Of Familiar Fast Food Chains And Local Culture

Change has become the only constant in Myanmar. From a country that barely witnessed change a decade ago, to have become a rapidly transforming and growing economy, Myanmar stands for optimism and hope, development and advancement…all the positives that appear once the need for embracing change is felt. The air is rife with optimism and enthusiasm, even as the local populace waits expectantly for the next set of newbies to appear.

Just a few months back, KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken), the American fried chicken and burger chain, opened for business in the crowded downtown area, opposite Bogyoke Aung San Market, to long queues and endless waits. But just the taste of something savored all over the world, getting a flavor of truly international fast food, the luxury of choice, and an experience similar to urbane Singapore and New York, makes the young and old wait patiently, almost endlessly. This led to more outlets of KFC opening up, and others following suit. Burger King opened its first outlet at the new International airport, where some of the nicest eateries have opened, to capture the tourist segment.

The invasion of the fast food culture was imminent, the seeds having been sown over three years ago, and the first to appear were Malaysia’s Marry Brown, Korea’s Lotteria, and local businesses setting up fast food counters at the Junction Malls. This change makes Myanmar one more country where demand of processed foods is increasing, as it is in other developing countries. It is strange to see this demand decline in the developed world, where awareness about health and nutrition is pushing people towards natural, wholesome foods. One wonders, if it is necessary to follow the same route, as others, to first give up natural foods, switch to fast processed foods, for the taste, flavor, and snob appeal, and then revert back to where they had started from. Income levels play a role, since higher incomes that accrue, as economic growth sets in, lead to diet upgrades, and changing preferences. But the lure of western, modern ways take precedence, in the initial stages of economic development in all countires.

As countries open up for the world, the first change is witnessed in the rapid escalation of tourists from different countries. The elusive existence, sketchy information and their virgin, unexplored domains whet the appetite of the adventurous traveler willing to brave even hostile territories. It helps of course, to find familiar names and brands, at least for food and basic facilities, when language barriers exist and availability of preferred foods unknown. In lesser developed nations there is concern about hygiene and sanitation, since international standards have not yet permeated into the system.

The question arises-is there a need to open doors to an alien culture of food, offering a different taste and method of cooking and serving, to what has been perfectly acceptable as local ethnic cuisine for generations? Is it always necessary to give up on age old methods of hanging out at tea shops, spending hours on small tables and low stools, sipping tea while watching the vehicles go by? And move towards bustling, cold, air conditioned eateries, see informal coziness and personalized spontaneity replaced by professional, rehearsed, impersonal courtesy, and standardization leaving no scope for experimenting and innovation?

The answer lies in the one term that has transformed every developing country – globalization. Development has become universally synonymous with globalization, since it does provide opportunities for increasing income, output and employment.  Globalization becomes part of the series of economic reforms initiated by governments which then permit foreign investment, and allow multinationals to set up offices and sell their products in the country. Yes, they provide employment opportunities, bring in the much needed financial and technical expertise, and ensure that yet another country fits into the international model. Thus they become allies, aiding the process of economic development, with better employment opportunities bringing higher incomes, and people being able to consume better quality goods, which may not always be the healthiest.

For the people

The local people couldn’t be happier as new international fast food outlets open in Yangon. For the first time they get a taste of what is eaten beyond their country’s borders, the novelty being in the food as much as the ambience. A taste of fast food in Yangon, an experience different from what they see elsewhere in the city, and being able to choose is an exciting prospect. For a country where all this is new, the craze is likely to continue for longer. To eat and entertain the way youngsters in other countries do, is the current fixation of the youth. Interestingly, the locals innocently believe that if this food is world famous, it has got to be healthy. For the present, the focus is on getting a flavor of dining at KFC, Pizza Company and others, to score over their peers and add to the list of ‘cool’ things they do.

Employment opportunities will appear for the locals as more brands extend their network of similar outlets. With employment comes the essential training, which gives young Myanmar folk learn the English language, understand the nuances of the hospitality industry and improve their skill set which will yield dividends in the form of better job opportunities.

