We’re not necessarily suggesting our categorisation should form part of the human development index. But neither is this completely tongue in cheek: the proliferation of Western fast food says something about a country’s political and global integration as well as wealth. Our project is in a similar spirit to the Economist’s Big Mac Index and the theory that no two countries with a McDonald’s franchise will ever go to war with each other.
We could have chosen something else – like how common it is for kids to have braces, or whether people run for exercise (rather than because something is chasing them). But fast food places are easy to observe and occasionally delicious.
The five stages of development
Our plan is to categorise each of the countries we visit into one of the Five Stages of Fast Food Development.
- There is no Western fast food available.
- Western fast food is available in major cities (or tourist traps) but is prohibitively expensive for all but the richest.
- Western fast food is available in most towns or cities and is an aspirational brand for the middle classes (with a price tag to match).
- Western fast food is ubiquitous and amongst the cheapest meal you can buy.
- Western fast food eating is available and cheap, but people don’t want it, and it eventually disappears…
We’ve developed this framework based on our travels to date. We’ve observed all but the fifth stage (which we hypothesise may be mythical). And we’ve seen the progression between stages when revisiting countries (Vietnam 2003 was Stage 1, 2007 was Stage 2).
A note on definition – the Jolibee factor
Some countries take Western fast food ideas and adapt them for their own purposes. The Philippine’s Jolibee is a burger chain with distinctive sweet sauces and buns. This is not okay from a culinary perspective nor, more importantly, as a data point for our assessment. What we’re looking for is Western chains themselves (McDonalds, Domino’s, Starbucks, Subway etc.) or local copies that work hard to be the same as Western counterparts. That’s our definition of Western fast food.
Questions and comments about our framework are very welcome, as are your suggestions for how countries you’ve visited fit on our scale.
So what of Colombia?
There’s Western fast food here but it isn’t common. We saw a reasonable number of McDonalds in Bogota (some only serving postres – dessert) and other brands in the affluent northern suburbs. There’s a McDs in Santa Marta too, but we saw none in between despite having visited several mid sized downs and cities and ridden on a lot of highway.
If there was any doubt of Stage on the basis of availability, it’s certainly confirmed by price. A fast food combo here is easily thrice the price of a set lunch meal at a local restaurant. And, in fact, the same combo costs more than a higher end sit down lunch. (Incidentally sushi is even more expensive again with enough for an individual lunch costing about $30NZD). So Western fast food must be prohibitively costly for all but the richest Colombians. The conclusion then: Colombia is definitely Stage 2.
What’s maybe more interesting is that you can pretty easily see a path to Stage 3. There are lots of places that serve more local variants of fast food, and do so more cheaply than the Western chains. It’s not quite Jolibee but it’s not BK either. Their burgers share a menu with other Colombian staples. The meals are less predictable and the music is more obtrusive. But you can see how these places might make room for Western franchises in the not too distant future. The taste isn’t dissimilar. It’s probably just the income that needs to increase before Western fast food becomes accessible to the middle classes, even just as an aspirational ‘sometimes food’ to borrow a cookie monster phrase.