Skip to content

Let them eat burgers

Earlier this month, Patricia de Lille – the former firebrand stalwart of the radical Pan Africanist Congresshanded over the key to Cape Town, to a man dressed up as a hamburger.

Now the mayor of the opposition-controlled City of Cape Town, De Lille met with the senior management of Grand Parade Investments, as well as the hamburger, to celebrate the opening of the first branch of Burger King in South Africa.

Since selling its first burger on 9 May, queues have snaked all the way down Heerengracht Street – not Cape Town’s loveliest quarter – as punters wait hours to try Whoppers and the chain’s other products.

So far the only controversy that the chain seems to have generated is a call from People against Gangsterism and Drugs (Pagad) to boycott Burger King because Grant Parade Investments also owns Grand West Casino – to which Pagad is opposed on the grounds that gambling further impoverishes the poor communities which surround Grand West.

There has been a lot of chatter about the opening of a new fast food chain in South Africa: will the 120 planned Burger King outlets contribute to the country’s increasingly high instance of obesity? How will existing brands respond to this new competition? And is Burger King’s arrival part of a ‘McDonaldisation’ of South African food? In other words, is a kind of globalised junk food changing the ways in which South Africans eat?

All of these are complex questions which are impossible to answer less than a month after the opening of one branch of Burger King. But we can begin to address the last because South Africa’s experience of global Big Fast Food is fairly similar to what has happened abroad, and in the past.

In the weeks preceding the opening of Burger King, Grand Parade Investment’s CEO, CFO, and Chairman lovebombed the South African media. In the several radio interviews that I heard, they reiterated over and over again that although the product they’re bringing into South Africa is the same as that served in the US – and of the same quality – it will be produced by well-trained South African employees, and made using ingredients processed locally. (Burger King will open a factory in Philippi.)

The flagship Burger King has a mural of Table Mountain and the Grand Parade in a prominent place. For all the fact that Burger King’s appeal is based on its status as an exotic foreign product, it’s been modified to appeal specifically to South African customers.

This, however, is not unique. One of the main reasons for the incredible success of McDonald’s all over the world is that while it maintains the pretence of selling precisely the same product in India, Belgium, and Argentina, each of those countries has both a menu and a dining experience which is – more or less – tailored to the expectations and preferences of local diners.

For instance: recently, there has been some coverage of McDonald’s attempt to add pasta to its menus in Italy. Although this has been greeted with derision, the chain has done similar things elsewhere. It tried to introduce falafel to its menu in Israel, and yak burgers in Mongolia.

One of the reasons for Taco Bell’s relative lack of success outside of the United States is its inability to adjust its model to local tastes. Indeed, McDonald’s isn’t the only chain to allow its menus and, even, restaurant design to be fairly flexible: Subway, for example, sells a Chicken Tikka sandwich – flatbread optional – in the UK.

In France, despite sustained opposition from anti-globalisation activists and the food movement, McDonald’s has more than 1,200 branches. In contrast, South Africa – considered to be one of McDonald’s most successful ventures – has only 161. Why? Because it uses ingredients popular with French customers – cheese, Dijon mustard – allows for diners to stay longer in their restaurants (French customers are more likely to eat full meals at McDonald’s rather than to snack), and it opened the McCafe, which sells patisserie.

I use the example of France deliberately, because it’s usually described as having an admirably distinct and healthy food culture (whatever we may mean by ‘food culture’). McDonald’s success there not only suggests that this reputation is based, to some extent, on myth and a lot of PR, but also that the implications of the presence of Big Fast Food for people’s diets, are complex.

Although the ‘South Africanisation’ of Burger King is interesting to explore, I think it might be more useful to understand the arrival of the chain in relation to the country’s shifting demographics and economic development. Arriving almost two decades after the dawn of democratic government, Burger King has certainly taken its time to get here.

McDonald’s opened its first branch in 1995, and, initially, exerted the same appeal in South Africa as it did in Russia during the late 1980s.  Similar to South Africa’s participation in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, it symbolised the end of the country’s isolation.

