Out of the 1,094 Nando’s in the world, a third are in the UK and British icons as disparate as Prince Harry and David Haye are fans. But how did a mediocre fried chicken chain make such a dent on British food?
“Mate it’s hard to explain mate it’s just like one day you’ll be wif your mates having a look in jd and you might fancy curry club at the ‘Spoons but your lad Calum who’s an absolute ledge and the archbishop of banterbury will be like ‘brevs lets have a cheeky nandos instead.’ and you’ll think ‘Top. Let’s smash it.'”
Tumblr is full of poetry, of course. But few things have inspired more uniquely British pisstakes than the explanation of the “cheeky Nando’s” meme to bewildered Americans.
Perhaps it’s the meat sweats brought on by eating a whole £12.95 chicken. Perhaps it’s the chili rush of the extra hot glaze as part of the No Bones (about it) Platter. Perhaps it’s a testosterone spike catalysed by a large serving of the self-proclaimed “macho” peas, but these stanzas of freeform banter poetry encapsulate precisely why Nando’s has become such a British phenomena.
It’s not just that of the 1,094 Nando’s in the world, nearly a third (339) are found in the UK. It’s not just that British icons as disparate as saffron-topped, breath-wailing teen favourite Ed Sheeran, golden-balled, _My Little Pony_-haired sports star David Beckham, and fist-fighting, former heavyweight champion David Haye, have all been given the much-coveted Nando’s Black Card. It’s not just that paramedics, police officers, firefighters, and NHS workers apparently get a 20 percent discount. It’s not even that Prince Harry was once spotted popping in to Nando’s on Fulham Broadway the night England qualified for the 2013 World Cup.
Of course, these have played their role. But just maybe what makes Nando’s such a triumphant import to the UK is simply the food.
Sitting in the Nando’s on Hackney’s Kingsland High Street on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, the first thing I—as a white, 31-year-old woman—notice is just how broad the range of customers in Nando’s is. To my left, a young Muslim couple chat over Churrasco Thigh Burgers and bottomless Fanta. A young mother, sandwiched between her barely-toddling daughter and ageing mother-in-law spoons dollops of mash into the mouths on either side of her large yellow plate. Office colleagues cluster around a large, shiny wooden table scrolling through phones between bites of PERi-salted chips and Spicy Rice. A group of what I assume are art students (that one of them has turquoise dyed eyebrows is the first giveaway) munch through sharing platters of chicken, corn on the cob (a tricky dish to share, I’ve always thought) sweet potato mash, and chips while adopting a highly studied give-a-fuck expression.
In every case, Nando’s can provide food to suit a budget, dietary requirement, appetite, and taste. I, for my part, have invited my ex-boyfriend along for lunch. Back in 2005, he was the first person to ever take me to a Nando’s—it was a shared birthday chow-down with his best friend Bev and I was, to put it mildly, confused. Not because I didn’t know my way around a plate of chicken. But Nando’s, to my naive, 2005 eyes, inhabited a strange hinterland between fast food chain and actual waiter-menu-artfully-mismatched-chairs-paintings-on-the-wall restaurant. You went up to order, but the food was brought to you. You chose how spicy you wanted your dinner, but weren’t given a plate. I remember being amazed at the sheer economic transparency of a bottomless fizzy drink.
Which, of course, is one of the reasons it has proved so successful on the British food landscape. You can be as socially inept as Prince Harry and still get served in Nando’s. You can come in a huge group or all alone. You can be halal or vegetarian. You can be on a ten minute-break between shifts or looking to waste two hours before a train, and still eat in Nando’s.
This sort of leisure dining is now, of course, far more familiar, with chains like Wetherspoons, Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Pizza Express, Giraffe, and Red’s True BBQ all offering drunk food to sober customers (even holders of the infamous Nando’s Black Card are politely informed that this monochrome slip of free food doesn’t cover alcoholic drinks). But back in 2005 it seemed … well—new_._
Of course, fried chicken has long been a staple of the British high street. I once watched a patrol car pull up outside KFC in Hackney Central only for the officer to walk out a few seconds later, holding a “bucket” of fried goods and absolutely no paperwork. Hundreds of blue, white, and red palaces of nugget-form protein march across every town centre, under the near-identical signs of “Chicken Spot,” “Chicken Cottage,” “Chick N Grillz,” “Perfect Fried Chicken,” “Chicken Kebab Fish,” and “Chicken Hut.” Meanwhile, healthy alternatives like Tottenham’s Chicken Town are springing up, trying to hold back—King Cnut-like—the tide of childhood obesity with par-boiled, flash-fried, free range chicken and coconut rice. There is also the hip incarnation of fried chicken found in East London favourites like Rita’s or down south, Brixton’s CHICKENliquor or Lerryn’s Cafe Bar in Peckham.
