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Episode
217

The Rise Of Fast Food Part 2: Going Global

Dec 7, 2021
Weird World
-
21
minutes
20th Century
Food & drink
Weird history
Japan
European history
USA
Advertising
Business

After conquering the hearts, minds and stomachs of America, fast food restaurants exported their formula across the world.

In this episode, we explore the techniques they used, when it worked, when it failed miserably, and how American fast food companies got the world hooked on burgers, chips and soda.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is part two of our three-part series on Fast Food.

[00:00:28] So, after part one where we looked at how the fast food industry got started in the US, and then embedded itself in all aspects of American life, in today’s episode we are going to look at when, how, and with what effect fast food went global.

[00:00:47] We’ll talk about the tactics that fast food companies used to get the world eating burgers and fries, when this worked well and when it didn’t, and how fast food had to adapt to a non-US audience.

[00:01:02] We have a lot to get through, so let’s get started right away.

[00:01:08] As we agreed in part one, “fast food” as a concept is nothing new. The Romans had it, the Greeks had it, the ancient Chinese had it. Even the British had it, and you could certainly claim that fish & chips and even the sandwich were some of the earliest versions of fast food.

[00:01:27] What I mean was that it was certainly no innovation to produce ready to eat, affordable food. The benefits of this are clear, and there is nothing uniquely American about it.

[00:01:40] But what is special about the fast food of 20th century America was its ability to create an industrial process of the creation of quick and cheap food, to the extent that practically an entire country would eat at fast food restaurants.

[00:01:58] So, when it was clear that fast food had won over the hearts, minds, and more importantly stomachs of citizens of the United States, these American fast food companies started to look abroad.

[00:02:14] The first forays, the first adventures, outside of the United States for fast food companies were relatively unadventurous.

[00:02:23] Burger King opened a branch in Puerto Rico in 1963, and four years later, in 1967 McDonalds had followed suit, opening restaurants in Puerto Rico and Canada. 

[00:02:37] Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States and Canada is, well, not so different from the US when it comes to eating habits, so these were certainly baby steps.

[00:02:50] For McDonald’s, the real adventures didn’t start until the early 1970s, when it expanded to The Netherlands, Australia, Germany, France, the UK and Japan.

[00:03:02] Now, walking around London, Paris or Tokyo today you might think that the golden arches of McDonald’s look perfectly normal, they are part of life in any large city, but when McDonald’s first launched in these countries it didn’t always go to plan.

[00:03:21] For starters, the entire strategy about where to put restaurants had to change. In London, Paris or Tokyo there isn’t the same car culture, and Brits, French and Japanese weren’t familiar with this idea of driving to a restaurant and picking up a meal for takeaway, and then later on the drive-thru.

[00:03:45] So, restaurants had to be placed in city-centre locations, areas where lots of people would pass through.

[00:03:53] In London the first McDonald’s restaurant was actually in an area called Woolwich, quite far to the south east of the city. On its first day staff waited anxiously, but apparently nobody actually came into the restaurant.

[00:04:10] And when people finally did start turning up, they needed to be educated about how ordering fast food actually worked. 

[00:04:19] Brits were used to the idea of a traditional restaurant, where you sit down and someone comes to take your order. But in McDonald’s, of course, it doesn’t work that way, so there was a lot of confusion - the public needed to be educated about how to actually order in a McDonald’s.

[00:04:39] Meanwhile in Japan the McDonald’s brand was brought to the country by an energetic entrepreneur called Den Fujita, who famously claimed that "the reason Japanese people are so short and have yellow skins is because they have eaten nothing but fish and rice for two thousand years; if we eat McDonald's hamburgers and potatoes for a thousand years we will become taller, our skin will become white and our hair blonde".

[00:05:08] Now, he was an eccentric character, but he knew the Japanese customer, and how to cater for their needs. The McDonald's menu was adapted for Japanese tastes, meaning you could order an Ebi Filet-o burger, a Teriyaki McBurger, or later even french fries with chocolate sauce, which I’ve actually tried and have to say are quite good. 

[00:05:33] In Japan there was less of an emphasis placed on having supersized portions, like there was in the US.

[00:05:41] Fujita hoped to see 10,000 McDonald’s in Japan by 2010.

[00:05:46] He didn’t live to see that day - there are still only just under 3,000, but Japan was until very recently McDonald’s most popular country outside the US. China only recently overtook it, but the population of China is 11 times that of Japan.

[00:06:06] Now, although McDonald’s is the most popular and famous fast food chain in the world, it was certainly not the only one that was exploring outside of its native land, outside the US.

[00:06:19] Kentucky Fried Chicken, or KFC, had arrived in Japan a year before McDonald’s, in 1970.

[00:06:27] As any Japanese listener, or anyone who has been to Japan will know, like many east Asian countries, Japan already has some excellent traditional “fast food” restaurants, places where you can go and get a bowl or rice and meat or vegetables, or piping hot ramen, it is prepared very quickly, it is delicious and comes at a very affordable price.

[00:06:52] So while these Western fast food restaurants did have the advantage of seeming exotic and strange, of allowing Japanese customers to try this American cult food, it wasn’t like there weren’t excellent fast food options already available in Japan.

[00:07:11] So American brands had to get creative, and the example of KFC is particularly interesting.

[00:07:19] In Japan, Christmas Day isn’t a national holiday, and only around 1% of the population is Christian. 

