Foodservice: Spoilt for choice

With influence from the US and growing interest in provenance and quality, consumers in the UK now have a wealth of choice available to them when dining out, as Helen Arnold reports. 

British meat-eaters have never had it so good. The foodservice sector now offers a wider and more innovative range of meat dishes than ever before, with gourmet burgers, premium fast food chicken, authentic US barbecue, and smoked and pulled meat all featuring on the most fashionable restaurant menus.

Like so many trends enthusiastically adopted by the British, many originate from across the Atlantic, and the latest trending meat and meat dishes are no exception. “Premium burgers, premium fast food chicken and authentic US barbecue are all trends coming from the US,” confirms Peter Linden, senior analyst at M&C Allegra Foodservice.

When it comes to eating out, chicken remains the most popular meat, accounting for 32% of all main dishes at casual restaurants and 47% at fast food restaurants, according to M&C Allegra’s latest Menu and Food Trends report.

Beef, meanwhile, is the first choice for pub-goers, owing to the prevalence of steaks, burgers and roasts, and accounting for 28% of all main dishes. At the same time, vegetarian dishes are increasingly popular, and the share of vegetarian dishes in main meals at pubs increased by three percentage points to 19% in the last 12 months.

While most of these trends are usually first adopted in the capital, then ripple out to the rest of the country, one of the new wave of barbecue concepts, Red’s Tru BBQ, actually started off in the north and has only just arrived in London. “The growth of the eating-out culture in the past 10 years has been national, so there are foodies and food culture all over the country,” says Linden. “Brighton, Bristol and Manchester are also key trend hubs.”

Consumers have more choice than ever before and are eating out more often at all meal occasions. However, they are spending less when they do eat out. “We are seeing a trend towards ‘trading up being on hold,” explains Linden. “This is partly a recessionary legacy. Consumers are embracing casual eating out, as opposed to more formal fine dining.”


To keep customers interested in and excited by the meat category, innovation is crucial, according to Linden. “In a recent poll with industry executives, 21% listed innovation and new product development as a key business challenge, up from 11% last year,” he points out. “Consumers are more demanding, global and knowledgeable than ever before. They want to know where the meat is from and how it has been cooked.”

But within these overall trends, there are some  particular stand-out performers, including premium burgers, fast chicken and barbecue, smoked and pulled meat dishes.

Burgers have come a long way since the days when the local fast food chain serving up greying discs of meat of indeterminate origin was the best that diners could hope for. Fast-forward 40 years, and today’s consumers are spoiled for choice; while McDonald’s and Burger King continue to do a roaring trade within the mass market, for the discerning consumer more concerned about the provenance of their beef than price alone – and with sufficient disposal income to fork out upwards of a tenner for a burger – there are plenty of options. 

Byron, which is expanding rapidly at the rate of around 10 new openings a year, and Meat Liquor, which has just opened its sixth site in Bristol, are just some of the home-grown upmarket burger chains that have got the foodies drooling. 

Exploiting  UK consumers’ seemingly insatiable taste for burgers, the past few years has seen an invasion of American artisan burger joints such as Five Guys and Shake Shack taking up outposts in Britain. Meanwhile, the Colorado-based chain Smashburger, which has grown to 315 outlets in the US in only eight years, and promises to make burgers to order, is set to hit the UK soon, with plans to launch 35 restaurants.

But can this demand  continue to soar, or will UK consumers begin to tire of the ubiquitous burger? Hugh Judd, foodservice manager at the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) agrees that we haven’t seen the end of the burger trend, and thinks they will continue to evolve to maintain and stimulate consumer interest. “The trend for gourmet burgers is definitely evolving,” he says. “We are now seeing burgers being added to – with toppings such as pulled pork brisket – and blending pulled meats into a complete burger. You might have 70% beef mince and 30% pork. Pork on its own is fairly bland and doesn’t mince particularly well, but it’s cost-effective and, added to beef, lends an extra dimension to the burger.”

He points to American chain Five Guys, where consumers  are able to build their own tailor-made burgers. “We are seeing a move towards more bespoke premium burgers,” he says. “You can ask for two patties, different cheeses, and a choice of buns, such as brioche or ciabatta.”

Fast chicken

It’s not only burgers that are selling like the proverbial hotcakes. Fast food chicken, too, has become deeply fashionable among London’s hipsters, and to the capital’s population at large. While there have been fried chicken shops on the average British high street for years, their quality was often suspect, and it was considered a cheap and cheerful fast food. Now, the humble chicken has had a major revamp, and is being barbecued, slow-cooked, deep-fried and smoked. Emerging trendy chicken restaurants include Chicken House in Tooting, south London, owned by Soho House’s Nick Jones.

Slow-cooked meat is another fad that is catching on fast in the restaurant and hotel trade. “People are rediscovering cheap cuts, and long slow cooking,” confirms the AHDB’s Judd. “Brisket, for example, was almost a forgotten cut, and you could buy it for peanuts, but now it’s unbelievably expensive.”

This is seconded by Becky Hover, food marketing manager at Brakes. “Using cheaper cuts of meat can deliver great savings without having to sacrifice flavour,” she says. “In many cases all that is required is a slightly different cooking process. Some traditional cheaper and less well-used cuts – such as beef brisket, lamb or pork shoulder, for example – are simple to prepare and can taste fantastic if slow-roasted with a few herbs and root vegetables. They also work well elsewhere on the menu and you can even use leftovers in dishes such as stews or curries helping operators to maximise the value of the ingredients purchased.”

A clear South American influence is also beginning to creep into more and more dishes, such as skewers of meat slow-cooked over a barbecue and then carved at the table, according to Judd. “Cooking over real coals or wood or mixing the two is becoming more prevalent, with the growth of big American-style grills.

And where foodservice leads, retail follows, as Keith Fisher, butchery development manager at AHDB Pork, explains. “The trend towards American smoked and barbecued food genres are great examples of how foodservice has quickly capitalised on the international street food trend,” he says. “These have already filtered through to the retail sector, where we are seeing convenience versions of these products, like ready-to-eat pulled pork, in the cold meat aisle,” he says.

Provenance and traceability

The provenance of meat, and its traceability, has become ever more important to meat-eating consumers since the horsegate scandal two years ago. As a result, an increasing number of restaurants are listing not only the dishes on their menus, but also the breed and farm where the animal originated.

John Pallagi, founder and managing director of Yorkshire-based Farmison, an online heritage meat retailer that specialises in unusual breeds, reports a big demand for traceability amongst his customers, which include Michelin-starred restaurants and gastro pubs.

“Provenance is definitely the biggest trend in meat,” he confirms. “The horse-gate scandal has opened the eyes of both professional chefs and home cooks as to the importance of knowing where your meat originates. Even mass-market brands such as McDonald’s have started to name the farms where their meat comes from.”

Fisher concurs. “We’re seeing a need for ‘craft’ and ‘heritage’ where consumers are looking for products that offer the very best in taste and quality,” he says. “For meat, dry airing, curing, and smoked meats can be capitalised upon to meet this trend. For heritage, it seems consumers are still looking for any regional breed or even heritage techniques to be mentioned on the menu. Here, ‘old fashioned’ meat cuts such as pork cheeks, hocks chops, collar and blade could prove popular, especially if it can allow the caterer to create a traditional recipe, but with a modern-day twist.”

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