UK companies are the unquestioned leaders in the European chain restaurant market. There are now more British-based operators to be found among Europe’s 100 biggest foodservice groups than even those with American heritage.
According to new research produced by the influential Foodservice Europe magazine, and unveiled last week at the European Foodservice Summit in Zurich, UK companies have a 31% share of the European chain market, beating the US as well as France and Germany. French chains claim just a 19% share, while German groups take only 6%.
At the same time, our own Caffe Nero is ranked third in the table of leading growth brands, trailing only Subway and Rostik, the Russian group which is fuelling its expansion through a partnership with Yum!, owner of KFC and Pizza Hut.
The trouble is that most of this British dominance is down to domestic success rather than any real effort to export UK concepts across the English Channel. Mitchells & Butlers, for example, ranks fifth in the overall European turnover league, ahead of Burger King and Yum!, and behind only McDonalds and the three big contract caterers, Compass, Sodexho and Elior. But unlike those competitors, M&B only operates in two European countries, the UK and Germany.
The simple reason is that the UK is the world’s second most developed chain restaurant marketplace, behind only North America. Britain is a big, growing and chain-friendly eating-out environment.
But if British operators have so much obvious expertise and sophistication why haven’t they done more to take their concepts into mainland Europe and beyond?
Americans never seem to have the same reservations. Starbucks, for example, now has over 700 stores across Europe having established UK as its first base, with 480 shops. It is now the second biggest European coffee bar chain, just behind Tchibo.
The reasons for British reticence are numerous: high EU labour costs, continuing opportunities at home, historic failures and a general unwillingness among investors to support international expansion.
But with a reinvigorated German economy and the opening up of the East, surely Europe deserves another look? Even if European caution persists, what about the rest of the world - the Middle East, the States or the Far East? The European Foodservice Summit highlighted opportunities in Dubai, Singapore, Bangkok (coup or no coup) and perhaps biggest of all Shanghai and the Chinese market. Closer to home Istanbul is talked of as a hot market.
There are an increasing number of UK businesses with an international focus. The likes of Wagamama, Costa, Pret a Manger, La Tasca and Yo! Sushi spring to mind, but the list should surely be longer.
Wagamama is lucky enough to have a financial backer in Lion Capital that embraces an international perspective. More cautious investors might be reminded that Permira has invested in Telepizza in Spain, Terra Firma has bought Tank & Rast in Germany and Colony Capital recently acquired Buffalo Grill in France.
Britain is renowned for exporting its expertise and know-how in a range of disciplines. Why should its apparent gift for running profitable restaurant businesses be any different? Timing is every thing, of course, but that’s not an excuse for not having international development on the board agenda once in a while.
The UK won’t be a growth market forever, and neither will the opportunities in emerging economies be there indefinitely.
The disappointing aspect of last week’s summit in Zurich was how few UK groups were there. M&B is represented on the advisory team, and both Wagamama and Yo! Sushi had teams in attendance, but otherwise that was about it.
If Britain is suffering from an overly parochial mindset, it needs to be challenged - and putting international gatherings like the Zurich conference on the business calendar can only help broaden horizons
Peter Martin is co-founder of M&C Report and founder of Peach Factory.