[00:07:27] But KFC has magically managed to turn Christmas into a holiday where people eat KFC.

[00:07:35] This was thanks to a brilliant marketing campaign in 1974 called “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!”, or “Kentucky for Christmas”, which turned going to KFC on Christmas Day into somewhat of a national tradition in Japan. 

[00:07:53] It all comes from, reportedly, when a group of foreigners weren’t able to find turkey for Christmas day, and KFC seized this opportunity to turn eating KFC chicken into a traditional activity. 

[00:08:08] There was a big marketing campaign, and it worked. 

[00:08:12] Every year since, people order their KFC in advance, there are queues of up to 2 hours long and KFC Japan records its biggest sales on Christmas Day.

[00:08:24] Another interesting story of US fast food chains expanding abroad comes from Russia. Perhaps some of our Russian listeners might even remember this.

[00:08:34] When McDonalds opened its first outlet in Moscow, Russia, in 1990, just months after the fall of the Berlin wall, it was a huge event. 

[00:08:44] It was one of the only Western stores to exist in the entire country, and on its opening day there were huge queues outside while 5,000 people waited to get a glimpse of what western capitalism looked like.

[00:08:59] There’s a funny video from this day where a journalist interviews people waiting in line - several of them don’t know what everyone else is queueing for, they just saw a line and joined it. 

[00:09:12] And in fact just to work at McDonald’s, which is now not the most desirable job in the world, there were 25,000 applicants to work at the Moscow location when it announced it was hiring.

[00:09:27] Now our story turns to the home of fine dining, the birthplace of haute cuisine, and a nation that is particularly proud of its culinary heritage: France.

[00:09:39] The French, as any French listener will know better than me, and anyone who has been to France will have seen, tend to enjoy taking time to savour and enjoy their meals.

[00:09:51] The two-hour lunch was a common feature, especially in the 1970s and 80s. Food was something to be enjoyed with friends, family or colleagues, something that should be cooked properly, perhaps even enjoyed with a glass of fine wine.

[00:10:08] The idea that you would rush into a restaurant, order something quickly and be given it on a tray, then you would have to eat it yourself without a knife and fork out of a paper box was, well, not very French at all.

[00:10:23] Yet now France is one of the most popular countries in the world for McDonald’s, indeed it's only behind China and Japan, outside of the US that is. There are now 1,500 McDonald’s restaurants in France while there are only 335 Burger Kings and only 250 KFCs.

[00:10:45] But it wasn’t an immediate success - despite McDonald’s launching in France only two years after launching in the UK, by 1988 it only had 67 restaurants in France vs the 270 it had in the UK.

[00:11:02] So, what changed, and why has McDonald’s now managed to succeed where others have failed?

[00:11:10] Put simply, it adapted to local tastes, while other restaurants assumed that the American version would be so aspirational that it would appeal to anyone, regardless of where they were from.

[00:11:23] Burger King, for example, just replicated the US dining experience in France, with busy, crowded restaurants.

[00:11:32] McDonald’s, on the other hand, recognised that the French like to take their time, and made their restaurants more spacious and better decorated. 

[00:11:42] They offered things like croissants with jam, something you would never find on the menu back in the United States. And they put a particular emphasis on the quality of the ingredients that went into their produce.

[00:11:57] Of course, French McDonald’s is still McDonald’s, it is a fast food restaurant not a fine dining experience, but these changes have led the French to accept McDonald’s in a way that surprised many onlookers.

[00:12:12] But when it comes to the global expansion of American fast food outlets, it hasn’t always gone to plan, and there are numerous examples of times where local customs, competition or a myriad of other factors, lots of other factors, have meant that countries have been able to resist the gravitational pull of burgers and fries.

[00:12:37] In Vietnam, for example, McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in 2014. 

[00:12:44] The first outlet was managed by the Prime Minister’s son, and when it first opened, it was a huge success. 

[00:12:53] Within 24 hours 22,500 people had eaten at the restaurant, and Vietnamese diners chomped their way through 61,980 Big Macs in the first month.

[00:13:07] A great success, you might think.

[00:13:09] But since opening 7 years ago McDonald’s in Vietnam has been a huge flop, and there are only 22 restaurants in the country - one for every 4.4 million people. 

[00:13:23] Compare this to the United States, for example, there is one McDonald’s for every 22,000 people, there are almost 200 times more McDonald’s per person in the United States than Vietnam.

[00:13:36] So, what went wrong?

[00:13:39] Well, as anyone who has been to Vietnam will know, the country already has very high quality and very affordable fast food in the form of soups, meat and vegetables with rice and baguettes.

[00:13:52] This type of local fast food was already being sold by over half a million different individual vendors, so it was very widely available.

[00:14:03] And it was cheaper than McDonald’s. 

[00:14:06] Eating a meal at McDonald’s cost the equivalent of just under $5, whereas an equivalent meal from a local food vendor might cost $2.50, and it tasted far better.

[00:14:20] So, faced with the choice of paying double for a meal that simply wasn’t as nice, why would you do it?

[00:14:27] Another factor that is thought to have gone into the failure of McDonald’s to capture the imagination of the Vietnamese is that the local culture has a strong emphasis on sharing food, and the nature of McDonald’s is that it’s not really food for sharing.

[00:14:46] You’ll note that this is something that also applies to other Asian cultures, for example the Chinese eating culture, and is thought to be one of the reasons that KFC is more successful than McDonald’s in China - because it’s easier to share a bucket of chicken with a group of people than to share a burger. 

