The common perception is that Britain is a nation of fatties whose insatiable appetite for fast food is driving the rapid expansion of chains such as McDonald's (MCD) and Burger King (BKC) on the high street. But in terms of outlet numbers, the real growth story is actually with chains perceived to have a healthy eating image.
Among the UK's biggest fast-food chains, Subway grew its number of restaurants by 25.9 per cent to 734 in 2009, Domino's (DPZ) ramped up its outlets by 19.8 per cent to 260, and Eat expanded its estate by 17.8 per cent to 86, according to the Local Data Company's survey of 705 town centres. In the 10 biggest cities, fast-food outlets soared by 8.2 per cent to 1,456 premises, with London, Edinburgh and Glasgow leading the way.
Matthew Hopkinson, a director at the Local Data Company, said these chains had also been helped by the slump in commercial property prices and increased availability of sites during the recession.
"This increase has been massive: if you just look at the charge led by Eat, Pret a Manger, Eat, Domino's and Subway, they have been able to get sites on relatively cheap deals in centres that have high footfall of people looking for food on the go," he said.
But the store numbers of some of the sector's established chains are actually declining. For instance, McDonald's saw a slight decrease in its number of restaurants to 549 in 2009, and Burger King and Wimpy's outlet count fell by 8.3 per cent and 12.9 per cent respectively. Of the big, traditional fast-food chains, only KFC (YUM) grew its store numbers, up by 9.5 per cent to 347 in the 705 town centres.
Neil Black, a franchisee and development agent for Northern Ireland at Subway, said the chain, which operates a franchise model globally, was benefiting from a shift towards healthy eating. "Subway is obviously a product that appeals to people in terms of the nutritional aspect," he added. But Subway, which has 1,400 branches, has not been immune to the impact of fewer customers eating out during the recession. Mr. Black said: "[Trading] is not breaking any records but it is not causing us any problems. There has been trading down from restaurants to QSRs [quick service restaurants]."
While Subway's UK underlying sales growth has slowed in 2009, it is still in positive territory. According to the consultancy Allegra Strategies, the value of the informal eating-out market in the UK actually shrank by 0.5 per cent to £40.3bn in 2009.
Mr. Black believes that Subway – which last year overtook McDonald's to become the UK's biggest fast-food chain by outlet numbers – is still "hopeful" of hitting its target of 2,010 outlets on these shores by 2010, which was set in 2001. The typical UK franchisee has three stores.
Steve Gotham, project director at Allegra Strategies, said: "Subway is benefiting from a perception of healthiness, but also from the customisation aspect of what they do. They give it to you how you like it, and not many operators provide that level of customisation."
But Mr. Black, who runs eight franchised stores, said: "There are sandwiches for the indulgent, such as meatballs, which is not the healthiest, but students, in particular, love the meatball sandwich."
Mr. Hopkinson believes the healthy eating argument was too simplistic, adding that many chains, for example, sell sandwiches with a high calorie count and often "throw in a bottle of pop to help customers lose their teeth". He added: "People are often not as keen on the salads."
Mr. Hopkinson believes that convenience and demand for food-on-the go are more powerful forces than healthy eating, when explaining the growth in fast-food outlets on the high street. Mr. Hopkinson said that following the rapid growth over the past year, 10 per cent of the 250,000 outlets it tracks in 705 town centres were now a fast-food outlet or coffee shop. "You don't have to look far to fill your face," he explained.
Another opportunity presented by the recession has been in the commercial property market, although Subway believes the credit crunch has brought both advantages and disadvantages.
Mr. Black said: "Clearly, a lot of businesses have not survived and it has given us the opportunity to relocate to other sites and trade better."
But he said the "biggest issue" it had faced was a lack of lending by the banks to individuals who wanted to buy a franchise and run a Subway store. "The biggest negative has been the performance of the banks in terms of not lending to small businesses."
He added that it typically costs a new Subway franchisee about £100,000 to buy the franchise and set up an 800 square foot premises.
Of course, expansion for any chain is no guarantee of success. For instance, the mighty McDonald's has opened fewer than 10 restaurants this year so far in the UK and has spent the "vast majority" of its capital expenditure on refurbishing its existing restaurants.
It is thought that McDonald's UK's underlying sales grew by about 12 per cent in the three months to 30 September and its profits were broadly in line with this uplift, but the company declined to provide figures.
While McDonald's said last month that Britpms were still devouring its Big Mac meals, the fast-food juggernaut has also made wholesale changes to its menu over the past few years by adding healthier options.
Overall, it seems that Brtions have never had it so good in terms of food on their high streets, and few would disagree that there are now far more chains selling healthy options.
As Mr. Gotham said: "The move to healthy eating is one of the leading consumer megatrends in the market. Healthy eating is becoming more influential at home, but increasingly for out-of-home eating as well."