Fast food development: Bolivia killed McDonald’s

Regular readers will know of our project to track and categorise fast food development in the countries we visit as a proxy for overall development. Bolivia presents a challenging case.

McDonald’s has gone

Until 2002 Bolivia had McDonald’s – the very clarion of fast food development – and now it doesn’t. There’s three competing narratives about why the chain closed its eight franchises:

  1. Bolivians felt McDonald’s was unhealthy and shunned it. This is plainly implausible. Bolivia has some of the least healthy food we’ve seen. Anywhere. Witness not only the street stall hamburgers but the ubiquitous fried chicken, the egregious placement of icing sugar in unexpected places, and the general lack of fruit and vegetables.
  2. Bolivians just didn’t have a taste for McDonald’s. They like their hamburgers but they like them prepared lovingly by cholitas on the street. ‘Fast’ is an anathema to the way they think food should be produced. This might be closer to the mark. Just as in La Paz there are a lot more markets than supermarkets, it’s believable that people would choose their local seller over the big plastic American version.
  3. There was a dispute between local franchises and golden arches HQ. This isn’t much talked about. But you can imagine that might well have been the real catalyst for withdrawal. There’s also a lot of evidence that the government was pretty keen on promoting the other narratives, and that might have involved them making it hard for McD’s to operate. Current President Evo Morales had a rant about Western fast food at the UN. He’s also called coke the black blood of capitalism.

Interestingly, no one really talks about price. We had cause to visit Burger King once or twice when a rough bout of food poisoning has us suspicious of any food that wasn’t at least half plastic. It was super expensive, comparatively. A combo was about the cost of a whole meal in a nice restaurant. Oh, and Burger King you say? Yea, that kind of undermines the case that Bolivians don’t like fast food chains. Maybe they just think the burger are better at BK.

Bolivia almost defies categorisation

But where does all that leave us in terms of the all important categorisation? Morales would like us to say Bolivia is part of the mythical stage 5 – the country that has evolved beyond Western fast food. But Burger King’s presence defies that, as does our suspicion that if Bolivians were richer there’d be more choice in Western franchises.

It’d be easy to say that Bolivia is a stage two – like Peru, Ecuador and Colombia – that Western fast food is available in big cities but prohibitively expensive for all but the richest (and the stomach sick tourist). But that doesn’t reflect that, compared to its neighbours, Bolivia has less fast food, McDonald’s couldn’t make the market work, and it’s relatively more expensive.

So we’re going to break the mold a little here and call Bolivia a stage 1.5. It’s only got the scarcest representation of Western fast food brands. It might have been a 2 when McD’s was in town. But now, in terms of fast food development, it’s gone a little backwards.

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