[00:15:07] One of the other reasons, by the way, is that KFC understood that even within China there are very distinct food cultures and tastes, and the company adapted its menu within China to cater for local differences.

[00:15:23] When KFC first launched in China, diners from a province called Hunan, which is famous for its spicy food, complained that the chicken was too bland, that it wasn’t spicy enough, while diners from Shanghai, complained that the very same chicken was too spicy. So, KFC adapted its recipes, making the chicken spicier in Hunan and less spicy in Shanghai, adapting it to these local tastes.

[00:15:54] Now, KFC might have managed to crack the Chinese market, but in several countries it found local traditions too hard to overcome.

[00:16:04] One example of this is in Israel. 

[00:16:07] KFC opened its first branch in Israel in 1980, thinking it could recreate the success it had found elsewhere.

[00:16:16] After 32 years trying to make it work, including closing and reopening all of its locations four times, it left the country in 2012, and only returned to give it another try at the start of 2020.

[00:16:31] What went wrong?

[00:16:33] Well, the chicken at KFC, their most famous fried chicken, is cooked in a batter that uses milk as an ingredient.

[00:16:43] Kosher cooking, the Jewish law about the preparation of food, requires that you shouldn’t mix meat and milk, so by default KFC’s most popular dish, its fried chicken, wasn’t allowed under kosher rules.

[00:16:59] As you may know, not all Israelis follow kosher rules, but Israel is the country in the world with the highest proportion of Jewish people, and 80% of the Israeli food industry is kosher.

[00:17:14] KFC was reasonably popular with Israelis who didn’t keep kosher rules, but when your signature product is forbidden by a religious law of a country, well that’s a bit of a problem.

[00:17:28] So, what do you do? Well, one solution is to change the recipe.

[00:17:33] KFC experimented with changing the milk in its batter to soya milk, so that it was kosher and could be eaten by everyone. 

[00:17:43] But this was a lot more expensive and customers thought it simply didn’t taste as good as the original.

[00:17:50] So, KFC was faced with a choice. Do you switch back to the original recipe, knowing full well that this means a sizable proportion of the country won’t be able to eat at your restaurant or do you stick with the recipe that means everyone can eat there, but it isn’t as tasty and it's more expensive?

[00:18:11] KFC chose the latter option, it stuck with the soya milk recipe, kosher fried chicken, but sales plummeted, and it was forced to leave the country in 2012.

[00:18:24] When it returned at the start of 2020 it switched strategy, and isn’t offering kosher chicken, so we will have to wait to see whether it’s fourth attempt at conquering Israel is any different to the previous three.

[00:18:39] Now, Vietnam and Israel are certainly exceptions, they are countries where these American fast food companies haven’t managed to replicate their success. 

[00:18:49] Almost everywhere else, they have.

[00:18:52] Like them or loathe them, American fast food companies have done an incredible job at conquering the planet. 

[00:18:59] Hundreds of millions of people gobble down their products every day, they have successfully adapted their products to meet the tastes of unique cultures and culinary traditions from almost every country, and they have become incredibly successful.

[00:19:15] And this brings us to where we are today, a world where 1% of the population eats at McDonald’s every single day, a world where children are more likely to recognise Ronald McDonald or Colonel Sanders than Jesus, a world where our bellies are bulging and our hearts are pumping faster and faster.

[00:19:36] And that, my friends, will be what we’ll cover in part three of this mini-series.

[00:19:43] OK then, that’s it for part two, taking fast food global.

[00:19:47] I hope it's been an interesting one, and whether you live in the UK, France, Vietnam, Israel or any other country that has felt the impact of these American fast food giants, I hope you’ve learned something new.

[00:20:00] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:20:04] How popular are different fast food chains in your country? How has this changed over time? 

[00:20:10] When have they succeeded and failed, and for what reasons?

[00:20:15] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started; you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:20:28] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:33] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is part two of our three-part series on Fast Food.

[00:00:28] So, after part one where we looked at how the fast food industry got started in the US, and then embedded itself in all aspects of American life, in today’s episode we are going to look at when, how, and with what effect fast food went global.

[00:00:47] We’ll talk about the tactics that fast food companies used to get the world eating burgers and fries, when this worked well and when it didn’t, and how fast food had to adapt to a non-US audience.

[00:01:02] We have a lot to get through, so let’s get started right away.

[00:01:08] As we agreed in part one, “fast food” as a concept is nothing new. The Romans had it, the Greeks had it, the ancient Chinese had it. Even the British had it, and you could certainly claim that fish & chips and even the sandwich were some of the earliest versions of fast food.

[00:01:27] What I mean was that it was certainly no innovation to produce ready to eat, affordable food. The benefits of this are clear, and there is nothing uniquely American about it.

[00:01:40] But what is special about the fast food of 20th century America was its ability to create an industrial process of the creation of quick and cheap food, to the extent that practically an entire country would eat at fast food restaurants.

[00:01:58] So, when it was clear that fast food had won over the hearts, minds, and more importantly stomachs of citizens of the United States, these American fast food companies started to look abroad.

[00:02:14] The first forays, the first adventures, outside of the United States for fast food companies were relatively unadventurous.

[00:02:23] Burger King opened a branch in Puerto Rico in 1963, and four years later, in 1967 McDonalds had followed suit, opening restaurants in Puerto Rico and Canada. 

