Tate & Lyle
Carst and Walker

Zapping two greasy fingers at the recession

It’s cheap. It’s tasty. It’s full of fat. Junk food is back on the menu – but what’s really behind the craving for burgers, deep fried chicken and French fries? The UK Independent’s Simon Usborne went investigating.

As our pockets empty, we’re looking for cheaper ways to fill our stomachs. And as the stresses of working in a downsized economy build, more of us are supersizing our meals at places like McDonald’s. We know it’s a short cut to obesity, heart disease and type two diabetes, but we also know that, as well as being easy on the wallet, a portion of nuggets might make us feel a bit better, too.

Both Super Size Me (2004) in which the film-maker Morgan Spurlock tried a month-long “McDiet”, and Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation (2001), an exposé of what the burger-and-fries regime had done to cows, children and waistlines in America, changed the way we looked at junk food. At the same time, prosperity brought alternatives in the form of fresher, healthier, organic and ethically-sourced food. But the new diet was also more expensive. Now, an industry that looked like becoming a deep-fried anachronism is enjoying a remarkable reversal in fortunes.

This year, McDonald’s plans to open 1,000 new restaurants, including up to 20 in the UK. The chain will also create 4,000 British jobs and plough ahead with its nationwide refurbishment of stores, investing £37m this year in Arne Jacobsen-style chairs and black wall-panelling. It’s a similar story at KFC, which recently unveiled a £150m expansion plan that will see the chain open up to 300 outlets in the next three to five years, creating 9,000 jobs. Meanwhile, Domino’s Pizza has reported an “exceptional” start to 2009, beating profit predictions by 25% and announcing 50 new outlets and 1,500 new jobs for this year.

But if there is one chain that stands out in the recession-bucking fast-food resurgence, it’s Subway. This American sandwich company’s stealthy proliferation on the high street has taken many by surprise. It took McDonald’s 35 years to open its 1,260 outlets in the UK and Ireland; Subway reached that figure late last year after just 12 years in Britain. Via more than 1,400 outlets, Subway now serves two million customers a week (up from 35,000 five years ago) and opens five new outlets a week (new locations last month included Torquay, Chelmsford, Birmingham and Rushden).

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