Jon Midmer of global executive search firm JMA reflects on the changing culture of the UK’s casual-dining scene, an inward flow of leading personnel from other countries and a growing contingent of Brits heading to top jobs abroad

I can remember the first time I entered Chris Moore’s office as if it were yesterday. The colourful, former head of Domino’s UK was speaking fluent Brazilian Portuguese to his wife at 150 words a minute. As a languages graduate, I remember how impressed I was that a purveyor of value pizzas based in Milton Keynes should be quite so international. At the time, it must have been the early 2000s, the majority of the leaders in the UK casual-dining scene were British (indeed, mostly English) – ex-Whitbread, Bass and S&N folk, with some My Kinda Town alums thrown in for good measure.

Compared with them, Chris, a long-haired, guitar-playing, ex-ad agency guy who had spent his late teenage years bumming around Rio, was a revelation. Meanwhile, most UK restaurant brands, even ones that had been inspired by cuisines from other countries, had not yet dipped more than a toe outside the UK. Fast forward to mid-2017, however, and there’s been a huge change. But what and how exactly?

Explosion of concepts

First, over the past 15 years there has been an explosion of concepts. In most city centres and retail parks up and down the country, you have a choice of countless non-British formats, born in and out of the UK. MCA does a great job of charting the fortunes of up-and-coming brands in the casual-dining scene, and I’m never surprised when the next exotic-sounding street food concept secures investment.

Britain is great for many reasons, and we are blessed by the range of cuisines and ingredients afforded to us through hundreds of years of migration and trade. Indeed, some of the most inventive and successful concepts currently adorning our high streets and shopping centres were started and/or are owned by immigrants, ex-pats and their children. And whereas once market towns or, if more daring, the Middle East were the first ports of call for expansion after London and the UK’s other major cities, now (given the encouragement of private equity owners) it’s as, or even more, likely to be the US, mainland Europe or Hong Kong. Nando’s, Wagamama, Pret A Manger, Yo! Sushi, Jamie’s Italian, Itsu, Carluccio’s and Caffè Nero either already have or are planning incursions into some or all of these territories.

Second, as US chains such as McDonald’s, Starbucks, KFC, Pizza Hut, Domino’s and Subway have doubled, trebled or more in size, we have imported more stateside concepts in the guise of Five Guys, Shake Shack, Taco Bell and Chipotle. Furthermore, US and British chains alike have been snapped up by foreign investment funds and leisure groups: Burger King by Brazil’s 3G Capital, Krispy Kreme by Germany’s JAB; PizzaExpress by China’s Hony Capital; and

Carluccio’s by Dubai-based Landmark. Meanwhile, the London Stock Exchange itself has become a magnet for non-UK-domiciled casual-dining groups, the most recent being Domino’s Eurasia, which followed a path trodden by Domino’s Poland and, of course, Domino’s UK.

Third, there are far more British industry leaders with international experience: Clive Schlee, a long-time employee of Jardine Matheson in Asia, has done a tremendous job at Pret A Manger; Ivan Schofield ran KFC Western Europe based out of France before taking the reins of Itsu UK; Andrew Lynch had a long and very successful international career with Compass and SSP before jettisoning suit and tie to lead Nando’s globally; Duncan Garrood of Punch joined directly from Alshaya in Kuwait; Dominic Paul of Costa spent a good number of years overseas and in his last role at Royal Caribbean was growing the brand in Asia; and Martin Shuker of KFC Europe, David Wild of Domino’s UK and Alasdair Murdoch of GBK all had stints in continental Europe.

Fourth, there are now sizeable, successful companies being run by non-Brits: Gerry Ford (American) continues to lead Caffè Nero, the rapidly expanding brand he founded; Andy McCue (who spent many years living and working in Ireland) is busy turning around The Restaurant Group; Jens Hofma (Swiss) has done the same at Pizza Hut Restaurants UK; and Jean-Michel Orieux (French), a long-standing fixture in the London restaurant scene, continues to do a very good job at Paul. Brad Blum, ex-CEO of Burger King (American), meanwhile, sits on the board of Leon. Other recent movers to London have include Niren Chaudhary (Indian), president and global COO of Krispy Kreme (and former global president of KFC) and Stephan Croix (French) who JMA recently placed as chief sales & brand officer at Pizza Hut Europe.

Lastly, there’s a growing contingent of Brits abroad, the most famous being Steve Easterbrook, chief executive of McDonald’s, currently residing in Oak Brook, Illinois. James Watts, meanwhile, is chief people & culture officer of Pizza Hut, based in Dallas, and Ewan Davenport, another JMA placement, is GM of Pizza Hut Africa. On the non-executive circuit, Helen Jones, formerly of Caffè Nero and Zizzi, sits on the global board of Ben & Jerry’s (Vermont, US) and the supervisory board of Vapiano (Bonn, Germany).

Hit the ground running

Given this shift over the past 15 years, the leaders of today’s biggest and most ambitious brands are expected to bring with them international experience, so they can hit the ground running in their new job.

Second, whether you’re managing a business with an international dimension or not, working abroad provides you with the strategic agility, operational nous and rounded communication skills that staying put in your home market will probably not afford you.

The negotiation skills you gain dealing with a realtor in New York or a franchisee in the Middle East will surely come in handy later in your career when you’re in negotiations with a PE house or bank. And the resilience you gain from surviving flat tyres on unknown roads, coup attempts or worse is supremely character-building.

In today’s world, many of the most successful food concepts are international in genesis, outlook and footprint, and so must be the experience of their leaders. By encouraging international moves for the leaders of tomorrow and demanding it in the leaders of today, not only will we have more rounded executives and better-led organisations, we will affirm – not least to the staff on the shop floor, often migrants themselves – that the UK casual-dining industry is outward-looking, culturally inclusive and a reflection of modern society.

■ Jon Midmer is managing director of JMA, a global executive search firm specialising in the hospitality and retail industries that has placed board-level executives from more than 20 countries. Jon lives and works between London and Istanbul