I was born and lived happily in a prosperous, sunny suburb of New York City until the age of eight when we were exiled by my father to a dank, grey mid-70s Britain. A land of plenty and excess was swapped for a country that still seemed to be recovering from the Second World War. Industrial action dominated the news, it rained every day and the food was bland.
My parents sought out flavour, indulgence and quick service and we found them at The Good Earth Chinese restaurant, newly-opened McDonald’s and the simply sensational Kebab Kid – all in West London.
Nevertheless, it seemed a poor outcome for a spoiled American family and we lived for our annual summer vacation back in technicolour Long Island with its Fortune cookies, Hawaiian Punch and McDonald’s – not to mention hitting the beach on a daily basis. Like emigrees from Soviet Russia, we gorged ourselves.
Balance of power
Well, it’s 2014 and I’m just back from an exhaustive – ahem – ‘study tour’ of Chicago where it rained every day (while London basked), McDonald’s head office is closed due to striking fast food workers and – whisper it – it looks like the balance of power in the food arms race has shifted decisively to the UK.
Americans still win on sheer ambition and chutzpah
Yes, the Americans still win on service. The enthusiasm, belief, energy and confidence of American wait-staff cannot be matched anywhere. But quick-service wages to one side, this is under-pinned by what we calculated to be eye-popping rates of pay. Illinois workers are seeking an increase in minimum wage to $10/hour and front-of-house staff keep all of tips, which vary from 15 – 25%. And they don’t tip out the kitchen.
And the Americans still win on sheer ambition and chutzpah. We visited Lyfe Kitchen, an Ottolenghi-style healthy casual dining concept run by a former McDonald’s COO. An executive freely admitted to us that, after six openings, they still “had not got the store economics right” but nevertheless was planning to open a further 20 restaurants this year and 250 within the next five. It’s property team has apparently identified 1,000 locations for what to me seemed a concept with far too many moving parts to ever be truly scaleable. But the food was delicious and who would bet against the School of Big Mac.
Changes the economics of pizza in the USA
Likewise Blaze Pizza, with 21 locations, is more than doubling in size by the end of the year and is also looking for a quick dash to 250 sites. The idea here is a pizza concept where – burrito style – the team build a pizza to your design and it is cooked in an ultra-hot oven within three minutes. The claim is that this changes the economics of pizza in the USA where traditionally 90% of sales are in the evening because of the usual wait-time of 10-12 minutes. But I found the branding a little flat and unexciting – nothing like as inspiring as Franco Manca, Union Pizza or Homeslice.
Turns the dial up to eleven
Hash House A-Go-Go takes the Yankee reputation for excessive portion size and turns the dial up to eleven. It’s ‘twisted farm food’ translates to obscene, psychedelic piles of stodge covered in molten cheese – each plate arriving stuck with a carving knife and an incongruous rosemary branch. I was reminded of Richard Dreyfuss building an alien mountain in the front room, to the bemusement of his family, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
And America’s unabashed love of success is very much alive and well. Restaurant execs greeting their British counterparts loudly extolled weekly revenues, margins and profits in front of apparently un-fazed customers. One boss even felt it appropriate to have a microphone set up in the dining area so no-one missed a word of the unit metrics. It was impossible to imagine this happening in Europe.
In spite of all this I could not help feeling that our equivalent brands are cooler, slicker and more on trend. But then, I am not their target market.
Even so, with a Le Pain Quotidien seemingly opening on every Chi-town corner I wondered if the time may at last have come for our Byrons, Wagamamas and the rest to beat the Americans at their own game.
Charlie McVeigh is founder of the five-strong Draft House business