The U.K.: Fast Casual's Front Door to Europe

In the first in a three-part series on the fast casual market in Europe, Darren Tristano offers a look at the United Kingdom.

The restaurant industry in the United Kingdom is ripe for fast casual, for good reasons. Health- and lifestyle-focused concepts are attractive, especially to affluent consumers. Ambiance and decor — including the use of sustainable practices — are important to the dining experience. Portability, customization and convenience all resonate with U.K. consumers. And these customers, like their American counterparts, also increasingly demand innovation and differentiation.

Technomic’s Top 100 U.K. Chain Restaurant Report found that the fast casual segment had year-over-year sales growth of 8.3% for 2013, and a five-year sales growth of 12.6%. 

There are some familiar names among the largest fast casual concepts in the U.K. The leader is Nando’s, which has some 290 restaurants and 2013 sales of £455 million (or about $760 million). Imported in 1992 from Africa, the chain specializes in Portuguese flame-grilled peri peri chicken and positions itself as a healthier alternative to fast food. 

Pret A Manger, the second largest fast casual player in the U.K., is a contemporary sandwich chain with a menu centered on nutritious to-go foods, primarily pre-prepared, and sold out of display coolers. Pret A Manger maintains a loyal customer base by using high quality, preservative-free ingredients sourced fresh daily. College classmates and friends Julian Metcalfe and Sinclair Beecham cofounded Pret A Manger in London in 1986. Its 270 stores generated £391 million in sales in 2013.

Pret A Manger UK  | Credit: Instagram

Pret A Manger UK | Credit: Instagram

Patisserie Valerie  | Credit: Instagram

Patisserie Valerie | Credit: Instagram

Pret A Manger UK  | Credit: Instagram

Pret A Manger UK | Credit: Instagram

The fastest growing U.K. fast casual chain among the Top 100 is Patisserie Valerie, whose unit count grew 24% in 2013 to 108 from 87 and sales increased 25% to £53 million. The patisserie/café concept specializes in handmade specialty and celebration cakes, as well as sandwiches, pastries and gelato. Each restaurant has a distinct design, but decor is inspired by the 1950s and features framed Toulouse-Lautrec artwork. Some units have a garden area in the back; others feature outdoor seating out front.

As American burger chains Five Guys Burgers and Fries, Shake Shack and Smashburger explore expansion options in the U.K., they will find a growing homegrown competitor in Gourmet Burger Kitchen. The chain, owned and licensed by Nando’s, specializes in made-to-order gourmet hamburgers prepared with top quality ingredients, such as 100% Aberdeen-Angus Scotch beef. The company offers a relaxed and modern setting, and targets an adult demographic. In 2013, GBK’s 60 units totaled about £46 million in sales.

Technomic forecasts continued sales and unit growth for the fast casual segment over the next several years. We expect the segment to encourage the introduction of more global foods and modern technologies to the general foodservice scene, since many of these restaurants are on the forefront of emerging culinary and operation trends.