- The number of fast food outlets in the UK grew by 34% between 2010 and 2018, according to the Office of National Statistics. There are now 61 fast food outlets per 100,000 people compared to 47 in 2010.
- Burgers are the most popular item ordered for delivery, according to a survey by Deliveroo. The company found that burgers with trimmings came out as the top dish in 28 of 60 cities.
- Innovation in plant-based products has led the way in fast food reinvention. The Impossible burger is now on the menu at 10,000 restaurants around the world while chains are working hard on their own versions. Patty & Bun's aim is to double the number of plant-based burgers on its menu by early 2020, for example.
Burgers, fries, nuggets, kebabs and other items identified as fast food rarely receive positive press. Often blamed for rising obesity levels, these foods are at worst depicted as a health risk and at best a guilty pleasure. It's also arguably a section of the industry which has also lacked innovation, and attempts to reform a bad reputation have previously appeared rather uninspired and lacklustre.
Aside from the premium makeovers recently given to beef burgers and fried chicken by the likes of 'better burger' operators such as Byron, Honest Burgers and Patty & Bun, and free-range chicken shops like Bird and Chick 'n' Sours, fast food is a category which has remained predictably consistent in terms of expectations. Burgers are generally comprised of a beef patty in a white bun with optional salad and toppings; fries are thin and crispy; nuggets usually contain chicken, and so on.
However, as Cem Yildiz, co-founder of the four-strong vegan doner kebab operator What the Pitta, says, “vanilla just doesn't cut it anymore,” which is why this year has seen one of the biggest shake-ups of the category we've ever encountered.
There was excitement in the summer over the launch of McDonald's Spicy Chicken McNuggets, followed by Burger & Lobster clawing its way onto the scene with the announcement of new 'menu hack' spicy lobster nuggets.
Burger King also launched its highly anticipated Halloumi Burger, while KFC's meat-free Imposter burger – a Quorn patty coated in KFC's signature blend of herbs and spices – reportedly sold out just a few days after being made available in the UK.
The scramble to introduce more options for vegans, vegetarians and flexitarians has seen innovation within fast food centre around the creation of more plant-based items.
As Fred Trussell, head of operations at Patty & Bun – a business which predominantly sells beef burgers – notes, “competition is fierce,” so operators need to reinvent their offering to stay relevant.
“To stand out from the crowd, you either need to be doing something very simple and incredibly well or you innovate and stay in touch with the changing tastes and preferences of the consumer base as best you can.”
For Henry Sutton, founder and director of Up in My Grill, innovation in fast food is a “natural thing” to ensure operators within this space keep up with competition. “It's about getting better and better. We have to keep pushing things forward and improve.”
Rather than going down the plant-based route, Sutton has instead looked at providing a more refined version of things like nuggets and fries.
His take on chips, cheese and gravy, for instance, is the Fondue Fries: skin-on chips cooked in rapeseed oil and beef fat, then served with a cheese fondue of raclette, Taleggio and cheddar as well as beef onion gravy made from beef bones that have been simmered for hours and combined with confit onions.
"It’s a really comforting dish of food, very simple, but with the cheese and quality of the beef stock it really brings it up a level."
Fred Trussell, head of operations at Patty & Bun, describes the Pamela, a plant-based burger with This Isn't Bacon: "As a burger restaurant we predominantly sell beef burgers. However, the landscape is changing and veganism is growing. This change, coupled by a strong demand from our customers for more vegan choices, led us to develop the Pamela, which is the second vegan burger to go on the menu at Patty & Bun. We collaborated with This to use their Isn’t Bacon product, which looks, tastes and smells like bacon. We combine the Isn’t Bacon with a plant-based protein patty, spicy mayo, pickled cucumbers, cheddar, onion, lettuce, tomato, ketchup and a Bonsoy Bun. The burger has a great balance of flavours and textures and has been received amazingly well. Since its launch, vegan sales have more than doubled and feedback on social media has also been really positive."
Henry Sutton, founder and director of Up in My Grill, Shoreditch, describes beef shin nuggets: "Our beef shin nuggets are sticky braised beef croquettes with crispy gluten-free panko breadcrumb that are served with burnt shallot and anchovy mayonnaise. To make the nuggets, we braise down beef shin with red wine, onions and carrots with a secret spicing and herb mix until it’s falling apart. We shred the meat down and reduce the liquid to a sticky glaze, which is mixed back into the meat and pressed into trays before being chilled. It's then sliced into cubes and breadcrumbed before being deep fried. Because our main product of steak has to sit around the £10 mark, we wanted to have a midway item, either as a topper for the steak and also for those not wanting to go for a full dish."
Cem Yildiz, co-founder of What the Pitta, describes a vegan doner kebab: "Our vegan doner kebab is made using marinated soya pieces fried in our secret spice recipe. We roll out our flat bread wraps from scratch in store and serve the doner pieces, which have been cooked on the grill, with freshly cut salad, hummus, chilli sauce and our homemade vegan tzatziki. It’s served in a tightly wrapped foil and brown paper bag to save you from getting messy. We wanted to create a quality fast food dish that was representative of our Turkish background. Plus, the kebab is a classic British takeaway option. People are looking to reduce their meat consumption for the environmental benefits and for their health, so it was a win-win!"