FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — In Turkey, there’s home delivery and in Mexico, valet parking. In China, Whoppers come with spicy “mala” sauce and in South Korea, with sweet and sour “bulgogi” topping.
Burger King is finally getting serious about building a worldwide empire.
After decades of ownership changes and management shake-ups, the Miami-based restaurant chain is stabilizing as a stand-alone company with its stock traded on Wall Street. Now, its executive team feels steady enough to focus on lagging growth overseas, aiming to narrow the gap with McDonald’s Corp. and other rivals who boast a huge head start outside the U.S.
“If leadership keeps changing, it’s hard to take a strategy deep,” said James F. Hyatt, chief global operations officer from his Miami office. “It takes this continuity component to go international.”
Analysts say Burger King’s global expansion makes sense, since the U.S. market is so saturated with fast-food outlets. But they warn the company faces fierce competition abroad and will need to carefully adapt to local markets to prosper. Rivals have stumbled by failing to recognize, for example, that the restaurant is more of a mid-priced, family gathering spot — rather than inexpensive drive-through — in China and many other developing countries.
“You have to be successful the first time around. If you lose your business, you won’t get it back,” said Darren Tristano, a restaurant industry analyst at Technomic consultants of Chicago.
Heeding the warnings, Burger King executives say they aim to build slowly overseas, with a focus on regions where they have some presence and success — especially in Europe and Latin America. They figure it could take a decade or more to reach an even split between U.S. and foreign outlets.
That would still put the chain far behind larger McDonald’s, which already has most of its restaurants abroad. Indeed, McDonald’s rang up almost as much in Europe last year — $7.6 billion — as Burger King did in its core market in the United States. And McDonald’s ad budget globally far outstrips Burger King’s, too.
Burger King’s plan is to carefully research each overseas market and customize for it.
Executing the plan might have been easier years back, when competition was less intense and America’s image abroad less tarnished, analysts say.
For now, the company is focusing on “underpenetrated” markets where it has some presence and success, such as Latin America. The chain ranks tops in 15 of its 25 markets in the region, including Puerto Rico, where it entered long before McDonald’s.
1954: Started in Miami
1957: Whopper sandwich introduced.
1967: Sold to Pillsbury.
1974: “Have it your way” slogan launched.
1989: Grand Metropolitan buys Pillsbury.
1997: Grand Metropolitan merges with Pillsbury to form Diageo.
2002: Sold to private equity investors.
2006: Goes public on the New York Stock Exchange.
2007: More stock offered on Wall Street.