[00:02:37] Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States and Canada is, well, not so different from the US when it comes to eating habits, so these were certainly baby steps.

[00:02:50] For McDonald’s, the real adventures didn’t start until the early 1970s, when it expanded to The Netherlands, Australia, Germany, France, the UK and Japan.

[00:03:02] Now, walking around London, Paris or Tokyo today you might think that the golden arches of McDonald’s look perfectly normal, they are part of life in any large city, but when McDonald’s first launched in these countries it didn’t always go to plan.

[00:03:21] For starters, the entire strategy about where to put restaurants had to change. In London, Paris or Tokyo there isn’t the same car culture, and Brits, French and Japanese weren’t familiar with this idea of driving to a restaurant and picking up a meal for takeaway, and then later on the drive-thru.

[00:03:45] So, restaurants had to be placed in city-centre locations, areas where lots of people would pass through.

[00:03:53] In London the first McDonald’s restaurant was actually in an area called Woolwich, quite far to the south east of the city. On its first day staff waited anxiously, but apparently nobody actually came into the restaurant.

[00:04:10] And when people finally did start turning up, they needed to be educated about how ordering fast food actually worked. 

[00:04:19] Brits were used to the idea of a traditional restaurant, where you sit down and someone comes to take your order. But in McDonald’s, of course, it doesn’t work that way, so there was a lot of confusion - the public needed to be educated about how to actually order in a McDonald’s.

[00:04:39] Meanwhile in Japan the McDonald’s brand was brought to the country by an energetic entrepreneur called Den Fujita, who famously claimed that "the reason Japanese people are so short and have yellow skins is because they have eaten nothing but fish and rice for two thousand years; if we eat McDonald's hamburgers and potatoes for a thousand years we will become taller, our skin will become white and our hair blonde".

[00:05:08] Now, he was an eccentric character, but he knew the Japanese customer, and how to cater for their needs. The McDonald's menu was adapted for Japanese tastes, meaning you could order an Ebi Filet-o burger, a Teriyaki McBurger, or later even french fries with chocolate sauce, which I’ve actually tried and have to say are quite good. 

[00:05:33] In Japan there was less of an emphasis placed on having supersized portions, like there was in the US.

[00:05:41] Fujita hoped to see 10,000 McDonald’s in Japan by 2010.

[00:05:46] He didn’t live to see that day - there are still only just under 3,000, but Japan was until very recently McDonald’s most popular country outside the US. China only recently overtook it, but the population of China is 11 times that of Japan.

[00:06:06] Now, although McDonald’s is the most popular and famous fast food chain in the world, it was certainly not the only one that was exploring outside of its native land, outside the US.

[00:06:19] Kentucky Fried Chicken, or KFC, had arrived in Japan a year before McDonald’s, in 1970.

[00:06:27] As any Japanese listener, or anyone who has been to Japan will know, like many east Asian countries, Japan already has some excellent traditional “fast food” restaurants, places where you can go and get a bowl or rice and meat or vegetables, or piping hot ramen, it is prepared very quickly, it is delicious and comes at a very affordable price.

[00:06:52] So while these Western fast food restaurants did have the advantage of seeming exotic and strange, of allowing Japanese customers to try this American cult food, it wasn’t like there weren’t excellent fast food options already available in Japan.

[00:07:11] So American brands had to get creative, and the example of KFC is particularly interesting.

[00:07:19] In Japan, Christmas Day isn’t a national holiday, and only around 1% of the population is Christian. 

[00:07:27] But KFC has magically managed to turn Christmas into a holiday where people eat KFC.

[00:07:35] This was thanks to a brilliant marketing campaign in 1974 called “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!”, or “Kentucky for Christmas”, which turned going to KFC on Christmas Day into somewhat of a national tradition in Japan. 

[00:07:53] It all comes from, reportedly, when a group of foreigners weren’t able to find turkey for Christmas day, and KFC seized this opportunity to turn eating KFC chicken into a traditional activity. 

[00:08:08] There was a big marketing campaign, and it worked. 

[00:08:12] Every year since, people order their KFC in advance, there are queues of up to 2 hours long and KFC Japan records its biggest sales on Christmas Day.

[00:08:24] Another interesting story of US fast food chains expanding abroad comes from Russia. Perhaps some of our Russian listeners might even remember this.

[00:08:34] When McDonalds opened its first outlet in Moscow, Russia, in 1990, just months after the fall of the Berlin wall, it was a huge event. 

[00:08:44] It was one of the only Western stores to exist in the entire country, and on its opening day there were huge queues outside while 5,000 people waited to get a glimpse of what western capitalism looked like.

[00:08:59] There’s a funny video from this day where a journalist interviews people waiting in line - several of them don’t know what everyone else is queueing for, they just saw a line and joined it. 

[00:09:12] And in fact just to work at McDonald’s, which is now not the most desirable job in the world, there were 25,000 applicants to work at the Moscow location when it announced it was hiring.

[00:09:27] Now our story turns to the home of fine dining, the birthplace of haute cuisine, and a nation that is particularly proud of its culinary heritage: France.

[00:09:39] The French, as any French listener will know better than me, and anyone who has been to France will have seen, tend to enjoy taking time to savour and enjoy their meals.

[00:09:51] The two-hour lunch was a common feature, especially in the 1970s and 80s. Food was something to be enjoyed with friends, family or colleagues, something that should be cooked properly, perhaps even enjoyed with a glass of fine wine.

