A triple helping of American fast food

Three major US restaurant chains are launching in the UK, but do British consumers have the appetite?

They are huge in the US, but few British diners have heard of Chipotle Mexican Grill or Ruby Tuesday. But all this is about to change as the restaurant chains join Taco Bell in a three-pronged US attack on the British market this summer.

Chipotle, the burrito chain with nearly 1,000 restaurants across America, opened its first UK outlet in London in May and Taco Bell, the world's largest Mexican-inspired chain, will arrive in Essex this month.

Ruby Tuesday – the American casual dining chain is named after the Rolling Stones song and has more than 900 outlets around the world – opened its first UK outlet in Cardiff's St David's shopping centre last month. None of the three has come over here to make up the numbers, and sizeable expansion plans are afoot.

Nick Dawson, the general manager for UK and Europe at Taco Bell, the Yum Brands-owned quick-service restaurant (QSR) operator, said: "This will be the first of a long existence in the UK."

However, success is not assured. Pizza Hut and KFC, which are also owned by Yum Brands, and McDonald's have found the UK a welcome home, but some big hitters from across the pond have retreated with their tails between their legs.

Indeed, Taco Bell, which launches in the Lakeside shopping centre later this month, entered the UK in the early 1990s but exited a few years later after failing to make an impact. Similarly Wendy's, the global hamburger giant, threw in the towel in 2007 after two attempts at making it in the UK.

Still, industry experts say there are many reasons why the UK remains an attractive market for US chains. "The great thing about the UK food service market is that it is very dynamic and highly diverse, particularly in London where there is a smorgasbord [of outlets]," explains Steve Gotham, project director at the consultancy Allegra Strategies.

"For expansionist US chains the UK is a natural entry point into Europe, with an established eating-out culture that readily embraces new style cuisines and branded concepts."

Allegra Strategies says there remains plenty of scope for growth in the UK food service market, which is set for a rebalancing with retail shops on the high street.

The consultancy says food service outlets, including hospitality and pubs, account for between 5 and 10 per cent of floor space on the UK high street, compared with up to 85 per cent for primarily retail as well as banks and travel shops.

In contrast, food service swallows up between 15 and 20 per cent of the space in US shopping malls and retail parks. "We will see a realignment of food service and retail on the high street," Mr Gotham predicts.

For Chipotle and Taco Bell there is a much bigger reason for launching in the UK – a huge gap in the UK market for Mexican food. While there are some national sit-down restaurant chains, notably Chiquito, as well as smaller operators such as Benito's Hat and Chilango, the UK's Mexican food market remains undeveloped. Ilaria Guandalini, the senior analyst for food service at Planet Retail, says: "There is definitely a gap in the market."

While there are differences between Taco Bell and Chipotle, both believe UK consumers are hungry for more Mexican food. Mr Dawson says: "We think that Mexican style food has been growing in popularity in the UK, whether it is eating out or dining in at home."

Taco Bell is targeting the value end of the QSR market and Mr Dawson says UK customers will be able to buy a "complete meal" for between £3.50 and £4. Prices at Chipotle are higher although it trades on offering "local, sustainable and artisanal foods".

Taco Bell wants to grow a nationwide chain, while Chipotle has indicated that its sights are initially set on London.

Last month, Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle, said: "We think the prospects are very good for Chipotle in London and around Europe."

That said, Ms Guandalini at Planet Retail believes that whoever gains the confidence of the UK consumer first will have a big advantage. "Giving too much space to Chipotle would be too dangerous – that is why Taco Bell is opening now," she says. Given Taco Bell's focus on value, Ms Guandalini says the launch of Chipotle's more upmarket offer is a slightly more risky proposition.

Planet Retail says these openings may not be the start of a fresh wave of US chains parking their tanks outside British restaurants. "US food service operators are focusing their expansion in developing countries more than in the UK," Ms Guandalini adds. "The UK is a highly competitive market and in some aspects the market is saturated. In the next couple of years, few US companies will try to enter the market and [if they do] it will be strictly under the condition of providing innovation in format and menus. This is the case of Taco Bell and Chipotle."

Planet Retail estimates that UK food service sales fell by 1.4 per cent to £58.9bn in 2009, reflecting the economic slowdown and falling consumer spending. But there are "signs of recovery" and it predicts that the market could grow by up to 4 per cent this year.

Allegra's Mr Gotham says any chain launching in the UK will have to focus meticulously on the instore environment, as the experience of McDonald's in recent years has proved. The fast-food giant was struggling on these shores in 2004 and 2005, but sales have powered ahead of the market in the past two years after it improved its menu and radically transformed the interiors and exteriors of its outlets.

The expected upturn in the UK market won't go unnoticed by ambitious US chains, particularly with events such as the London 2012 Olympics on the horizon.

But a steady flow of new entries is likely to be the norm, rather than the recent burst of activity.

As Mr Gotham says: "It is still a tough market out there but it has got attractive medium and longer-term growth opportunities for well managed brands."

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