The brand, best known for its charbroiled burgers, is actively seeking companies to invest in franchises to open its first restaurants on UK soil.
Founded in 1941, Carl’s Jr. is one of the most popular QSR chains in the world with more than 1,000 restaurants in 28 markets worldwide. The company already has a presence in Europe, with 79 restaurants across France, Denmark, Spain, Turkey and Russia and has just signed a 300-restaurant deal in Russia and is now targeting the UK as well as Germany for further expansion.
“We are looking for a master franchisee in the UK to partner with,” says Tim Lowther, Carl’s Jr. general manager for Europe and Russia. “The model across Europe is that we work on master franchising and we see the UK as a huge opportunity to work with an ambitious partner.”
“We have over 80 years of experience in the US but in Europe we’re a relative newcomer. We will listen to what’s needed in each market and adapt ourselves accordingly.”
Location, location, location
The company is yet to make a decision on where its first restaurant might be and whether it will follow in the footsteps of US burger imports Five Guys and Shake Shack, which debuted with flagship London venues, or take the approach favoured by brands such as Canadian player Tim Hortons - which debuted in Glasgow - and Wendy’s and Chik-fil-A and look beyond the capital for their first sites (both brands chose Reading for their launch location).
“We’ll go where there is demand and where the brad resonates,” says Lowther. “Making a big splash in the centre of London might be good for awareness but we need to make sure it’s sustainable. We don’t want to do what a number of brands have done and come into central London and open a great big flagship restaurant, spend a few million on building it and then close it down 18 months later.”
“People in the UK don’t know who
Carls Jr. is at the moment,
but they certainly will”
“Now we are identifying locations and markets that perhaps we wouldn’t have looked at before the pandemic - there are wider opportunities that just didn’t exist before the pandemic came up. Central London is somewhere we would like to be, but we need to be sensible about how we grow.”
The company has taken an out-of-town approach in some of its plays into Europe. Its debut site in France was a drive thru in La Garde, located on the outskirts of Toulon, which Lowther says is “arguably in the middle of nowhere” but which is in the top 10% of total sales for the global business. It wasn’t until site number three that it opened in Paris.
The US burger invasion
Carl’s Jr is one of a number of US fast food giants that have recently announced their intention to have a presence in the UK market. Burger chain Wendy’s plans to open up to 400 restaurants in the UK sites following the opening of restaurants in Reading and Stratford earlier this year. The company will now open restaurants in Croydon and Oxford before expanding further.
US fried chicken chain Popeyes will launch its first restaurant over here - also in Stratford – as part of its plans to open around 350 sites across the UK over the next 10 years.
Lowther believes there is space in the UK market for Carl’s Jr to have a significant presence despite the casual dining burger sector being relatively crowded.
“Opening one or two restaurants
is not a successful launch for us"
“When you look at the UK market there are many burger players but when you drill down and look at the QSR sector there’s only a couple of players in that space. We are an established brand that we believe resonates with our consumers. QSR burger players are still fairly underrepresented [in the UK].
Carl’s Jr sits in what Lowther calls the ‘QSR plus’ sector and says menu prices will be comparable or slightly above existing brands – most notably Burger King and McDonald’s.
The timing is right
Carl’s Jr joins Wendy’s and Popeyes in wanting to make a mark on the UK market, as well as Chick-fil-A, which has since aborted its UK ambitions and closed its two restaurants following protests over its opposition to same-sex marriage. For QSR brands, the UK is seen as fertile ground.
“The UK is a natural progression for us, we’ve got all the bricks in place now,” says Lowther. “It is not a stepping stone to move into Europe, we’re already here. We have the supply chain in place to continue our growth.
“The pandemic has been a challenge for all of us but being in the QSR sector has probably benefited us. We have been in the right place at the right time; the UK offers the perfect opportunity to grow further.”
While Lowther won’t be drawn on how many sites Carl’s Jr could open over here, the company has no intention of opening just a handful of restaurants.
“Opening one or two restaurants is not a successful launch for us. The market has room for significant numbers of the brands. That what makes it worthwhile for a master fanchisee.
“Carl’s has huge ambitions. We have doubled our international footprint in the last six years up to 1,000 restaurants internationally and plan on doubling it again in next five years. So far, we are on target to do that.
“People in the UK don’t know who Carl's Jr. is at the moment, but they certainly will.”