[00:10:08] The idea that you would rush into a restaurant, order something quickly and be given it on a tray, then you would have to eat it yourself without a knife and fork out of a paper box was, well, not very French at all.

[00:10:23] Yet now France is one of the most popular countries in the world for McDonald’s, indeed it's only behind China and Japan, outside of the US that is. There are now 1,500 McDonald’s restaurants in France while there are only 335 Burger Kings and only 250 KFCs.

[00:10:45] But it wasn’t an immediate success - despite McDonald’s launching in France only two years after launching in the UK, by 1988 it only had 67 restaurants in France vs the 270 it had in the UK.

[00:11:02] So, what changed, and why has McDonald’s now managed to succeed where others have failed?

[00:11:10] Put simply, it adapted to local tastes, while other restaurants assumed that the American version would be so aspirational that it would appeal to anyone, regardless of where they were from.

[00:11:23] Burger King, for example, just replicated the US dining experience in France, with busy, crowded restaurants.

[00:11:32] McDonald’s, on the other hand, recognised that the French like to take their time, and made their restaurants more spacious and better decorated. 

[00:11:42] They offered things like croissants with jam, something you would never find on the menu back in the United States. And they put a particular emphasis on the quality of the ingredients that went into their produce.

[00:11:57] Of course, French McDonald’s is still McDonald’s, it is a fast food restaurant not a fine dining experience, but these changes have led the French to accept McDonald’s in a way that surprised many onlookers.

[00:12:12] But when it comes to the global expansion of American fast food outlets, it hasn’t always gone to plan, and there are numerous examples of times where local customs, competition or a myriad of other factors, lots of other factors, have meant that countries have been able to resist the gravitational pull of burgers and fries.

[00:12:37] In Vietnam, for example, McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in 2014. 

[00:12:44] The first outlet was managed by the Prime Minister’s son, and when it first opened, it was a huge success. 

[00:12:53] Within 24 hours 22,500 people had eaten at the restaurant, and Vietnamese diners chomped their way through 61,980 Big Macs in the first month.

[00:13:07] A great success, you might think.

[00:13:09] But since opening 7 years ago McDonald’s in Vietnam has been a huge flop, and there are only 22 restaurants in the country - one for every 4.4 million people. 

[00:13:23] Compare this to the United States, for example, there is one McDonald’s for every 22,000 people, there are almost 200 times more McDonald’s per person in the United States than Vietnam.

[00:13:36] So, what went wrong?

[00:13:39] Well, as anyone who has been to Vietnam will know, the country already has very high quality and very affordable fast food in the form of soups, meat and vegetables with rice and baguettes.

[00:13:52] This type of local fast food was already being sold by over half a million different individual vendors, so it was very widely available.

[00:14:03] And it was cheaper than McDonald’s. 

[00:14:06] Eating a meal at McDonald’s cost the equivalent of just under $5, whereas an equivalent meal from a local food vendor might cost $2.50, and it tasted far better.

[00:14:20] So, faced with the choice of paying double for a meal that simply wasn’t as nice, why would you do it?

[00:14:27] Another factor that is thought to have gone into the failure of McDonald’s to capture the imagination of the Vietnamese is that the local culture has a strong emphasis on sharing food, and the nature of McDonald’s is that it’s not really food for sharing.

[00:14:46] You’ll note that this is something that also applies to other Asian cultures, for example the Chinese eating culture, and is thought to be one of the reasons that KFC is more successful than McDonald’s in China - because it’s easier to share a bucket of chicken with a group of people than to share a burger. 

[00:15:07] One of the other reasons, by the way, is that KFC understood that even within China there are very distinct food cultures and tastes, and the company adapted its menu within China to cater for local differences.

[00:15:23] When KFC first launched in China, diners from a province called Hunan, which is famous for its spicy food, complained that the chicken was too bland, that it wasn’t spicy enough, while diners from Shanghai, complained that the very same chicken was too spicy. So, KFC adapted its recipes, making the chicken spicier in Hunan and less spicy in Shanghai, adapting it to these local tastes.

[00:15:54] Now, KFC might have managed to crack the Chinese market, but in several countries it found local traditions too hard to overcome.

[00:16:04] One example of this is in Israel. 

[00:16:07] KFC opened its first branch in Israel in 1980, thinking it could recreate the success it had found elsewhere.

[00:16:16] After 32 years trying to make it work, including closing and reopening all of its locations four times, it left the country in 2012, and only returned to give it another try at the start of 2020.

[00:16:31] What went wrong?

[00:16:33] Well, the chicken at KFC, their most famous fried chicken, is cooked in a batter that uses milk as an ingredient.

[00:16:43] Kosher cooking, the Jewish law about the preparation of food, requires that you shouldn’t mix meat and milk, so by default KFC’s most popular dish, its fried chicken, wasn’t allowed under kosher rules.

[00:16:59] As you may know, not all Israelis follow kosher rules, but Israel is the country in the world with the highest proportion of Jewish people, and 80% of the Israeli food industry is kosher.

[00:17:14] KFC was reasonably popular with Israelis who didn’t keep kosher rules, but when your signature product is forbidden by a religious law of a country, well that’s a bit of a problem.

[00:17:28] So, what do you do? Well, one solution is to change the recipe.

[00:17:33] KFC experimented with changing the milk in its batter to soya milk, so that it was kosher and could be eaten by everyone. 

