In the first of a two-part column on international expansion, Jasper Reid looks at the big prize for many operators – cracking the US – with some help from the A-Team of operators.

When I was nine, I co-owned my highest return venture: a Kool-Aid stand in Fort Benning, Georgia, home of the United States Army Infantry.

Founded by Clarence, Leroy and me (all sons of soldiers), the business raked in $75 a day priced at a quarter a cup. Customers were teenage grunts, baking in the summer sun, while the middlemen were stern drill sergeants, schmoozed by Leroy. Front of house was me, with my English accent USP, and Clarence managed procurement from the military commissary.

From the season’s takings I bought a bike (ET was on at the cinema and I was Elliot). Ah, the salad days of an al fresco site, the perfect P&L and kick-ass IRRs.

Tackling the Big Kahuna

In this and the next edition of Going Global, we tackle the USA: holy grail of hospitality, the Big Kahuna, maker and destroyer of dreams. For this mission, I’ll need help. And, in keeping with the nostalgia vibe, cue The A-Team music:

Introducing our cast: Will “Hannibal” Beckett, Hawksmoor; Larry “Howling Mad Murdock” Krueger, Wingstop; Alison “Triple A” Vickers, YO! Sushi veteran; Jon “Face” Knight, Jamie Oliver Restaurants, and me, Jasper “BA Baracus” Reid. All veterans of US special ops. I’m head of casting and, as I told the others, not everyone can be “Face”.

First up: reconnaissance. Will Beckett has been preparing Hawksmoor NYC for five years and Jon has worked on Jamie’s Stateside plans for longer. “Spend at least two years doing proper research,” says Jon. “Or you’ll be on the same plane back.”

Doing this first-hand is key. “You’ve got to get out and meet the people who make the industry tick: the operators, the managers, the chefs, the suppliers and the journalists,” advises Will.

Same language, different country

Time with experienced players (and customers) will soon reveal evident cultural differences. As George Bernard Shaw put it: “England and America are two countries separated by the same language”.

For example, in the Big Apple, Hawksmoor learned the subtle art of showing off. “We’re more attuned to bumbling our way through conversations about our success, avoiding the subject completely if possible, something that is completely alien to New Yorkers,” explains Will.

Culture and habits, of course, vary enormously across this diverse nation but there are some common inclinations which are quite different to the UK. For example, customisation. “When I lived in the US, my favourite sandwich from the local deli was rye bread, mustard on one side, mayo on the other, ham, lettuce, tomato, provolone cheese with pickles and a banana pepper on the side,” remembers Alison Vickers. “And this from a Geordie brought up to eat everything and not be fussy,” she adds.

Playing the long game

Customisation in the States has been raised to a whole new level. As one newspaper put it: “If restaurants had a Hall of Fame, on-the-side would be inducted.” The good news is that technology is now an enabler of choice – witness McDonald’s recent acquisition of Israeli-founded AI company, Dynamic Yield, for $300m.

Brands can change customer habits but it needs lots of time and money. Pret A Manger has acclimated its US patrons to pre-packed sandwiches, but it took 10 years of sweat.

Of course, playing a long game is key. When we talk US strategies, we ask clients if they have £500k to burn. In our experience, this is the table stakes for the pre-opening phase. Jon agrees: “It’s a ten-year game, bare minimum.” And long games need long money which can be challenging, particularly for private equity GPs.

Part of the answer is management painting a compelling picture of how the first phase of expansion leads to the next. How a plan that starts in Massachusetts leads, for the next investor, to Ohio. And then how Ohio leads to Florida, and so forth.

Choose your place wisely

Which begs the question, where does one go? You don’t need be Michael Palin to know the States is vast and vastly different place to place. “Many chains make it big in one region but can’t translate success in others,” explains Larry Krueger whose own chain, Wingstop, has 1,124 US sites and plans for another 2,000 in their 25 so-called “fortress” cities, for example Miami.

British brands have tended to start in the eastern US: Pret in New York, Wagamama in Boston, Leon in Washington DC. This makes logical sense in that customers here may be more attuned to the British thing. The flipside is that these are ultra-competitive, ultra-demanding markets.

It’s all about the story

For Jon Knight, cities such as Nashville or Dallas are excellent hunting grounds with growing demand, lower supply and a love of the new. You can correlate this with the impact of the aforementioned British accent – it might work in the hippest Tribeca bars or it might bomb. It’s like my Hugh Grant phase: worked in early-90s Upper East Side. Now? Maybe in El Paso.

In the end, wherever one fetches up, it’s all about the story and how, in Will’s words, “you become more meaningfully local”. As a starting point, those with compelling origins (a real person with a gripping journey) are usually better off than a food-and-fit-out brand.

But this may not, according to Will, be enough: “I think the key to a successful opening is to respect the place you’re going, whether that’s New York, New Delhi or Newcastle. People respect where you’re from, but if you rely on home market success for the new opening, it’s the beginning of the end.”

And this is the end of the beginning. In Part Two we cover US real estate, economics, regulations and the inexorable rise of delivery. As Hannibal (Smith, not Lecter) was fond of saying: “I love it when a plan comes together.”