manager of CKE Restaurants, which owns the US brands Carl’s Jr and Hardee’s. His company chooses QSR (“Quick Service Restaurants” or Fast Food Restaurants Between You and Me) instead. “The other point that makes it interesting right now is, of course, the dollar is strong, and that could help inbound investment in the market,” he adds. It doesn’t have a Carl’s Jr release date UK yet.

Crowley, of Popeyes, says fast food “can be reasonably flexible through good times and bad.” He says he has received good feedback from customers about affordability; Pool, of Taco Bell, similarly notes that the Mexican chain offers a number of 99p menu items. “It’s tough — commodity costs are going up for business and we’re seeing that too,” Crowley says, “but you also have to get on your nerves. You’re building a brand for the future here, not just for 2022 and 23.” It’s worth noting that the number of fast food restaurants in The UK has grown during the 2008 recession.

The UK could become more attractive to fast food companies: After Brexit, the government is considering replacing up to 1,500 food laws. Previously, US brands had to switch components to comply with UK regulations. Nowadays, for example, UK McDonald’s fries are made with oil, salt, and potatoes, while American french fries are made with potatoes, oil, beef flavor (which contains hydrolyzed wheat and hydrolyzed milk), salt dextrose, and sodium acid pyrophosphate (for color).

Popeyes deluxe chicken sandwich, and shake.
Popeyes deluxe chicken sandwich and shake. Photography: Terry Bingley/The Guardian

In late September, during her brief tenure as health minister, Therese Coffey abandoned a white paper on health inequality, and conservative ministers threatened to scrap the government’s anti-obesity strategy in an effort to benefit business. A Popeyes Po’ Boy’s chicken sandwich contains more than half the recommended daily salt intake for adults, while a large portion of the cheese and fries in Taco Bell accounts for nearly half of a woman’s recommended daily calories.

The fast food invasion is alarming anti-obesity activists like Fran Bernhard, the children’s campaign coordinator at Sustain for food reform. “All children deserve to grow up healthy, yet the main streets, school avenues, and public spaces are inundated with unhealthy foods,” she says. American fast food chains have flooded under-resourced boards with new location planning applications. It’s a recipe for disaster.”

In March 2019, Gateshead Council denied a planning request from Taco Bell due to the high rates of childhood obesity in the area. “We’re really keen on improving the health of residents, and fast food isn’t going to help,” says Lucy Greenfield, Gateshead’s chief planning officer, who led a supplement planning document controlling fast-food takeaway sites in 2015. Getting there to unhealthy food, the less access to healthy food because these establishments cannot be opened or they are out of competition.”

The planning document was drawn up after the council’s environmental health team sampled food from about 200 ready meals in Gateshead. The results were “shocking,” Greenfield says: “The calorie, fat, and salt content of some of the meals was more than 100% of the recommended daily amount. Because many of the ready meals were competing with each other, the calories per pound were enormous.” Since its adoption, all of the fast-food planning requests have been denied, and the board has succeeded in every one of the appeals.

Greenfield says there was concern that the policy would negatively affect the economy, but the board monitored vacancy rates and found that they had already fallen. “We want local businesses to thrive and not have a huge influx of multinationals taking over,” she says.

Right now, Hegazy says, we have “a seemingly endless appetite for American food and drink.” In East London, at the launch of Westfield Stratford in 2021, a queue circled the shopping center; People who wanted to join asked Popeyes’ Marketing Director how long it would take to get to the front and order food. When I told them it was a six hour wait, they smiled and joined back.

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