[00:17:43] But this was a lot more expensive and customers thought it simply didn’t taste as good as the original.

[00:17:50] So, KFC was faced with a choice. Do you switch back to the original recipe, knowing full well that this means a sizable proportion of the country won’t be able to eat at your restaurant or do you stick with the recipe that means everyone can eat there, but it isn’t as tasty and it's more expensive?

[00:18:11] KFC chose the latter option, it stuck with the soya milk recipe, kosher fried chicken, but sales plummeted, and it was forced to leave the country in 2012.

[00:18:24] When it returned at the start of 2020 it switched strategy, and isn’t offering kosher chicken, so we will have to wait to see whether it’s fourth attempt at conquering Israel is any different to the previous three.

[00:18:39] Now, Vietnam and Israel are certainly exceptions, they are countries where these American fast food companies haven’t managed to replicate their success. 

[00:18:49] Almost everywhere else, they have.

[00:18:52] Like them or loathe them, American fast food companies have done an incredible job at conquering the planet. 

[00:18:59] Hundreds of millions of people gobble down their products every day, they have successfully adapted their products to meet the tastes of unique cultures and culinary traditions from almost every country, and they have become incredibly successful.

[00:19:15] And this brings us to where we are today, a world where 1% of the population eats at McDonald’s every single day, a world where children are more likely to recognise Ronald McDonald or Colonel Sanders than Jesus, a world where our bellies are bulging and our hearts are pumping faster and faster.

[00:19:36] And that, my friends, will be what we’ll cover in part three of this mini-series.

[00:19:43] OK then, that’s it for part two, taking fast food global.

[00:19:47] I hope it's been an interesting one, and whether you live in the UK, France, Vietnam, Israel or any other country that has felt the impact of these American fast food giants, I hope you’ve learned something new.

[00:20:00] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:20:04] How popular are different fast food chains in your country? How has this changed over time? 

[00:20:10] When have they succeeded and failed, and for what reasons?

[00:20:15] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started; you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:20:28] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:33] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is part two of our three-part series on Fast Food.

[00:00:28] So, after part one where we looked at how the fast food industry got started in the US, and then embedded itself in all aspects of American life, in today’s episode we are going to look at when, how, and with what effect fast food went global.

[00:00:47] We’ll talk about the tactics that fast food companies used to get the world eating burgers and fries, when this worked well and when it didn’t, and how fast food had to adapt to a non-US audience.

[00:01:02] We have a lot to get through, so let’s get started right away.

[00:01:08] As we agreed in part one, “fast food” as a concept is nothing new. The Romans had it, the Greeks had it, the ancient Chinese had it. Even the British had it, and you could certainly claim that fish & chips and even the sandwich were some of the earliest versions of fast food.

[00:01:27] What I mean was that it was certainly no innovation to produce ready to eat, affordable food. The benefits of this are clear, and there is nothing uniquely American about it.

[00:01:40] But what is special about the fast food of 20th century America was its ability to create an industrial process of the creation of quick and cheap food, to the extent that practically an entire country would eat at fast food restaurants.

[00:01:58] So, when it was clear that fast food had won over the hearts, minds, and more importantly stomachs of citizens of the United States, these American fast food companies started to look abroad.

[00:02:14] The first forays, the first adventures, outside of the United States for fast food companies were relatively unadventurous.

[00:02:23] Burger King opened a branch in Puerto Rico in 1963, and four years later, in 1967 McDonalds had followed suit, opening restaurants in Puerto Rico and Canada. 

[00:02:37] Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States and Canada is, well, not so different from the US when it comes to eating habits, so these were certainly baby steps.

[00:02:50] For McDonald’s, the real adventures didn’t start until the early 1970s, when it expanded to The Netherlands, Australia, Germany, France, the UK and Japan.

[00:03:02] Now, walking around London, Paris or Tokyo today you might think that the golden arches of McDonald’s look perfectly normal, they are part of life in any large city, but when McDonald’s first launched in these countries it didn’t always go to plan.

[00:03:21] For starters, the entire strategy about where to put restaurants had to change. In London, Paris or Tokyo there isn’t the same car culture, and Brits, French and Japanese weren’t familiar with this idea of driving to a restaurant and picking up a meal for takeaway, and then later on the drive-thru.

[00:03:45] So, restaurants had to be placed in city-centre locations, areas where lots of people would pass through.

[00:03:53] In London the first McDonald’s restaurant was actually in an area called Woolwich, quite far to the south east of the city. On its first day staff waited anxiously, but apparently nobody actually came into the restaurant.

[00:04:10] And when people finally did start turning up, they needed to be educated about how ordering fast food actually worked. 

[00:04:19] Brits were used to the idea of a traditional restaurant, where you sit down and someone comes to take your order. But in McDonald’s, of course, it doesn’t work that way, so there was a lot of confusion - the public needed to be educated about how to actually order in a McDonald’s.

[00:04:39] Meanwhile in Japan the McDonald’s brand was brought to the country by an energetic entrepreneur called Den Fujita, who famously claimed that "the reason Japanese people are so short and have yellow skins is because they have eaten nothing but fish and rice for two thousand years; if we eat McDonald's hamburgers and potatoes for a thousand years we will become taller, our skin will become white and our hair blonde".

[00:05:08] Now, he was an eccentric character, but he knew the Japanese customer, and how to cater for their needs. The McDonald's menu was adapted for Japanese tastes, meaning you could order an Ebi Filet-o burger, a Teriyaki McBurger, or later even french fries with chocolate sauce, which I’ve actually tried and have to say are quite good. 

