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What's happening at the table across the pond

During Day 2 of the 2011 National Restaurant Association show in Chicago, Restaurant Business sat down with Peter Backman, managing director with Horizons, a London-based foodservice consultancy, to compare restaurant trends in the U.S. and the U.K. The industry in both countries seems to be in recovery mode this year, but the way it's taking place is a bit different.

Overall, Backman's impression of the U.S. market is "chastened." "The restaurant industry is expanding, but I don't feel that 'oomph' that was present in previous years. It's slow growth…in a British sort of way."

  • In the U.K., "pub restaurants" are leading the growth in sales; these are pubs with more than 50% in food sales. Customers seem to be moving toward spending more on food than beverage alcohol, meaning that pubs that focus on beer and cocktail sales are losing ground to pub restaurants fashioned in the casual dining mold. 
  • Restaurant visits were down .2% in Britain but the spend per meal is up 1%. However, in the QSR segment, average spend per meal is down 1.7%.
  • During the recession of the past couple of years, Americans gravitated toward QSRs with "meal deals" and fast-casual concepts. Brits, on the other hand, are seeking more of an "experience" when they dine out, and chose "destination" restaurants with more service and atmosphere.
  • McDonald's is not a huge presence in the U.K. and most chains tend to have fewer than 10 units. Concepts such as Yo Sushi, Giraffe (a family-dining spot), Wagamama (an Asian mini-chain) and Leon (a vegetarian-style place) are a rising force.
  • The Mexican market is growing in Britain. "Mexican in the U.S. is similar to Indian in our country," says Backman. "It's always available to get a quick ethnic fix. But Indian restaurants are fading a bit now as the next generation decides to go into other professions." Some popular Mexican concepts across the pond: Chilangos, Oaxaca and Happy Donkey, the last located in a kiosk.
  • Kiosks are springing up in all the right places, but food trucks are relatively scarce in the British Isles, says Backman, claiming that London's streets are too narrow to accommodate this burgeoning American trend. Maybe next year we'll see a few parked in front of Buckingham Palace!

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