‘Y’all ready for this?’ Can Britain resist America’s fast food giants?

Amelia Tait

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

Gradually, over the course of the next 11 hours, more and more people joined. Some arrived at 5am, others around 7am; many were wrapped in padded jackets and beanies as they waited to get inside an orange store with “Y’all ready for this?” above the door. This was the launch of Nottingham’s first Popeyes, a fried chicken restaurant founded in New Orleans in 1972.

“It was a long wait but it’s really beautiful to finally dig in,” 18-year-old McKinley Chambers told the local news after waiting 11 hours for some chicken and gravy. For being first through the door, he and three friends won free chicken sandwiches for a year.

Scenes such as this are likely to become commonplace in the next few years. Britain’s appetite for American fast food shows no signs of being sated, and a host of US chains are lining up for a piece of the action. The first British Popeyes 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 UK’s first Wendy’s in 21 years. The burger brand first reached our shores in 1980 but left at the turn of the millennium because of high property and operating costs; it aims to have 35 UK branches by the end of 2022. Rival burger giant Carl’s Jr also has plans to enter the UK market. Meanwhile, after brief forays across the pond in the 1980s and 90s, the Mexican-inspired chain Taco Bell is making a concerted push: it has opened 115 outlets across the country since opening an Essex branch in 2010. Then there is Wingstop, with its spicy chicken wings, which landed in London in 2018 and plans to open 100 UK restaurants, naming the country as a “high-chicken consumption market”.

Amelia Tait tries a Popeyes milkshake in Westfield, Stratford. Photograph: Teri Pengilley/The Guardian

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

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

The global dominance of American popular culture means that Britons know all about US restaurants before setting foot in them. Teens across the land were introduced to Taco Bell in the 2004 film Mean Girls (“I can’t go to Taco Bell – I’m on an all-carb diet!”), while Popeyes says many customers reference the 2000 Adam Sandler film Little Nicky (“Popeyes chicken is the shiznit!”). A number of rap songs also feature the brand, from Lil Wayne’s Family Feudto Kanye West’s 30 Hours.

“We have a strong sense of borrowed nostalgia for all things American,” says food trends expert Shokofeh Hejazi. “Because so many of us have grown up watching American films and TV shows, we have warm, nostalgic feelings towards dishes like s’mores, corn dogs, deep pan pizza, savoury biscuits, fried chicken and waffles, even if we didn’t grow up eating them.”

A Taco Bell restaurant and drive-thru at Monks Cross, York. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

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

The chain’s “bold expansion agenda” has been helped by TikTok, she says. In March 2022, rapper Doja Cat made an organic, unpaid video about Taco Bell that was viewed almost 40m times. “Yeah! I got beans, I need meat, I need a shell with the sauce and cheese,” she sang. As Pool puts it, people “want to be part of what’s happening in popular culture”.

It’s quite the PR comeback for fast food after years of bad press in the early 00s thanks to works such as Eric Schlosser’s bestselling exposé Fast Food Nation and Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Super Size Me. In 2003, the New York Times quoted a 26-year-old who said eating at McDonald’s was “uncultured, unclassy and uncool. Nobody brags about going to McDonald’s.” In 2020, however, the brand partnered with rapper Travis Scott and saw an almost 5% boost in sales. Scott also released a 60-item merchandise line, including a $155 hoodie bearing the words “I ordered the Travis Scott meal at McDonald’s”.

Yet there is also the potential for culture clashes. In 2020, the US chicken sandwich chain Chick-fil-A left the UK after only six months; activists had protested about the brand’s charitable foundation’s history of donating to anti-LGBTQ+ organisations. (In the US, conservatives had previously supported the brand for its position.)

Spicy wings at a London branch of Wingstop. Photograph: Ray Tang/Shutterstock

American and British consumers also have differing palates. At Popeyes, “we’ve turned the spice up a bit,” says Crowley: the restaurant is famous for its spicy chicken sandwich but it seems Britons can handle more heat than Americans. It took British consumers a while to get a handle on “biscuits”, however – a southern US staple similar to a savoury scone. Crowley says initial market research showed we were confused by Popeyes’ offering: “This is a scone, why would I have that with fried chicken?” He nearly didn’t launch the product in the UK. Now Popeyes has “sold thousands”.

