Full Speed Ahead for U.K. Full-Service Restaurants

Earlier this month, we looked at some of the U.K.’s fastest-growing limited-service restaurant segments, based on data from Technomic’s new Top 100 U.K. Chain Restaurant Report. Now, we turn our attention to those full-service chains that recorded the strongest sales growth in 2013.

In contrast to the tepid 2.4% sales growth seen among leading U.S. full-service chain restaurants last year, full-service concepts on the U.K. Top 100 list saw sales climb a healthy 6.8% in 2013. The U.K. Top 100’s full-service chains closed the year with more than £6.7 billion in sales, up from £6.3 billion in 2012.

U.K. consumers’ growing appetite for a variety of ethnic cuisines is helping to drive full-service restaurant growth, with globally inspired concepts adding units throughout the Kingdom. (Wagamama, for example, reached 100 units in July 2013, and Prezzo added a total of 28 units of its namesake Italian brand and its Chimichanga casual-dining Mexican brand last year.) In expanding their reach literally and figuratively, these concepts are targeting a dining public increasingly interested in exploring authentic flavours from Latin America, Southeast Asia and beyond. The Mexican, Asian/noodle and French menu segments were among the full-service category’s top growth performers, recording year-over-year sales increases of 15.4%, 12.2% and 11.9%, respectively. The Italian menu segment, the U.K.’s leading full-service ethnic menu segment by overall sales and units, grew sales by 7.9% in 2013.

Beyond the continued expansion of ethnic-menu chains, burgers remain one of the hottest stories in the U.K. full-service restaurant sector. The full-service burger segment is smaller than most ethnic-menu segments, but sales for U.K. full-service burger concepts in the top 100 rose a whopping 39%, to £84 million, in 2013. The three chains accounting for that astounding growth are Byron, Handmade Burger Co. and Ed’s Easy Diner, all of which land between No. 70 and No. 90 on the Top 100.

Burgers tend to be a less-expensive menu option at full-service restaurants, and the rapid rise in the U.K. of fast-casual “better burger” concepts—many of which, new as they are, have yet to make the Top 100—may be focusing U.K. consumers’ attention on their options for affordable, higher-quality burgers at full-service concepts. (Interestingly, limited-service burger chains on the Top 100 grew sales only 1.6% overall in 2013.)

There’s good news for many leading pub chains, too: Those pub concepts that made the U.K. Top 100 saw overall sales gains of 5% in 2013. Wetherspoon, the pub sector’s largest player by far, enjoyed sales growth of 9% last year to more than £1.2 billion, on unit expansion of 4.6% (to 905 units).

Other traditional pub players seeing strong increases in trade last year: Hungry Horse (sales up nearly 16% to £161 million), Taylor Walker (up 12%), Fayre & Square (up 22%) and John Barras (up 17%). Of note, too, is that sales growth for all of these exceeded the rate of unit expansion. In the second half of the Top 100, Old English Inns, Flaming Grill Pub Co., Browns Bar & Brasserie and Meet & Eat Pub & Grill recorded double-digit sales increases as well. Back in November, Technomic named “the evolution of pubs” as one of its five U.K. restaurant trends for 2014, and it seems that pub chains’ innovative efforts to reach out to new generations of guests—initiatives such as Flaming Grill’s Build-A-Burger Facebook app contest this spring and Wetherspoon’s partnerships with U.S. craft brewers—are resonating with U.K. consumers.

Technomic notes in the 2014 Top 100 U.K. Chain Restaurant Report that the U.K. economy is projected to grow rapidly over the next two years, boding well for the continued success of the full-service dining sector. London has cemented its reputation as a world-class dining destination and a hotbed of culinary innovation and will likely continue to breed trend-setting new restaurant concepts as well as attract significant investment from foreign restaurant chains looking to expand their international footprint. Recognising U.K. consumers’ appetite for bold new tastes—whether in the form of out-of-the-ordinary ethnic and regional cuisines or flavourful craft beers—will be vital to full-service restaurant chains’ continued expansion.


Darren Tristano

Darren Tristano is President of Technomic Inc. Since 1993, he has led the development of Technomic’s Information Services division and directed multiple aspects of the firm’s operations.

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