As a UK resident who’s had about 15 visits to the US in the last few decades, I’ve considered eating at US fast food chains but only really when forced to, or they don’t exist in the UK (*), so I don’t have a lot of comparisons. I’d never really considered the chances that they might be different. MacDonalds seemed as bad as the UK one when I forced to eat one on late Christmas Eve in Vegas because nothing else was open at 1am. I skipped the Taco Bell (which I didn’t really see much in the centre of cities in the US) to go to a good burger place in SF. In and out in SF also had a big queue so they got skipped, but I can’t imagine they’d be that good.
Anyway, Wendys don’t really exist in the UK. If you’ve found one that’s changed, I think they pulled from London in mid 90s. Pretty much everything comes with fries and I do find it surprising to find that KFCs in the US don’t (though less surprised that Taco Bell doesn’t, makes sense and its a new chain, so not been selling fries for decades). BK really came in the back of buying out the excellent but unfashionable Wimpy chain in the early 90s. But apart from the deluge of Subways about 2000, there wasn’t much in the way of US chains which penerated the country for a while.
There was a Quiznos in Birmingham about a decade ago, but it went bust. So it has been hit and miss, and I think if you’re coming into the UK, you have to do it big otherwise nobody really notices.
Dunkin Donuts is another corpse at the side of the road in failed UK expansions, so its a tough business to crack. Brits don’t really normally eat that much doughnuts (our spelling), it might have helped if they’d marketed the coffee better (I believe that DD was the US’s biggest coffee seller), and got that spot pre starbucks (it was the 90s), but that didn’t happen.
Even franchises which have thrived before, have faded. Burger King has become mostly something you buy at a railways station or a motorway service station. I guess the battle was which toys to sell to your children rather than burger quality in the end.
Tim Hortons does appear to be quite wipespread now, more as a chain at out of town cinema complexes (there tends to be a few similar chains over here which are probably owned by the cinemas, Chiquitos, Frankie and Bennies, Ask Italian, Prezzo, I think Tim Hortons sits in with these). We went to one in Vancouver, BC and it struck me as “I guess Dunkin Doughnuts didn’t make it here because of Tim Hortons”, had a cup of coffee and that was that. They are probably riding the back of the successful overpriced doughnuts of Krispy Kreme, which niched into small franchises in stores like Debenhams. Whatever, if you want to pay three quid for a doughnut, go ahead, its not for me. Five Guys seems to have worked quite well, with quite a few around, in the overpriced burger market, but I believe their fries are supposed to be vile, I don’t buy fries normally, so someone has to explain this to poor brits who are eating them and thinking “this is supposed to be good?”
Taco Bell has made inroads much faster in recent times, though I can say there is probably not one within fifty miles of me in the blackspot of West Midlands. I did go out of my way to have one in Nottingham, one of the early ones which opened, and now I might consider eating them in the US… No. No, I won’t. I came out of the Nottingham one with the thoughts “could they actually make that worse?”. So even if they make it three times better, it would still be bad. I guess my bar was too high, based on US mexican food which I’d had which was universally excellent, and I had forgotten about Del Taco once, but even at that, those weren’t THAT bad.
The UK has it’s own quirks (such as the ones which are near cinemas) and chains (Nandos, Pret, Costa) and differences (Indian food is widespread, there are even some chains), and I don’t think it has quite the tastes for fifteen different burger chains, like in the US, so I think you might get one main type of food succeeding but not the variation.
Quality and consistency, even at that, can fail too. My last KFC was so bad, and cold, that I’ve never been back. Burger King was good once, often its dry and thin burgers now, overcooked. Taco Bell. Well, it seems it is worse. Mexican food is pretty awful in the UK, and yes, Burritos tend to be overpriced rice stuffed wraps, mostly. So perhaps its catering to a taste for the type of people who don’t like that food. Perhaps the culinary slate is wiped clean when you enter a new market.
(*) I’ve only ever sought out a fast food chain in the US. And I guess that was because I walked past it in New York, a lot of chains are somewhere you need a car to get to. It was White Castle. I really didn’t get the fact it was stoner food. I apologised to my o/h for years whenever that name is mentioned. It was also full of drunks and homeless people. About 5pm on a Friday. Yes, it was because of Harold and Kumar, but I didn’t make the connection (Harold and Kumar go to White Castle was called …get the Munchies in the UK). (**)
(**) Taco Bell was on my list because I watched a rental version of Demolition Man in the UK when it came out. It referred to Taco Bell which sounded like actual mexican food at the time (I’d not been to the US). Later versions of the film substituted KFC for Taco Bell.