A threat to local culture?

Yangon is the first city in Myanmar whose food landscape is changing fast. For the last two years, we have been seeing new eateries mushrooming in every street and alley. From Lotteria,  Marry Brown  and The Pizza Company, to KFC and the ready-to-open Pasta Mania, a fast food invasion is set to delight the younger generation. Age old favorites like Sharky’s , Acacia Tea Salon and Coffee Circle are no longer the only options.

Like all other developing countries, the typical consumer has been accustomed to a diet including low value, carbohydrate rich cereals, with the addition of local produce of fresh vegetables. It is only as incomes increase that the intake of higher value meats and seafood increases.

The biggest threat is to the small shop owners selling local Myanmar foods for ages. They will be looked down upon, not just because of the food, but also when comparisons take place about hygiene, ambience, service, inability to match value delivered, and perhaps inconsistency. Lack of financial resources is the biggest deterrent for local businesses being unable to gear up for the competition.

Even more disturbing is the fact that people will change their eating habits and forget the nutritive goodness of a well balanced Myanmar meal, which is a combination of carbohydrates, proteins, minerals and vitamins, coming from rice, meats, vegetables and salads.

The end result is a cultural displacement, affecting the younger generation far more, whose comfort food becomes, what many call ‘junk’.

For a section of people such places are too expensive to frequent, but for many more, they become a regular eating destination, and old local favorites are forgotten. Even the concept of eating at home, which has been the norm in Myanmar unlike countries like Thailand and Singapore, is set to change. The novelty may wane but the food craze may not.

For the multinationals

A market ready to be tapped, a consumer bank of millions of people waiting to see global products and services, and governments opening doors to foreign participants, is an extremely attractive opportunity for multinationals, especially in the fast food segment. To set up business and be able to cater to such demand will spur their sales growth to double digit levels, with far less effort than their single digit growth in developed nations, which may not even be guaranteed. Having reached near saturation points in markets where they have operated for decades, new markets like Myanmar promise growth spurts, not seen for a long time in the history of these companies. Keeping in mind local tastes and preferences and modifying food menus accordingly ensures greater success. Internationalization does imply adapting to local tastes and preferences without the basic American identity of fast food being wiped off.

Big brands like KFC have a huge advantage. Belonging to a vast multinational business, the focus is not on earning profits immediately, but more to attract locals with cheap rates, local preferences, a clean environment, and standardized methods, till they get deeply entrenched in the system and high volumes drive profits. The food is processed mechanically, and for the present, it is being savored by all who step in. Their Zinger Burger and fried chicken which is seasoned with 11 herbs and spices, are Asian favourites, and are Yangon best sellers as well.

Future growth of these multinational chains lies in developing nations since the developed economies have turned towards healthier meal options. A study conducted by the Boston Consulting Group in 2013 reveals that less than 40% Myanmar locals frequent restaurants for meals. This can be attributed to lack of sufficient choice, high prices and an eating-out culture yet to emerge. Thus, a huge demand awaits fast food chains who will gain access to a vast customer base that will lap up the food being offered.

The final word

KFC is one of the chains exporting the US concept of fast food, including quick service, cheap rates, one main standardized product, always of the same quality with no variation in color, texture, cooking level, and hence, taste; and the creation of a network of outlets providing identical food and service. Cost minimization, setting up an effective supply chain, mass production to yield economies of scale, mechanized processes and high levels of hygiene maintained, have all added up to bring rich returns. But as Western markets neared saturation points, increased competition and the emergence of fast casual restaurants that provide healthier fare, many chains began trimming their network, scaling down by shutting loss making outlets and extending their menus to include healthier vegetarian options, while exploring business opportunities in countries opening up for foreign investment.

Myanmar is set to see hundreds of fast food outlets open in every part of the country, starting with Yangon, in the next few years. Demand will increase as disposable incomes rise and a bigger percentage of the population emerges as the middle class. But with these, must come awareness about what exactly healthy eating entails, and whether one should frequent trendy eating joints, or keep them as an occasional treat.