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The history of McDonald’s UK

McDonald’s is the largest restaurant chain in Britain as measured by sales.

McDonald’s opened its first British outlet in the London suburb of Woolwich in November 1974. At this time the chain had found limited success in European markets. The homegrown Wimpy hamburger chain was already well-established in Britain, with 625 outlets. Beef prices that were 20 percent higher than in the United States, as well as an expensive property market meant that Britain was among the last of the major Western markets to get a McDonald’s outlet.

McDonald’s had originally sought a West End of London site, which could target American tourists, but was initially unable to find one. Meanwhile the site in Woolwich, acquired from Burton, the menswear chain, was relatively cheap, and with its busy high street was considered to represent “average Britain”. If the Woolwich market could be cracked, it was reasoned, then the rest of the country could follow.

Robert “Bob” Rhea (1932 – 2010), a successful former American franchisee, and the United States parent company, each held a 45 percent stake in the venture. Rhea was the managing director. Geoffrey Wade, who had managed the property operations of Burton, held a ten percent stake, and was assistant managing director.

Bob Rhea was a likeable man, with a larger than life personality.

McDonald’s had a modest start in Britain. First day takings at Woolwich were an underwhelming £98. However, a reporter from the Daily Mail was impressed by “that quintessentially American classlessness about the place”.

A Big Mac cost 45p (by a conservative estimate, this is the equivalent of £4.09 in 2015). This was on par with the price charged for an equivalent Wimpy hamburger, which used soy bean as a filler, unlike the pure beef McDonald’s product.

The kitchen in the Woolwich branch, 1974
The kitchen in the Woolwich branch, 1974

McDonald’s preferred to source ingredients locally, but until it reached scale, it was unable to convince British suppliers to meet its exacting product specifications. An exception was Hawley’s of Birmingham, who won the bread bun contract after nine months of negotiations in August 1974.

When the first McDonald’s outlet opened, the beef and buns were British, but onions were imported from one area of California, cheese and much of the paperware from West Germany, shake mix from the Netherlands, fish from Denmark, potatoes from Canada, apple pies from Oklahoma and sauces and pickles from New York. Much of the machinery and interior fittings were imported from the United States.

There was initially only one concession to British tastes: the Woolwich outlet sold tea. Despite the British preference for vinegar on chips, McDonald’s never provided any. Bob Rhea argued that vinegar was used to cut through the grease on British chips, and that McDonald’s fries weren’t greasy. By December 1974, McDonald’s UK had reduced the sugar content of its bread buns from 13 percent to 9 percent to suit British tastes.

Paul Preston of Ohio was the first manager of the Woolwich store. He later rose through the ranks to manage McDonald's UK.
Paul Preston was the first manager of the Woolwich store.

Paul Preston (born 1948), a gregarious and outgoing blue-collar native of Ohio, was the first manager of the Woolwich store. He later commented, “The first store was a disaster. Nobody came. Nobody knew who we were. We tried every gimmick under the sun – endless free meals and promotions. It took a long while to get going”.

Growth was slow to take off for two reasons: not only did McDonald’s have a difficult time persuading British food processing companies to meet its requirements, which increased costs, but secondly, hamburgers had a reputation for low quality in Britain.

The first McDonald’s cinema advertisement appeared in 1975, and on local television a year later.

Three more outlets had been opened in the London suburbs of Holloway, Croydon and Catford by January 1976 . The first two were, like Woolwich, former Burton stores. That year the company began to open outlets in London’s West End, the heart of the entertainment district. These new outlets were immediately profitable.

Bob Rhea ambitiously announced that the company’s goal was “nothing less than a McDonald’s restaurant in every town and city in Britain”. McDonald’s UK had 17 outlets by the end of 1978.

Ian Watson of The Sunday Telegraph commented in December 1978 that “McDonald’s trendy style has proved popular, particularly with the young”.

