Tag Archives: Fast food development

Fast food development – Iran

If it were the prevalence of fast food generally that we were recording then Iran would up there with the best of them. There are plenty of places selling sandwiches with felafel or inedible sausage, and a few stretch to pizza with inedible sausage too. But our project is about the development of Western fast food brands, and on that basis Iran is very different.

Note: not a real KFC.
Note: not a real KFC.

There are no Western fast food brands. None. I saw a sign that said KFC once, but it was just a sandwich shop masquerading as diversified. In fact, Iran almost has less than the few other countries that we have categories as stage 1 (no Western fast food brands) because other Western convenience products are relatively hard to come by too. There is Coke and Pepsi, bottled locally, but it competes on a even footing with Iran’s own soft drink brands. You can’t reliably find a Mars bar at a corner store.

But back to the central question, we’re approaching the time in our travels when we will aggregate the fast food development ratings and mash them up a bit with other indicators of country development. Without looking at the numbers Iran is looking like a serious outlier. It is much richer than its fast food development implies. Or its literacy or child mortality rates.

It is simply politics that stops you getting a Big Mac in Bandar Abbas.

Fast food development – United Arab Emirates

The UAE is very easy to categorise in terms of our fast food development scale. Western fast food brands are everywhere. In a big mall today I noticed a McDonalds ‘East’ and ‘West’ listed on the noticeboard. That meant the mall had more McDonalds than bookstores. There’s also all the other big international brands and a surprising number of Burger Fuel Joints. New Zealand burgers taking over the world.

Fast food isn’t cheap compared to, say, Pakistan, but nothing is super cheap in the UAE. You’re probably looking at prices about the same as New Zealand. There are probably cheaper options to serve the large population of foreign labourers, although their employers provide most of those meals. But overall Western fast food brands are certainly among the cheapest on offer. So, that’s a stage four for the UAE.

Fast food development: Pakistan

We didn’t see a single McDonald’s between Zhengzhou in China and Lahore in Pakistan and we traveled more than 5,000km in between. That’s partly explained by the seemingly greater love for KFC in these parts of the world, but more so by the under development of Western fast food brands.

And then there it was, off the six lane highway between Islamabad and Lahore: the golden arches. So, Pakistan can’t be a stage one as it has some Western fast food brands. In fact, spending more time in Lahore, the country’s second largest city, we’ve seen a handful of McDs, KFCs and even Subway (no Starbucks though, much to Fiona’s chagrin). Still, the fact that there is none of that outside the biggest of cities puts Pakistan squarely in Stage 2: Western fast food is available in major cities (or tourist traps) but is prohibitively expensive for all but the richest.

As for prohibitively expensive, the concentration of fast food outlets in the parts of Lahore where not every woman is wearing a headscarf is instructive. Fast food cuisine is only really accessible to the richer, more cosmopolitan Pakistani. That’s not because, by our standards at least, the food is expensive. You can get yourself a decent looking spicy chicken burger and a drink for less than $2NZD. But Pakistan is dirt poor. Its PPP per capita s a shade over $3,000USD/year. That’s less than India, right next to Papua New Guinea, and just a little higher than the point in the list where almost everything becomes sub-Saharan African. It is the poorest place we have been on our travels this year. We estimate that travel here is about five times cheaper than at home.

Fast food development: Kyrgyzstan

When tracking the infiltration of Western fast food brands it doesn’t get any easier than this. Not only have we seen no KFC, McDonald’s etc., outside the capital Bishkek we haven’t even seen non-franchised Western fast food on menus. No hot dogs. No hamburgers. Barely a french fry in sight.

That makes Kyrgyzstan an easy Stage 1 (no Western fast food brands) and the first one we have come across at that.

Fast food development: China


We could hardly leave China behind without completing our assessment of its fast food development.

Big cities have a reasonable number of western fast food outlets, especially in the richer areas. In Zhengzhou, featured in the photo above, we noted six separate KFCs in the square out the railway station. In fact, KFC seems to be the fast food of choice. It’s telling that McDonald’s also offers fried chicken in a kind of can’t-beat-them-join-them sort of way.

We confess to having sampled some k-fry, once when famished on our return from the Great Wall. Once when sort of lost in a train station. We can recommend the sichuan style burger and the prices. You’re looking at about $4NZD for a combo. That’s certainly not the cheapest meal available, but it’s cheaper than a flat white at the Shanghai branch of fuel. Other western brands are priced similarly.

There are no western fast food brands in small town or rural China. None. And by small town we mead small town in a Chinese sense, say, cities under a million people. That, combined with the pricing leads us to conclude that China is a stage 3: 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).


Fast food development: Hong Kong

Our project to assess country by fast food development moves to Asia and the first categorisation is a slam dunk. Hong Kong is a stage four: Western fast food is ubiquitous and amongst the cheapest meal you can buy.

We’ve talked about the second cuisines that countries have. In Hong Kong, the second cuisine could be Thai, or it could be McDonalds. Not even really Western, just McDonalds. They’re everywhere and pretty much to the exclusion of other Western fast food. At .257 McDonalds per 10,000 people, Hong Kong even ranks in the top ten most McDonalds per capita in the world, higher than the United Kingdom, Germany and France. New Zealand ranks too, it’s second only to the United States.