Success in the UK is not guaranteed, though. Hejazi notes that price inflation, chronic staff shortages and a lack of delivery drivers are all risk factors for food chains.

In 2020, the US burger chain Wahlburgers shut its only UK restaurant after a year. The closure was ostensibly because of Covid, but there had been six months of declining trade by the end of 2019. It is possible that the co-owners, actors Mark and Donnie Wahlberg, don’t have the same cultural sway in the UK as in the US. Food writer Grace Dent also noted that references to “Mom’s” recipes and cute family photos on the napkin holders reflected an “unabashed, touchy-feely, American” attitude to family that “sits curiously with us in Blighty”.

The cost of living crisis may also affect the big American chains’ plans, but not necessarily negatively. “What I’m seeing right now across Europe in my restaurants is that people are trading down from casual dining,” says Tim Lowther, general manager of CKE Restaurants, which owns the US brands Carl’s Jr and Hardee’s.His company is opting for QSR (“quick service restaurants”, or fast food joints to you and me) instead. “The other point that makes it interesting at the moment is, of course, the dollar is strong,” he adds, “and that can help incoming investment into the market.” He does not have a UK launch date for Carl’s Jr yet.

Crowley, of Popeyes, says fast food “can be reasonably resilient in good and bad times.” He says he has received good feedback from customers about affordability; Pool, of Taco Bell, similarly points out that the Mexican chain offers a number of 99p menu items. “It’s tough – costs of goods are increasing for business and we see that as well,” Crowley says, “but equally you’ve got to hold your nerve. You’re building a brand for the future here, not just for 2022 and 23.” It is worth noting that the number of fast food outlets in the UK grew during the 2008 recession.

The UK could become even more appealing to fast food firms: post-Brexit, the government is considering replacing up to 1,500 food laws. Previously, American brands have had to swap ingredients to comply with UK regulations. At present, for example, McDonald’s fries in the UK are made with oil, salt and potatoes, while US fries are made from potatoes, oil, beef flavour (containing hydrolysed wheat and hydrolysed milk), dextrose salt, and sodium acid pyrophosphate (for colour).

Popeyes’ chicken sandwich deluxe, and a shake. Photograph: Teri Pengilley/The Guardian

In late September, during her brief spell as health secretary, Thérèse Coffey ditched a white paper on health inequality, and Conservative ministers have threatened to scrap the government’s anti-obesity strategy in an attempt to benefit business. A Popeyes Po’ Boy chicken sandwich contains more than half an adult’s daily recommended salt intake, while a large portion of cheese- and beef-topped fries at Taco Bell represents almost half a woman’s recommended daily calorie intake.

The fast food invasion worries anti-obesity campaigners such as Fran Bernhardt, co-ordinator of the children’s campaign at food industry reform organisation Sustain. “All children deserve to grow up healthy and yet our high streets, school routes and public spaces are flooded with unhealthy food,” she says. “American fast food chains have swamped under-resourced councils with planning applications for new sites. It’s a recipe for disaster.”

In March 2019, Gateshead council rejected a planning application from Taco Bell because of the area’s high childhood obesity rates. “We’re really keen to improve the health of residents and takeaways aren’t going to help,” says Gateshead’s senior planning officer, Lucy Greenfield, who led a supplementary planning document controlling the locations of hot food takeaways in 2015. “The more access there is to unhealthy food, the less access there is to healthy food because those establishments can’t open or they are out-competed.”

The planning document was drawn up after the council’s environmental health team sampled food from almost 200 takeaways in Gateshead. The results were “shocking”, says Greenfield: “The calorific, fat, and salt content of some meals were more than 100% of your recommended daily allowance. And because so many takeaways were competing against each other, the calorie per pound was massive.” Since it was adopted, all planning applications for hot food takeaways have been refused, and the council has been successful on every single one of the appeals.

Greenfield says there was concern that the policy would negatively affect the economy, but the council monitored vacancy rates and found that they actually fell. “We desire local businesses to thrive and not have an influx of massive multinationals taking over,” she says.

For now, though, Hejazi says, we have a “seemingly bottomless appetite for American food and drink”. In east London, at the company’s Westfield Stratford launch in 2021, the queue snaked round the shopping centre; people who wanted to join asked Popeyes’ marketing director how long it would take to get to the front and order food. When she told them it was a six-hour wait, they smiled and joined at the back.

Courtesy: theguardian