Bob Rhea argued that the main obstacle to growth was not competing fast food restaurants such as Wimpy, but mothers, who he claimed were reluctant to bring their children to a restaurant that they perceived as unhealthy and possibly expensive.

McDonald’s UK had lost $10 million by 1979. The breakfast menu was introduced in 1982. The American parent company bought out Rhea and Wade in 1983, however the duo continued to manage the business.

The company grew by raising standards in the fast food industry with high standards of cleanliness and effective television advertising campaigns. The Times described the outlets as “modern and with attractive decor” in 1983. McDonald’s UK began to turn a profit from 1984 onwards.

McDonald’s UK had 146 restaurants, a turnover of over £100 million, and outlets across the South East, the Midlands and the North West. by October 1984. The Yorkshire market was entered from 1985. The company established a stepping stone approach to growth, building a sizeable network of stores before entering a new area.

Chicken McNuggets were launched in 1984. The Happy Meal was introduced from 1986.

Bob Rhea retired in 1986, and Paul Preston was appointed as chief executive of McDonald’s UK.

McDonald’s did not franchise restaurants until 1986, by which time it felt that its identity and operations had been firmly established. That year, the first McDonald’s drive thru in the UK was opened in Fallowfield, Manchester. By the end of 1989 there were 340 outlets.

The McChicken Sandwich was introduced in 1989.

Market research undertaken in 1991 showed that consumers were beginning to perceive the chain as arrogant and inflexible. That year McDonald’s had a major misstep with the launch of the McPloughman’s sandwich of cheese, pickle and salad. Introduced without any prior market research, the company admitted that staff were embarrassed by both the concept and the name.

Amid fears over mad cow disease, in March 1996 McDonald’s beef sales dropped by 50 percent. McDonald’s bowed to public pressure and temporarily ceased selling British beef in its restaurants.

McDonald’s sued two environmental campaigners who had published a leaflet defaming the company in 1990. McDonald’s won the case in 1997, but a High Court judge decided that the company “exploited” children with its advertisements and placed young employees under undue pressure. It was also accepted that low pay at the chain had helped to depress wages in the catering sector.

The Financial Times argued that the case was a “public relations disaster”. The media portrayed the battle as a David vs Goliath fight, when the two campaigners, denied legal aid, had to represent themselves in court.

The McFlurry ice cream was launched in 2000.

From the turn of the century, amidst concerns about the health effects of fast food, McDonald’s UK profits stagnated. Sales fell every year from 2000 to 2005. The chain responded by launching fresh fruit and organic milk in 2003, and toasted deli sandwiches from 2005. Porridge, bagels and freshly ground coffee were added to the breakfast menu in 2004.

25 unprofitable stores were closed in 2006 and the company began to refurbish its outlets. The rise of coffee chains such as Starbucks and Costa had made outlets seem dated: new furniture, subdued lighting and wifi were introduced. That year Steve Easterbrook was appointed as CEO of McDonald’s UK.

McDonald’s converted its delivery lorries to run entirely on biodiesel made from oil discarded from restaurant fryers from 2007.

New stores were opened for the first time in six years in 2008, and a regional pricing system was introduced. This followed a decision to allow franchisees more flexibility in setting prices.

The changes worked: sales rose by ten percent in 2008. 80 percent of all British families visited McDonald’s at least once a year by 2009.

Deli wraps were introduced as permanent menu items from 2011.

A testament to his success, Steve Easterbrook was appointed CEO of McDonald’s Corporation in Illinois, Chicago from 2015.

The British operation serves three million people every day, and over the course of a year, 90 percent of the British population visits a McDonald’s.

There were over 1,250 McDonald’s in Britain in 2015. Only Costa Coffee (1,830) and Greggs Bakery (1,670) had more food outlets. McDonald’s UK had a turnover of just under £1.5 billion in 2013. This was higher than Costa’s total worldwide sales, and was nearly double the Greggs turnover of £760 million.