A bowl of noodle soup here from a hole in the wall is pretty cheap here, and Western food generally isn’t. So we wondered if, even though McDonalds is ubiquitous, it might be too expensive to be a stage four. But, no. You can get a combo for about three New Zealand dollars here. That’s super cheap and on par with the more traditional cuisine hawked in markets.

Fast food development: Argentina and its kosher McDonalds

When completing important background research for our ongoing project to categorise countries by their Western fast food development I came upon an interesting fact: Buenos Aires is the only city in the world outside Israel to have a kosher McDonalds.

Visiting became a small fixation for me, rated higher than the fine arts museum on our sight seeing list. I wanted a Big Mac that would come without cheese, to see how the deserts menu would shape up without dairy (is there really milk in a sundae, anyway?) and to taste a burger patty that, for reasons of Jewish law passing my understanding, is cooked on charcoal rather than with gas.

The truth is, kosher McDonald’s is meant for the Jewish community here, and not for me. I know this now because, if I were Jewish, I would never have sought out the Kosher McDonalds on the sabbath, when it would be obviously closed and I would be left having struggled with subway directions and a labyrinthine food court only to find a roller door between me and a kosher happy meal.


The Argentine Jewish community is the largest in Latin America and the seventh largest in the world. Settlement began when Jews were expelled from Spain in the sixteenth century and there have been several waves of immigrants fleeing persecution since. After fleeing Argentina when they became persecuted under the junta here in the 1970s and 80s, the population is now down under 200,000.

More McDonalds than anywhere else we’ve been

Though it severely dampened by spirits and forced me to sample yet another cut of beef instead, the presence of a kosher McDonalds says something about fast food development here. If you have a McDonald’s that caterers specifically to a relatively small population group it must be pretty darn popular. And indeed so it seems to be. In Buenos Aires at least, the concentration of McDonalds is waaay more than anywhere else we’ve been. In the same mall of our kosher misadventure there were at least two other McDonald’s.

The pricing seems to be accessible to ordinary portenos. With our black market exchange it’s very cheap – a combo for $3 – 4USD – and even without it seems comparable to home, though more expensive than a slice or two of cheese pizza.

This leads us to the conclusion that, like men carrying babies, well organised rubbish connection and hot water in public bathrooms, in fast food terms, Buenos Aires feels more like home than anywhere else we’ve been. That means it is the first stage four we’ve encountered: Western fast food is ubiquitous and amongst the cheapest meal you can buy.

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.

Fast food development: Peru


Tell me this isn’t the fanciest K-fry you’ve ever seen. That’s what makes the Peruvian installment of our fast food development categorisation such a slam dunk.

We’ve seen no Western fast food outside city and tourist centres, and when it is there it is super flash. The above example is from Cusco’s main square. We saw similar in Arequipa and Lima. None we’ve seen have had conventional branding.

On the pricing front, Fiona’s Starbucks latte this afternoon cost twice the price of her two course set menu lunch (but it is her birthday week, after all).

The conclusion is simple – Peru joins Colombia and Ecuador as a stage 2: Western fast food is available in major cities (or tourist traps) but is prohibitively expensive for all but the richest.

Here’s hoping Bolivia or Argentina can mix it up a bit for us.

Fast food development: Ecuador and McDonaldization

It’s time for the next installment of our project to track the fast food development of all the countries we’ve visited as a tongue in cheek proxy for their overall development. If you’re not familiar with our categorisation, you can find it here.

Ecuador is a pretty easy case. There are Western fast food brands here – we’ve seen McDonlad’s, KFC, Burger King, Subway – so it’s at least a stage two. But there aren’t many franchises. We’ve seen them only in Quito, the largest, and most cosmopolitan city, and in Cuenca which has a significant population of US retirees. Nothing anywhere else we’ve been including tourist centres and towns of more than 100,000 people.

And where it is available, Western branded fast food is really expensive. Victims of an inexplicable public transit system in Quito we found ourselves seeking shelter under the golden arches from an impending rain storm. The lunch we ate there was maybe three times as expensive as a set meal in a local restaurant. And the clientele was mostly foreign, or at least very European looking Ecuadorians.

The conclusion is clear. Ecuador is stage 2: Western fast food is available in major cities (or tourist traps) but is prohibitively expensive for all but the richest.


McDonalization is a term developed and used by a psychologist called George Ritzer. He uses it to talk about societies that develop characteristics that are also seen in fast food chains: efficiency, calculability, predictability and control.

One example of McDonalization that Ritzer uses is of a certain style of journalism that’s served up in bite sized pieces, with predictable narratives and general inoffensiveness. On that front, at least, there doesn’t seem to be a correlation with the fast food development we’ve observed. That kind of ‘junk food journalism’ is very much alive and well in Colombian and Ecuadorian tabloids.

But you can see his more general point, and we could probably think of other examples. More developed societies tend to feel more efficient and more rational. There’s certainly a stronger sense of control and order. And the less developed have that enigmatic sense of functional chaos that’s the polar opposite of a McDonald’s drive through system.