Ta-Nehisi Coates writes “I was never the type to go to an island and lay up in a resort. Or go to Paris and eat at McDonald’s.” I’m not necessarily one to eat at a foreign McDonald’s either, except during my sojourn in Nizhny Novgorod back during the summer of 1998 — the food available there would make anyone yearn for a Quarter Pounder. But I’m actually somewhat fascinated by foreign fast food. Ever since the revelatory Pulp Fiction scene about how the call the Quarter Pounder a “royale with cheese” because of the metric system, I’ve been interested in how the subtle variations against the backdrop of fast food uniformity bring our cultural differences into full relief. For example, at the time in Russia they Quarter Pounder was called a Tsarburger.
Ta-Nehisi’s post reminded me that when I was in France in 1999, I was staying with a guy who strictly eschewed McDonald’s but did have a taste for Quick, which is basically a Franco-Belgian ersatz-McDonald’s. This is in some respects a promising concept, since the french fries in Belgium are delicious. But in practice, the Quick fries are unexceptional.
My understanding is that the whole chain essentially arose because French policy in the 1980s was aimed at discouraging an influx of American fast food chains. But rather than savings France from the rise of restauration rapide, this merely created a semi-protective environment in which home-grown options could flourish. Somewhat along these lines, my understanding is that the most robust market for non-U.S. fast food options is South Africa. Thanks to apartheid, South Africa spent the key period of fast food globalization under international sanctions, and American firms were under fierce pressure not to launch operations there. Consequently, domestic chains rose up and competed with one another. This led to some chains — notably Nandos — actually emerging strong enough to not only survive, but expand outside of South Africa once apartheid ended.