[00:05:33] In Japan there was less of an emphasis placed on having supersized portions, like there was in the US.

[00:05:41] Fujita hoped to see 10,000 McDonald’s in Japan by 2010.

[00:05:46] He didn’t live to see that day - there are still only just under 3,000, but Japan was until very recently McDonald’s most popular country outside the US. China only recently overtook it, but the population of China is 11 times that of Japan.

[00:06:06] Now, although McDonald’s is the most popular and famous fast food chain in the world, it was certainly not the only one that was exploring outside of its native land, outside the US.

[00:06:19] Kentucky Fried Chicken, or KFC, had arrived in Japan a year before McDonald’s, in 1970.

[00:06:27] As any Japanese listener, or anyone who has been to Japan will know, like many east Asian countries, Japan already has some excellent traditional “fast food” restaurants, places where you can go and get a bowl or rice and meat or vegetables, or piping hot ramen, it is prepared very quickly, it is delicious and comes at a very affordable price.

[00:06:52] So while these Western fast food restaurants did have the advantage of seeming exotic and strange, of allowing Japanese customers to try this American cult food, it wasn’t like there weren’t excellent fast food options already available in Japan.

[00:07:11] So American brands had to get creative, and the example of KFC is particularly interesting.

[00:07:19] In Japan, Christmas Day isn’t a national holiday, and only around 1% of the population is Christian. 

[00:07:27] But KFC has magically managed to turn Christmas into a holiday where people eat KFC.

[00:07:35] This was thanks to a brilliant marketing campaign in 1974 called “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!”, or “Kentucky for Christmas”, which turned going to KFC on Christmas Day into somewhat of a national tradition in Japan. 

[00:07:53] It all comes from, reportedly, when a group of foreigners weren’t able to find turkey for Christmas day, and KFC seized this opportunity to turn eating KFC chicken into a traditional activity. 

[00:08:08] There was a big marketing campaign, and it worked. 

[00:08:12] Every year since, people order their KFC in advance, there are queues of up to 2 hours long and KFC Japan records its biggest sales on Christmas Day.

[00:08:24] Another interesting story of US fast food chains expanding abroad comes from Russia. Perhaps some of our Russian listeners might even remember this.

[00:08:34] When McDonalds opened its first outlet in Moscow, Russia, in 1990, just months after the fall of the Berlin wall, it was a huge event. 

[00:08:44] It was one of the only Western stores to exist in the entire country, and on its opening day there were huge queues outside while 5,000 people waited to get a glimpse of what western capitalism looked like.

[00:08:59] There’s a funny video from this day where a journalist interviews people waiting in line - several of them don’t know what everyone else is queueing for, they just saw a line and joined it. 

[00:09:12] And in fact just to work at McDonald’s, which is now not the most desirable job in the world, there were 25,000 applicants to work at the Moscow location when it announced it was hiring.

[00:09:27] Now our story turns to the home of fine dining, the birthplace of haute cuisine, and a nation that is particularly proud of its culinary heritage: France.

[00:09:39] The French, as any French listener will know better than me, and anyone who has been to France will have seen, tend to enjoy taking time to savour and enjoy their meals.

[00:09:51] The two-hour lunch was a common feature, especially in the 1970s and 80s. Food was something to be enjoyed with friends, family or colleagues, something that should be cooked properly, perhaps even enjoyed with a glass of fine wine.

[00:10:08] The idea that you would rush into a restaurant, order something quickly and be given it on a tray, then you would have to eat it yourself without a knife and fork out of a paper box was, well, not very French at all.

[00:10:23] Yet now France is one of the most popular countries in the world for McDonald’s, indeed it's only behind China and Japan, outside of the US that is. There are now 1,500 McDonald’s restaurants in France while there are only 335 Burger Kings and only 250 KFCs.

[00:10:45] But it wasn’t an immediate success - despite McDonald’s launching in France only two years after launching in the UK, by 1988 it only had 67 restaurants in France vs the 270 it had in the UK.

[00:11:02] So, what changed, and why has McDonald’s now managed to succeed where others have failed?

[00:11:10] Put simply, it adapted to local tastes, while other restaurants assumed that the American version would be so aspirational that it would appeal to anyone, regardless of where they were from.

[00:11:23] Burger King, for example, just replicated the US dining experience in France, with busy, crowded restaurants.

[00:11:32] McDonald’s, on the other hand, recognised that the French like to take their time, and made their restaurants more spacious and better decorated. 

[00:11:42] They offered things like croissants with jam, something you would never find on the menu back in the United States. And they put a particular emphasis on the quality of the ingredients that went into their produce.

[00:11:57] Of course, French McDonald’s is still McDonald’s, it is a fast food restaurant not a fine dining experience, but these changes have led the French to accept McDonald’s in a way that surprised many onlookers.

[00:12:12] But when it comes to the global expansion of American fast food outlets, it hasn’t always gone to plan, and there are numerous examples of times where local customs, competition or a myriad of other factors, lots of other factors, have meant that countries have been able to resist the gravitational pull of burgers and fries.

[00:12:37] In Vietnam, for example, McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in 2014. 

[00:12:44] The first outlet was managed by the Prime Minister’s son, and when it first opened, it was a huge success. 

[00:12:53] Within 24 hours 22,500 people had eaten at the restaurant, and Vietnamese diners chomped their way through 61,980 Big Macs in the first month.

