Wendy’s: “We’ve had to learn by what we’ve done before”

By James McAllister

- Last updated on GMT

Wendy's opens in Reading UK expansion plan strategy menu development taking on McDonald's and BurgerKing

Related tags: Wendy's, US chain, Burger, expansion

Wendy’s is back in the UK for a third bite of the burger, with its arrival in Reading this week heralding the start of a push to open 400 sites across the country.

The group, which has previously tried twice to secure a foothold in the UK, is hoping to become a major player in the country's fast food market.

Further sites in Oxford and East London are set to launch in the coming months, with a total of five Wendy’s restaurants expected to launch before the end of the year.

Despite entering a QSR market already dominated by big US burger chains including McDonald’s, Burger King and Five Guys, Wendy’s is confident there’s plenty of space for it to thrive on these shores.

Paul Hilder, senior vice president and managing director of Wendy’s Restaurants of Canada and United Kingdom, tells BigHospitality​ why it’s going to be third time lucky for the US burger chain. 

Congratulations on your launch in Reading, how does it feel to be back in the UK?
Very exciting. There were huge queues outside in run up to the opening, which was great to see. Obviously, we’ve had a bit of a delay in the last year in getting our first UK sites open, but we’ve got a great team in place and I don’t think we could be any more ready.

Wendy’s has tried twice to take on the UK market, most recently  in the 90s when it grew to around 10 restaurants before eventually leaving to concentrate on its domestic estate. Why is the UK market so important to the Wendy’s brand?
Wendy’s is based in North America, but it’s a global company and we want to grow it around the world. In that respect, the UK is our critical foothold to eventually springboard into Europe, and we hope that it will eventually spearhead a European-wide expansion and create strong growth on this side of the Atlantic.

The UK’s fast food space is very competitive, where is Wendy’s trying to pitch itself?
We want Wendy’s to be the best, not the biggest. The research we did as we came to return to the UK showed that there was a significant premium offering in the hamburger market with the likes of Five Guys. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there’s McDonald’s. We see a real opportunity of being able to serve a product that we think is equal to Five Guys in quality, but offer it at a more competitive price. It’s the same position we have in North America, and has most recently helped us dethrone Burger King and become the number two QSR burger chain in the US. It’s a strategy that’s worked for us before, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t here.

How has the impact of the pandemic affected your plans at all?
It certainly hasn’t changed our trajectory. It threw a spanner in the works and slowed us down a little bit, but we were always in this for the long term. The operating model has had to shift, our focus on delivery had to grow and the use of mobile and digital became more important. And it has encouraged us to explore the different ways the consumer accesses the brand, so we are looking at both drive thru and high street locations, as well as the potential of dark kitchens in the UK, which is a very energetic space right now.

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It’s noticeable that Wendy’s isn’t taking such a London-centric approach when plotting its UK growth this time. Why is that?
We’ve had to learn by what we’ve done before. Last time we came to the UK we were very London-centric, with high-profile sites on Shaftesbury Avenue and Oxford Circus. The business was good, but challenging. London is still part of the plan, but we believe there’s lots of opportunity to reach people sooner by adopting a regional approach; particularly as we bring in franchisees to the business, which will accelerate growth.

What will the ratio be between company-owned and franchised restaurants in the UK?
We’re opening five company-owned restaurants this year and we’re doubling that number next year, and then really the focus will predominantly be franchises. We’re having a number of discussions at the moment with different franchisees regarding that. It’s really important for us, though, to have a company-owned restaurant base, which is another strategic step that’s different from before. It sets the standard, and means we have skin in the game.

Tell us about the menu
We have the classics on there – the Baconator; Dave’s Single; and the Spicy Chicken. But we’ve also developed new lines specifically for the UK restaurants, particularly to help boost our non-meat menu. For example, we have Veggie Stack burger; Veggie Bites; and Veggie Avocado salad. The plan is to focus primarily on our core classics to begin with and then bring in limited-time-offer sandwiches further down the road.

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A lot of hospitality businesses are struggling with recruitment at the moment. Has Wendy’s experienced problems?
Surprisingly no – we haven’t so far, and we don’t have any concerns at the moment around recruitment. That being said, we think that the points of difference between us and our competitors goes beyond the product, but also applies to us as an employer, and our goal is to become a top employer in the UK. We don’t believe in zero-hour contracts and we have bonus programmes from crew up through management, so we’ve looked at different ways we can stand out from the QSR landscape.

Wendy’s isn’t the only high-profile chain coming to the UK this year, with Popeye’s planning to launch more than 300 sites across the country in the coming years. On a broader level, what is the ongoing appeal of the UK market to US chains?
It’s a big population, the UK consumer loves eating out, and you look at the performance of the players that are here already like McDonalds and Five Guys, and you see an opportunity. The ones that win are the ones that connect with the customer with great tasting food and service, and that’s what Wendy’s offers.

Related topics: Business Profile, Casual Dining

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