Big Macs and even bigger flops—American fast-food chains are languishing in Italy, and yet they keep coming

In ancient times, anyone hungry and far from home in Rome could stop by a thermopolium for a quick bite to eat. 

There, a cook would serve hungry passers-by sweet wine and hot stews and soups made of fava beans, cabbage, or onions with bits of pork, fish, snails, or beef. The meal was served out of deep terra-cotta jars. There were even reminders for pet owners to keep dogs on a leash while eating.  

Historians consider the thermopolium—which roughly translates to a place where hot meals are sold—as the forerunner to today’s fast-food restaurants.

Mostly feeding the lower classes, the thermopolae thrived on the Italian peninsula in one form or another until the medieval era, when, according to food historian Giancarlo Signore, they faded away. 

“After the decline of Rome, city centers emptied out, and the thermopolae couldn’t survive,” Signore told Fortune

Centuries later, many of the world’s biggest fast-food chains are finding it difficult to survive in Italy, a complex culinary market that features exquisite staples like pasta carbonara, lasagne, and saltimbocca and an emergent local street-food scene. 

The latest to try to crack the Italian market is the Virginia-based burgers-and-fries chain Five Guys. The $1.7 billion giant opened in Rome in October, and, in so doing, doubled its Italian footprint. Its first entry in the country was in Milan in 2018, a debut that earned a rough review from the Italian food blog Dissapore, which found the burger overcooked, the fries too salty, and the rest of the fixings “forgettable.” One bonus: You can order a beer with your meal.

Five Guys, one of the most famous American fast-food chains, opened in Milan in December 2018.
Mairo Cinquetti/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Italy’s restaurant sector is massive. According to the Italian Federation of Public Establishments, or FIPE, just before the start of the pandemic, there were more than 330,000 eateries of all types in Italy, doing nearly $100 billion in total revenue a year. FIPE doesn’t categorize its data by the type of establishment, but from a stroll around any town or city in Italy, it’s obvious that U.S. fast-food chains are a tiny sliver of that total.

Golden Arches sul Tevere

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the opening of Italy’s first McDonald’s, near the Spanish Steps in Rome. The chain is by far Italy’s largest fast-food import, with 615 locations nationally. But that is still fewer than the number of Micky D’s located elsewhere in Europe. 

The U.K., which has around the same population as Italy, has more than twice as many McDonald’s locations. And France, which has a similar population and a similar gastronomic tradition, has nearly 1,500 McDonald’s locations within its territory.

Whether directly owned or franchised—in Italy, both ownership formats exist, though licensees are more common—U.S. fast-food chains have had an unspectacular track record in penetrating the Italian market.

Burger King, for example, arrived in Italy in 1999, but still operates only 220 locations in a country of 60 million residents, enough to make it the second-largest American fast-food chain in the country. There are 50 KFC franchisees in Italy, 17 Subway locations, and 34 Domino’s pizza stores. Dunkin’ Donuts first opened shop in Italy in 1999. Its last location, near Rome’s Trevi Fountain, closed less than four years later.

Caffè Americano

Selling Italians on American-style glazed donuts, pizza, and hero sandwiches is by no means an easy prospect. Surely, though, selling coffee to a nation of caffé-mad consumers would pack better odds—or so figured the world’s biggest chain of coffeehouses, Starbucks.

Starbucks’ Howard Schultz has said he was inspired to retool the company after visiting Italy in 1983. Amid great fanfare three years ago, Starbucks opened its first Italian location in a stunning massive former post office building on Milan’s Piazza Cordusio (not long before Five Guys arrived in town). At that time, the company vowed to open 15 new locations per year, but today it operates just 15 locations nationally, a rollout plan that’s been hard-hit by the pandemic. 

In September, Starbucks and its sole licensing partner in Italy, the corporate retail giant Percassi, announced a more modest expansion plan that involves adding 26 new Starbucks locations across northern and central Italy by the end of 2023.

“The investment plan will create up to 300 new jobs over two years, reaffirming Starbucks’ long-term commitment to the Italian market,” Starbucks said in a statement supplied to Fortune, adding, “The formats and locations of these new stores will be carefully tailored to bring the best of the Starbucks Experience to life, ensuring that we continue to meet the evolving needs of our Italian customers.”

“Italians don’t embrace American fast food”

Figuring out the formula for Italian’s evolving needs has bedeviled many an American fast-food chain over the years. These outsiders don’t always arrive in the bel paese with the media glare that accompanied Starbucks’ landing in Milan, but they often carry big ambitions that seem to get downsized year after year as the market forces fail to line up with the business plan.

“There’s no single reason that can explain why, but it’s clear that despite decades of trying, and a great deal of money spent, Italians don’t embrace American fast food the way people in many other countries do,” says Marta Manzo, a Rome journalist who has researched fast-food trends and wears a necklace shaped like a slice of pizza.

Five Guys is taking the go-slow approach in Italy. Mario Laurenzana, managing director for Five Guys in Italy, told Fortune the company plans to open two more Milan locations just after the new year, and a total of 50 by 2026.

On a recent visit to the location in Rome’s main Termini train station at lunchtime, lines were long, and several customers said they were drawn in by curiosity. 

“I wanted to see what was different about this place compared to McDonald’s and Burger King,” said Antonella Di Moze, a 33-year-old shopkeeper who works nearby. The verdict? “Not bad, everything seems fresh,” she told Fortune, before adding she didn’t think she’d make a habit of eating there. “There are just so many other tasty options around.”

That is a common observation foodies and budget-strapped diners alike share. Big American chains are up against stiff competition in Italy. Neighborhood osterie, wood-burning-stove pizza joints, and even Italian versions of fast food are too good, and too ubiquitous, and more familiar. Case in point: The Five Guys menu in Rome was written in one language: English.

What the kiddies want

Signore, the food historian, said Italians were accustomed to fresh and healthy fare, adding that the foreign fast-food places felt “industrial” in comparison. The way the Italian media portray it, Italians admire Americans for cultural imports including music and film, but they look down on their faraway cousins when it comes to cuisine, making the chains a tough sell. For her part, journalist Manzo said the fast-food chains are mostly looked at as food for young people.

“You often hear that children beg their parents to take them to McDonald’s,” she said. “But when those children grow up they seem to grow out of it. They usually aren’t converted into adult customers.”

Stefano Polacchi, a managing editor for Gambero Rosso, Italy’s largest food and wine magazine, said he thought American chains would fare better in Italy if their products weren’t so sweet. 

“It’s not just that coffee and other drinks that are overly sweet, but also the bread and condiments,” Polacchi told Fortune. But, turning the tables, he suggested there were things Italian restaurateurs could learn from the Americans.

“I don’t understand why Italian restaurants choose to demonize the fast-food model rather than learn from it,” he said. “Yes, the food we make in Italy is usually better. But the use of technology and a higher degree of standardization we see in these American chains would definitely help many Italian restaurants.”

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