[00:13:07] A great success, you might think.

[00:13:09] But since opening 7 years ago McDonald’s in Vietnam has been a huge flop, and there are only 22 restaurants in the country - one for every 4.4 million people. 

[00:13:23] Compare this to the United States, for example, there is one McDonald’s for every 22,000 people, there are almost 200 times more McDonald’s per person in the United States than Vietnam.

[00:13:36] So, what went wrong?

[00:13:39] Well, as anyone who has been to Vietnam will know, the country already has very high quality and very affordable fast food in the form of soups, meat and vegetables with rice and baguettes.

[00:13:52] This type of local fast food was already being sold by over half a million different individual vendors, so it was very widely available.

[00:14:03] And it was cheaper than McDonald’s. 

[00:14:06] Eating a meal at McDonald’s cost the equivalent of just under $5, whereas an equivalent meal from a local food vendor might cost $2.50, and it tasted far better.

[00:14:20] So, faced with the choice of paying double for a meal that simply wasn’t as nice, why would you do it?

[00:14:27] Another factor that is thought to have gone into the failure of McDonald’s to capture the imagination of the Vietnamese is that the local culture has a strong emphasis on sharing food, and the nature of McDonald’s is that it’s not really food for sharing.

[00:14:46] You’ll note that this is something that also applies to other Asian cultures, for example the Chinese eating culture, and is thought to be one of the reasons that KFC is more successful than McDonald’s in China - because it’s easier to share a bucket of chicken with a group of people than to share a burger. 

[00:15:07] One of the other reasons, by the way, is that KFC understood that even within China there are very distinct food cultures and tastes, and the company adapted its menu within China to cater for local differences.

[00:15:23] When KFC first launched in China, diners from a province called Hunan, which is famous for its spicy food, complained that the chicken was too bland, that it wasn’t spicy enough, while diners from Shanghai, complained that the very same chicken was too spicy. So, KFC adapted its recipes, making the chicken spicier in Hunan and less spicy in Shanghai, adapting it to these local tastes.

[00:15:54] Now, KFC might have managed to crack the Chinese market, but in several countries it found local traditions too hard to overcome.

[00:16:04] One example of this is in Israel. 

[00:16:07] KFC opened its first branch in Israel in 1980, thinking it could recreate the success it had found elsewhere.

[00:16:16] After 32 years trying to make it work, including closing and reopening all of its locations four times, it left the country in 2012, and only returned to give it another try at the start of 2020.

[00:16:31] What went wrong?

[00:16:33] Well, the chicken at KFC, their most famous fried chicken, is cooked in a batter that uses milk as an ingredient.

[00:16:43] Kosher cooking, the Jewish law about the preparation of food, requires that you shouldn’t mix meat and milk, so by default KFC’s most popular dish, its fried chicken, wasn’t allowed under kosher rules.

[00:16:59] As you may know, not all Israelis follow kosher rules, but Israel is the country in the world with the highest proportion of Jewish people, and 80% of the Israeli food industry is kosher.

[00:17:14] KFC was reasonably popular with Israelis who didn’t keep kosher rules, but when your signature product is forbidden by a religious law of a country, well that’s a bit of a problem.

[00:17:28] So, what do you do? Well, one solution is to change the recipe.

[00:17:33] KFC experimented with changing the milk in its batter to soya milk, so that it was kosher and could be eaten by everyone. 

[00:17:43] But this was a lot more expensive and customers thought it simply didn’t taste as good as the original.

[00:17:50] So, KFC was faced with a choice. Do you switch back to the original recipe, knowing full well that this means a sizable proportion of the country won’t be able to eat at your restaurant or do you stick with the recipe that means everyone can eat there, but it isn’t as tasty and it's more expensive?

[00:18:11] KFC chose the latter option, it stuck with the soya milk recipe, kosher fried chicken, but sales plummeted, and it was forced to leave the country in 2012.

[00:18:24] When it returned at the start of 2020 it switched strategy, and isn’t offering kosher chicken, so we will have to wait to see whether it’s fourth attempt at conquering Israel is any different to the previous three.

[00:18:39] Now, Vietnam and Israel are certainly exceptions, they are countries where these American fast food companies haven’t managed to replicate their success. 

[00:18:49] Almost everywhere else, they have.

[00:18:52] Like them or loathe them, American fast food companies have done an incredible job at conquering the planet. 

[00:18:59] Hundreds of millions of people gobble down their products every day, they have successfully adapted their products to meet the tastes of unique cultures and culinary traditions from almost every country, and they have become incredibly successful.

[00:19:15] And this brings us to where we are today, a world where 1% of the population eats at McDonald’s every single day, a world where children are more likely to recognise Ronald McDonald or Colonel Sanders than Jesus, a world where our bellies are bulging and our hearts are pumping faster and faster.

[00:19:36] And that, my friends, will be what we’ll cover in part three of this mini-series.

[00:19:43] OK then, that’s it for part two, taking fast food global.

[00:19:47] I hope it's been an interesting one, and whether you live in the UK, France, Vietnam, Israel or any other country that has felt the impact of these American fast food giants, I hope you’ve learned something new.

[00:20:00] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:20:04] How popular are different fast food chains in your country? How has this changed over time? 

[00:20:10] When have they succeeded and failed, and for what reasons?

[00:20:15] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started; you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:20:28] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:33] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]