Culinary Colonisation

By Sonya Rehman

“I remember the day McDonald’s was launched in Lahore,” Adnan Ahmed a student at National College of Arts says. “It was utter chaos…people had driven in from Rawalpindi and Islamabad and were ordering burgers by the dozen to take back. It was insane.”

That was 1998, when the famous, mammoth-sized, bright yellow, McDonald’s ‘M’ insignia perched itself on a commercial road –Main Boulevard – in Gulberg, Lahore.
Fast forward ten years later, and the M’s have mushroomed.
McDonald’s franchises spread, and continued to multiply. But they’re not the only ones to have cashed in on Pakistani appetites.

Numerous other fast-food multinationals have managed to snake their way into the local food industry, some before, and others after the aforementioned big M. Pizza Hut, KFC, Subway, Costa Coffee, Dunkin’ Donuts, Nandos, Mr. Cod and Gloria Jeans all, it seems, are here to stay.

This (relatively recent) tsunami of culinary invasion that is now surely here to stay has affected the business of local fast food outlets over the last many years. This has led to healthy changes as well as negative ones.

For one, “the food business in Pakistan has become a lucrative profession”, states Asim Hussain, the Regional Head for KFC North, in Pakistan. “When foreign fast-food chains opened up within the country, they established a strong foothold – this resulted in the expansion of local players which either took to copying the foreign brands, improving their own production, or simply shipping out.”

Hussain was right. With the introduction of international fast-food brands into the local market, the quality bar was raised, resulting in local fast-food joints pulling their socks up, or simply shutting down.
“International fast-food restaurants in Pakistan function primarily as global players with an international presence. And I believe they raised the quality bar, rather than squashing local competition,” Hussain went on to say.
Raza Ali, a Senior Manager of Marketing for McDonald’s in Lahore seemed to concur with this very notion: “McDonald’s and KFC introduced fast food to Pakistan and over time, you must have noticed, the mushrooming of local fried chicken restaurants increased rapidly. These very local fast-food outlets contributed towards the industry for fast food (within the country), rather than chipping away at our market share.”

Interestingly, both Hussain and Ali stressed upon the fact that with the arrival of foreign fast-food chains in Pakistan, the Chinese and continental restaurants remained unhindered.
“Nothing happened to the Chinese restaurants – instead, the local players made it big by improving their quality, while those who could not sustain by bringing themselves up to a certain level, shipped out”, Hussain explained before proceeding, “And by all means, these foreign restaurants have created employment – because it’s not about creatively destroying the market, it’s about creatively constructing it!” So true.

And with regard to foreign fast-food brands ‘raising the quality bar’, some local competitors took to copying/echoing the international brand names and products. One such popular example is AFC (Al-Najam Fried Chicken) – which boasts of a preponderance of avid consumers.

Having studied at an American university in Texas for over a year, Najeeb Hameed, a fast-food aficionado believes that foreign fast-food chains in his home country provide consumers with a lot more choice. “Think about it”, he says enthusiastically, “before McDonald’s, Pizza Hut or Subway, the quality of local fast-food was nothing great. Ever since these international heavy-weights popped in, look at restaurants such as AFC, Pizza Time and other local restaurants which set up at the drop of a hat. It was instantaneous. In fact, AFC’s standard is so good, that one can hardly make out the difference between AFC and KFC!”

International fast-food brands entering local markets can be credited with raising the bar – after all, healthy competition isn’t a bad thing. It continuously increases the quality benchmark, followed by a fervent need to rise higher, get better and sustain a sizeable market share.

Yet, some Pakistani’s beg to differ. With the influx of foreign multinational competition, how does one’s own industry better itself? Sana Waheed, a young mother of two toddlers (aged three and five), states: “As far as I’m concerned, I’m content with local fast-food. But my children love McDonald’s principally because their Happy Meals come with little toys, and the fact that the branches provide a ‘play area’ for kids. As a mother, and as a Pakistani, I feel a terrible sense of resentment towards these foreign fast-food joints because of the whole ‘fast food culture’ that it has brought with it.”
Perhaps Waheed has a point. While the milkshakes get bigger, the chicken greasier, the pizza cheesier, there seems to be a “globo-claustrophobia” taking place in Pakistan, amidst this entire “age of the brandasaurus” (both terms coined by Naomi Klein in her 2000-published book, No Logo).

But do international fast-food franchises bring a variety of consumer choice? They sure do. And with the local fast-food eateries cropping up just as rapidly (whether they sustain long enough is another thing), local consumers are able to enjoy cheaper substitutes.

Nevertheless, Waheed’s sentiments are unwavering: “The drive-through pick-ups, the home deliveries, the “all you can eat” schemes and the whole atmosphere leads you feeling rushed. Locally we have some great fast-food eateries such as Chatkhara, Ginos, Copper Kettle, Salt & Pepper, Papasallis, and numerous more which are all flourishing businesses. Why then do we need the Subways and McDonalds?”
While Waheed may be right in some ways, the local food industry seems to stand unfazed with regard to the aggressive, foreign competition.

In some cases, this is because they are not competing in the same league. Take Kings & Queens Pizza, for instance, with over ten branches all over Pakistan, Ishaq Zafar – the local pizza chain’s owner – confidently states: “When Pizza Hut came to Pakistan, the elite – who we catered to – made a shift from our restaurants to Pizza Hut. But Kings & Queens Pizza, at the end of the day, caters mainly to the middle classes. We wouldn’t be able to make Kings & Queens a ‘Pizza Hut type of restaurant’ because we wouldn’t be able to invest so much. The problem restaurants like mine are facing isn’t foreign chains, rather it is little pizza parlours situated in nooks and crannies all over the city. These restaurants compromise on quality, they sell cheaper, and a lot of people who aren’t quality-conscious go there.”

Similarly, Muhammad Naeem – an Assistant Manager at Gino’s Pizza – echoed Zafar’s take on the subject as well: “Gino’s has been around for a little over eighteen years – and therefore we have an established name. Even though we have only two branches in Lahore (one in Gulberg and the other in Defence) – we don’t suffer in sales with Pizza Hut in the picture at all”.

While this entire “trend” of multinational food chains coming to Pakistan may be a good thing – as far as competition and the augmentation of consumer choice is concerned, the downside to it is that it creates an insatiable desire amongst a social strata that cannot afford to indulge in it. In addition, the desire may go beyond, becoming the ‘want’ to associate oneself with Western culture.

Vocalizing this very notion, Shaista Khan, a housewife states: “If I could afford it, I’d eat at Pizza Hut every weekend, but the point is, I can’t.  But on birthdays, special occasions and even Eid, my family and I make it a point to eat out at Pizza Hut. For families like ours, eating at Pizza Hut, McDonalds, or KFC is a luxury, one we can indulge in every once in a while.”

But coming back to local fast-food outlets being affected by foreign counterparts, a majority of the former remains undeterred by the threat of competition that the latter poses.

“There have been, and still are, local fast-food outlets which have maintained steady and consistent quality, year after year at affordable prices”, states Geethi Aziz, a professional who has worked in advertising for over two decades. Aziz proceeds to say: “There’s Silver Spoon’s with their paratha rolls in Karachi, Hanifiya’s immensely popular burgers, and the aromatic Student Biryani.”

Fast food of the desi variety, indeed. But perhaps not for those who hunger for foreign fare and want to chomp down the brand name as well!
But then again, with every new scheme offered by multinational heavyweights, one can only guess that local fast-food restaurants undergo losses, whether short-lived or otherwise.

And while the vast number of international fast-food franchises in the country have brought with them many job opportunities, it perhaps isn’t as black and white as it appears to be. This is because the biggest con that fast-food brands – with a national presence – bring along with them is humongous advertising budgets that give them a rather unfair edge over any other local fast-food restaurant.

From massive billboards dotting (and many a times hindering) the cityscape, to professionally executed television commercials- international fast-food chains (in Pakistan) comfortably spill out the dough on marketing.

 

The fast food and quick service industry truly is a rewarding business in Pakistan, but with the predominance of foreign fast food chains seeping into the local market, it brings with it a mechanical culture, quite unfamiliar from our own.
Cultural growth in the long-run remains hindered, and from a sociological perspective, the local youth does wind up suffering – because Western food and culture (which go hand in hand) seems so much more ‘cooler’ than one’s own. That’s the power of advertising, and simultaneously, globalization.
It all boils down to an excess of yellow M’s, bespectacled Colonel Harland Sanders, and blazing red hut insignias. It really is as simple as that.

Yet, on the other hand, you have your ‘down-the-corner’, local, variety of quick-bite options battling it out too.
And for now, there seems to be some kind of peaceful co-existence between foreign fast-food heavy-weights and the local joints.

But when international fast-food – targeted at the masses – comes to town, that’s when our local industry ought to be worried. Really worried.

The Friday Times

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