American fast food, despite its popularity, has earned a less than stellar reputation around the world. The latest to point out the cuisine’s shortcomings is the founder of London-based sandwich chain Pret A Manger, Julian Metcalfe, who’s nonetheless eager to court American palates.
“It says a lot about Britain that in many areas—in music, food, theatre, and cinema—we are so brilliant, so ahead. We eat far better than they do in America,” Metcalfe told the Daily Mail. “Somebody has to give the American fast-food giants a run for their money.” Metcalfe’s Pret now has about 335 restaurants and is the U.K.’s 13th-biggest restaurant chain by sales, according to researcher Technomic. It has just 60 shops in the U.S., and Metcalfe is preparing to open more. He’s also considering bringing his Asian restaurant Itsu to New York City and California as early as 2016.
In an e-mail to Bloomberg Businessweek, Metcalfe said his friends and peers in the U.S. are frustrated by the lack of choice and the dominance of a small number of chains. “There are areas of America that are streets ahead of the U.K. with regards to healthy eating habits, such as New York and California, but the figures speak for themselves when we look at accumulative obesity statistics for the whole country,” he wrote. “The U.S. eats the most fatty fast food in the world.”
Grass-fed beef, sustainably caught seafood, and cage-free eggs are more common in British restaurants, and Pret uses preservative-free ingredients. Still, its offerings aren’t exactly health food. The chicken Caesar and bacon baguette has 584 calories and 25 grams of fat, about the same as McDonald’s Bacon Clubhouse Grilled Chicken sandwich. At 381 calories, Pret’s chocolate chunk cookie is roughly equivalent to one-and-a-half Snickers bars.
“I would not consider British restaurants to be any better or worse than what we have here in America,” Darren Tristano, executive vice president of restaurant researcher Technomic, writes in an e-mail. “Overall, both countries’ consumers eat unhealthy and indulgent foods.”
Metcalf says generally speaking the main issue in the U.S. is portion control. “The problem in America is that people eat large portions of extremely rich foods.” Here he stands on higher ground: Pret’s menu will soundly disappoint anyone craving a triple-decker burger or a 32-ounce milkshake.