In 2013, Burger King has arrived to take advantage of the growth of South Africa’s middle class. As Jonny Steinberg notes in a recent article:

It is true that our politics is increasingly corrupt, that people express discontent by throwing stones and burning things, that yawning inequalities cause much resentment. Less well known is that the income of the average black family has increased by about a third since the beginning of democracy; that 85% of homes are electrified compared with just over half on the last day of apartheid…

Despite the slowing down of economic growth – despite the fact that at the moment R10 will buy only $1 – there are still more South Africans to spend cash on fast food, and other consumer goods, than ever before. It’s telling that the malls and other locations at which the new Burger King branches will open tend towards the upper end of the market – and that the chain will focus its operations on the Western Cape and Gauteng, the country’s two wealthiest provinces.

In his study of the exponential success of McDonald’s in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and China, James L. Watson argues that McDonald’s took off at the same time that family structures in these countries changed: as the size of families shrunk, as women began, increasingly, to work outside the home, and as it became more common for nuclear families to live separately from grandparents, so McDonald’s found a market in these comparatively wealthy families with children to spoil. He writes:

American-style birthday parties became key to the company’s expansion policy. Prior to the arrival of McDonald’s, festivities marking youngsters’ specific birthdates were unknown in most of East Asia. … McDonald’s and its rivals now promote the birthday party – complete with cake, candles, and silly hats – in television aimed directly at kids.

As in China, Burger King is a treat for South Africa’s newly-affluent middle-class families, and not (yet) associated with absolutely cut-priced eating. The association of big fast food chains with poverty seems to remain limited to wealthier nations.

My point is that the arrival of Burger King now – in 2013 – says far more about South Africa than it does about Burger King.

I think one of the best examples of the massive change which the country has experienced, is the rise and rise of the current Deputy President of the ANC – and future Deputy President (and President?) of South Africa. In 1994 he was known as a founder of the National Union of Mineworkers, arguably South Africa’s most powerful union, and as a key figure in the negotiations which ended apartheid. Now Cyril Ramaphosa is one of South Africa’s wealthiest people. And, until recently, the owner of the local franchise for McDonald’s.

Sources

Ian Brailsford, ‘US Image but NZ Venture: Americana and Fast-Food Advertising in New Zealand, 1971-1990,’ Australasian Journal of American Studies, vol. 22, no. 2 (December 2003), pp. 10-24.

Rick Fantasia, ‘Fast Food in France,’
Theory and Society, vol. 24, no. 2 (Apr., 1995), pp. 201-243.

EU Igumbor, D. Sanders TR Puoane, L. Tsolekile, C. Schwarz C, et al., ‘“Big Food,” the Consumer Food Environment, Health, and the Policy Response in South Africa.’ PLoS Med, vol. 9, no. 7, (2012), e1001253.

John W. Traphagan and L. Keith Brown, ‘Fast Food and Intergenerational Commensality in Japan: New Styles and Old Patterns,’ Ethnology, vol. 41, no. 2 (Spring, 2002), pp. 119-134.

James L. Watson, ‘China’s Big Mac Attack,’ Foreign Affairs, vol. 79, no. 3 (May-Jun., 2000), pp. 120-134.

Jianying Zha, ‘Learning from McDonald’s,’ Transition, no. 91 (2002), pp. 18-39.

Creative Commons License
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Apparently, Burger King will import its potato chips from Belgium – not likely to help local farmers.

    June 2, 2013
    • Oh really? Thanks – I didn’t know that. I agree: it’s bad news for local farmers and producers.

      June 2, 2013
  2. Yes, American fast food occupies an interesting niche abroad. I tend to file this under the more general category of semiotics-of-chains; I think that in the U.S. at least, the fact that something is a chain or a mass market brand automatically makes it low-status, whereas something close to the opposite is true in much of the third world. (Whether guaranteed mediocrity is depressing or appealing depends on the nature of the alternatives, and on the default level of trust. In cultures where a food truck will give you cholera it is relieving to have the McDonalds option around.)

    June 2, 2013
    • Yes – precisely. I am always struck how often young women in low- and middle-income countries describe McDonald’s and Starbucks as being places where they feel safe: where they won’t be pestered by men, where the loos are clean. Where they can be in public, without experiencing harassment.

      June 3, 2013

All comments, criticism, and ideas welcome.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: