INTERNATIONAL. Consumer boycotts in the Middle East of western fast food chains perceived to be linked with America, occurred in 2000 and in early 2002, early 2003 and have affected local sales. Such anti-Western or anti-globalisation sentiment flared up again with the March 2003 US attack on Iraq.
The General Secretary of Jordan’s main opposition party, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), urged the Jordanian people to replace US products with French and German goods. Though the boycotts hit fast food franchises in Egypt and other Arab countries hardest, they also undercut sales of soft drinks, especially Coca Cola, as well as a range of supermarket and imported pharmaceutical products in the region, industry sources say. Coke's sales dropped in early 2003 by 10% across the Middle East, falling even further in Bahrain, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. McDonald's sales declined by 7.5% in the Middle East/Asia Pacific during the boycott period (compared with a global decline of 4.7%). American fast-food business has remained down by around 40% in Saudi Arabia since September 2000. Fast-food outlets in Lebanon, Oman, Bahrain, Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia were physically attacked, all the countries that are officially neutral or friendly toward the US.
Palestine saw the launch of Hero Chips, which had a bag depicting a boy about to throw a stone at an Israeli tank. In Egypt, consumers had the chance to buy cheese-flavoured Yasser Arafat chips. After Israel's incursion into Jenin, a Tunisian-born French Muslim Tawfiq Mathlouthi launched Mecca Cola, with the slogan "Don't Drink Stupid—Drink Committed" and a promise to donate 10% of its profits to Palestinian children's charities and 10% to European Muslim charities. His plan was to rival the other 'committed' colas including Qibla Cola from the UK and Iran's Zamzam Cola. To date Mecca Cola has sold in 28 countries with 18 million bottles in the pipeline.
There were also some far-fetched rumours: Procter & Gamble, for example, took a hit in Egypt because a grass-roots group called the Egyptian Committee for Boycott claimed its detergent Ariel is named after the hated Israeli leader, and that its atomic logo is a cleverly disguised Star of David.
Arab brands and arab-owned businesses under licence
But such consumer behaviour appears to ebb and flow. According to Mahmoud Kaissouni, an executive with an Egyptian industry association representing 22 fast food chains, sales at more than 550 fast food restaurants in Egypt dropped by around 20% in April 2003 and plunged by 65% at the end of June before returning to normal by October and November.
People like Kaissouni fought back in the media, saying the boycotts mainly missed the intended target, only to hit Arab businesses, as many US franchises are Arab-owned and many products are made regionally under licence.
The fast food market, though still relatively small compared to Europe and other Western markets, expanded rapidly through the 1990s. Today growth is seen as coming back strongly, with local and especially Saudi brands coming more and more into the picture.
The market potential of Egypt, with its 67 million population and fast-expanding tourism industry is the one that has attracted most attention of the big international franchises. Egypt's US$2.7 billion foodservice industry (at 2003 figures) is still in its infancy but has expanded by a remarkable 33% since 1993, according to a BIS Shrapnel report. The study, Foodservice in the Middle East: Egypt, 2002-2004, says the fast food market, though still relatively small, is dominated by American chains. There are more than 280 western fast food outlets in Egypt out of a total of 55,000 commercial foodservice outlets serving more than 4 billion meals a year. The market leader, KFC has 65 outlets, McDonald’s 46 and Pizza Hut 45. House of Donuts has 12 outlets, and Chicken Tikka, Dominos Pizza and Hardees have 11 outlets each.
There are about 70 local fast food chains, one of the most successful being the Saudi-Arabian based Al Tazaj with 10 outlets in Egypt. Its staple dish is grilled chicken, rice and salad, and a typical meal costs about 20-30% less than at KFC or McDonald’s. The study says there are also about 4,000 independent, non-franchisee takeaways, and 8,600 street vendors.
Takeaway meals account for 17% of meals served by all food service outlets, light meals and snacks for 44%, lunch 18%, breakfast 12% and dinner 9%. The report’s principal author, foodservice specialist Dr Sandro Mangosi, says fast food consumers in Egypt are primarily from the upper and middle classes, well educated, have travelled abroad, and visit fast food restaurants to spend leisure time and socialise with friends.
The Egyptian foodservice industry is fundamentally urban and it provides 12.5% of all urban meals. The institutional sector, mainly schools and private company workers canteens accounts for more than 16,000 outlets, or 29% of the total market. Dr Mangosi says the growth of the foodservice industry over the next few years will be helped by increasing urbanisation, more women entering the workforce, a young generation of consumers more ready to buy Western-type food, and a resumption of the tourist trade, particularly from other Middle East regions and Europe.
Egyptian food, Dr Mangosi says, reflects the melting pot of the country’s history: “Native cooks using local ingredients have modified Greek, Turkish, Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian traditions to suit Egyptian budgets, customs and tastes.
“The dishes are simple, made with naturally ripened fruit and vegetables, seasoned with spices, and are good and hearty.”
The study says that although Egyptian eating habits may seem erratic, most begin the day with a light breakfast of beans or bean cakes, eggs and/or pickles, cheeses and jams. Families eat a large, starchy lunch around 2.00pm to 5.00pm and then take a siesta, followed by a British-style tea at 5.00pm to 6.00pm and a light supper late in the evening. Dinner parties are scheduled late, often no earlier than 9.00pm, with the meal served an hour or two later.
Dr Mangosi says Egyptians have become more aware of nutritional values but still like food fried or cooked on charcoal, and smen, a local type of cooking butter, although it contains saturated oils. He says Egyptians prefer small restaurants and takeaways because they are more economical and provide quicker, simpler meals.
“Products perceived as both Western and new to the market have a wide appeal, especially among the young and affluent, but five-star restaurants, including Chinese and Japanese establishments, have been reduced in number because of their price and the lack of time to enjoy lengthy meals.”
Dr Mangosi added: “Foodservice executives told us they thought the trade of top class restaurants had been reduced by 10-30% and some see the possible introduction of Asian restaurant chains, mainly Japanese, Chinese and Indian for the tourist trade.”
Burger King, with an innovative and ever-growing menu selection and all meals Halal, is also growing in the region. In June 2004 it opened its latest branch in Oud Metha in Dubai. Burger King Middle East is managed by Hana International Company and operates more than 120 restaurants around the region, through local Arab franchisees. Another leader, the Dubai-based Hot Brands International has expanded to 24 locations and is moving to international franchising. Its concepts include a range of ethnic food restaurants in both the Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) and Casual Dining Restaurant (CDR) formats. These include Indian (Shamiana), Chinese, Italian pizza and pasta (Santino's), Thai (Sala Thai and Magic Wok), Japanese (Sugoi!) and Mongolian grill (Da Shi Dai).
TNS study finds market growing again
But was boycotting really an issue in the first place? A 2004 TNS research study on the fast food habits of Egyptian consumers in Cairo showed that across nearly all social classes there is now a high dependency on fast food. The study showed that 32% of Cairo's population buy foreign branded fast food at least twice a week. It has indeed become part of everyday life.
Some of the other key findings of this study were:
When the Egyptian survey respondents were asked about the expected level of fast food consumption in the next 12 months, 60% said it would probably stay the same and 20% thought it would probably increase.
When the first McDonald's opened in Moscow, in January 1990, 30,000 Russians braved the Winter cold to stand in line for their Big Macs. Perhaps those were the good old days of fast food, never to return again in today's health-conscious society. But as the fast-paced lifestyle takes over most families, a group family meal - whether lunch or dinner - may be happening less and less in homes in the Middle East.