What's cooking across the pond?

The NRA Show draws quite an international list of attendees and one of the regulars is Peter Backman, managing director of Horizons, a foodservice research and consulting company based in London. Every year, we sit down for a quick meeting to compare notes about restaurant trends in America and Britain. Here are some of the things I learned during our May 6th chat.

  • Foodservice sales in the U.S. and Britain are growing at about the same rate—that is, pretty much flat. However, it appears that U.S. sales are growing faster than those across the pond. The reason—there’s more population growth in the United States. In reality, the NRA predicts sales to grow 0.8% in 2012 on these shores, still 0.3% below 2007 numbers.
  • London is gearing up for the Summer Olympics and 9 million visitors are expected to deluge the city. But Backman feels the mega-event may have a negative impact on the restaurant business. “Some regular summer tourists may be put off by the crowds and choose not to visit London. Plus, spectators will not be allowed to bring food into the Olympic venues,” he said. The winners in the foodservice competition will be the Golden Arches—the three McDonald’s on Olympic grounds includes the largest unit in the world—and Compass and Sodexo, which are providing much of the grub in Olympic Village.
  • Sports Bars, so popular in the U.S. for eating and drinking while watching events like the Super Bowl, World Series and even the Olympics, are not a place to congregate for food in Britain. They are strictly bars and hungry fans have to go elsewhere to find sustenance.
  • Like their American counterparts, Brits like to get deals on restaurant meals; the number of discount vouchers is up compared to last year. “Operators tried to stop but found they couldn’t, so they are permanently discounting and offering coupons, primarily from Facebook pages,” Backman reported.
  • British operators are spending more money on refurbishing their restaurant spaces than on menu development.
  • Starbucks has a presence in the U.K. but it’s not the destination it is in the U.S. Coffee lovers and wi-fi seekers are much more likely to head to the bigger and more popular Costa Coffee, a similar kind of concept with 1,390 locations.
  • U.K. beer sales are declining and that most venerable of British institutions—the pub—is rethinking its purpose in life. “Food now counts for 40% to 50% of sales in managed pubs,” Backman noted, and consequently, they are upgrading their menus to compete.
  • Reinvention is also occurring in Indian restaurants. The first generation of Indian immigrants opened many mom-and-pop establishments, but now that the younger generation is taking over, they want a more upmarket image. Families are no longer importing chefs from the homeland, and their offspring are more inclined to leave the business—or expand it into an upscale company.
  • Unlike the U.S., chains account for a very thin sliver of the British restaurant pie. But Backman pointed to several cuisines and concepts as “ones to watch.”
    • Mexican is the number one growing cuisine, with a concept called Oaxaca emerging as a major player
    • Japanese is a close runner-up; Wasabi is a chain focusing on this cuisine
    • “Healthy” is a theme that’s getting more attention. Two American salad concepts—Chop’t and Tossed—are making inroads into Britain.
    • Premium burgers are also gaining ground, but there’s no Smashburger or Shake Shack on the scene yet. Across the pond, Gourmet Burger Kitchen is sizzling.

For more on the British foodservice industry, visit http://www.hrzns.com/

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