To separate this wave of high-end fried chicken appreciation from the juggernaut of Nando’s is insane: where the South African red rooster clucked, the food entrepreneurs and fancy chefs followed. Nando’s is a marketing sensation as well as—if not above—a food favourite. Why else would we know that the chain has the biggest selection of South African art outside of Africa (more than Tate Britain’s total display)? Or that Beyoncé once totted up a £1,440 bill in the Chelmsford restaurant? Or that some guy called Christopher Poole spent over a grand trying to eat in every Nando’s on the planet in order to win a Black Card? This isn’t food appreciation—it’s marketing, pure and simple.
Back in Hackney, my ex and I are discussing sides. He, of course, wants to dip a chip into a bowl of mash. And rightly so. I am keen to try the Fino Coleslaw because, well, I’m just that kind of gal. As we sit, side by side, looking out across the PERi-PERi scatter of tables in front of us, we start trying to pinpoint what it is, exactly, that makes everyone in Nando’s feel at ease.
Is it the pleasingly regular intervals at which the palm trees have been placed? Is it the assurance that all chicken on the menu has been raised in an RSPCA-approved environment? Is it the fact that, whether you study the Bible, Quran, Torah, or Bhagavad Gita, you can still happily eat chicken? Is it that the high chairs and bottomless frozen yogurt remind everyone of those post-swimming pool children’s parties we enjoyed before booze and records got the better of us? Perhaps. Perhaps it is all of this.
I watch an old man in a zip-up, snowflake-patterned cardigan pour mango and lime sauce over his sweet potato wedges, chatting to his (I assume) granddaughter as the pale orange condiment swamps the plate. You can only imagine that, back in 1987 when South African entrepreneur Robert Brozin visited the Portuguese takeaway Chickenland and promptly bought the place for 80,000 Rand, this was precisely what he envisaged for the future: a family-friendly low-stress restaurant serving up just enough choice of just-familiar-enough dishes to get mass market appeal under the guise of individuality.
Which is a long way from the self-conscious, meme-generating descriptions of internet fame: “it’s like when you and the lads have just landed in heathrow after a week getting wankered in magaluf. Someone probably got ‘chris’ tattooed on their arse cheek cos chris is an absolute fuckin ledge. You ride the bantmobile all the way back into town for a cheeky nandos before everyone goes home so their mums can wash their #ladsontour shirts you all had made specially. Fuckin top notch.”
But what’s next for the crowing red rooster of the British high street? Can Nando’s really sustain its cheeky acclaim, while riding across the world like a PERi-PERi behemoth? With celebrity endorsement by the likes of Rihanna, Kanye, and Oprah Winfrey, there also comes a certain shelf-life of cool.
It is a fundamental part of the British psyche that, following a meteoric rise in popularity such as the one seen by Nando’s, there will come a fall from grace. Perhaps the perfectly manicured woman behind the counter who takes my order will become embroiled in a KFC-style health and safety bathing-in-the-sink scandal or the sheer number of Nando’s (there are 11 restaurants in Manchester alone) will reach the critical point of ubiquity and suffer a McDonald’s-style loss in profit and pulling power. Then there are the thousands of chickens bred in high-density sheds for the sake of all those chicken pitas—could this image finally puncture the image of the fun-loving red rooster?
Or perhaps, like a drop of PERi-PERi sauce on a wipe-clean laminated menu, any threat to Nando’s simply will not stick. They will continue to glaze, roast, and fry chickens in their thousands. They will hold fast on an ocean of bottomless Coke Zero and Naughty Natas custard tarts. They will keep expanding the menu with foodie favourites like quinoa salads, halloumi burgers, half avocados, and chicken livers until Wholefoods and Planet Organic crumble into dust.
Only time, of course, will tell. Time I personally am choosing to spend lying under the tap of a Nando’s bottomless frozen yogurt machine, in a pair of sports shorts and an adult nappy. Até logo, amigos.
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