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  • Writer's picturePeter Backman

US Restaurants: Subdued and regrouping – just like the UK...

This year marked my 20th visit to the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago and as always, this gave me the opportunity to refine my views about What’s Hot in the USA. I was met with very distinct echoes of what’s happening to the UK market.

Sales in the US barely shifted in 2017 and the last few months were worse than a year earlier, apart from an unprecedented rise in March. Chains have been racing to achieve the same price points, the same menu items and the same ambience whilst expanding their outlets. Sound familiar? Operators seem to have lost their ability to interest and excite their customers. Innovation has been cast aside in favour of a ‘me too’ approach.  This has led to too many outlets and not enough choice. As a consequence, consumer confidence is fragile and sales are dwindling.

Customer experience

Largely speaking, brands have been failing to differentiate because they have been too focused on growth. In a world where customer experience is everything, this key ingredient seems to be missing in many cases.

But, some operators are getting it right; McDonald’s is a case in point. A combination of ongoing product innovation, clever marketing and ordering technology is enhancing the customer experience and sales are up. The relatively recent introduction of ordering kiosks has seen staff, who were previously order-takers, become front-of-house staff who interact with customers and help them make their menu selection. The customer now feels valued; technology is enhancing the experience by facilitating a more personalised service. 

What’s driving menus?

In 2015 it was GMO, in 2016 it was gluten-free and last year it was veganism. This year, there was considerable talk of “plant-based”, although it seems there is confusion about the definition of the term and what it represents.

Eco-disposability and sustainability were watch-words for the show. Plastic straws and plates are definitely out, paper straws and wooden plates, mainly from China, are in.

Delivery is dish of the day

Despite a long history of delivery in the US, delivery is the hot topic, as in the UK. It now accounts for a Gross Market Value of $31bn. There are several large players, notably GrubHub, but there are no dominant national brands. Many cities have a single player which dominates their market.


The good news is that innovation is not dead. I noticed new regions entering into the marketplace, such as nitro brewed coffee, prepared dishes and sauces from Africa.

Robotic food servers are continuing to grow as is the provision of pre-ordered foods available for collection through locker systems.

I was really impressed by Welbilt – the leading kitchen equipment company – and Zume Pizza, based in Silicon Valley. Its mobile pizza kitchen, ovens and all, has capacity to prepare 120 pizzas an hour on the move. Order your pizza and it’s cooked en route to your delivery address. You can't get much fresher than that!

If you’d like to learn more about what’s happening in the USA, please drop me a line at or call on 07785 242809. I’ll be happy to share a copy of my “What’s Hot in the USA” report with you.



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