What Fast Food Tells Us About the World

When American fast food became an international phenomenon, it transcended its origins and became the first truly global cuisine. The implications are greater than most of us realize.

Can fast food explain the world? Put another way, can tracing the tentacles of the world’s biggest fast food companies inform our understanding of capitalism today? 

The question is hardly a new one. In December 1996, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman famously posited a “Golden Arches theory of conflict prevention,” which stated that no two countries hosting a McDonald’s had ever gone to war with each other. In those days, at the pinnacle of the contemporary global era, fast food was a near-perfect metaphor for the advance of capitalism around the world if only because it so clearly illustrated the essentially American nature of globalization. As Bill Clinton described the world to come during his inaugural January 1997 inaugural address—the starting pistol of the era, if there ever was one—“ports and airports, farms and factories will thrive with trade and innovation and ideas, and the world’s greatest democracy will lead a whole world of democracies.” Globalization was a phenomenon sustained by American-based, American-dominated rule-making groups like the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund. Any nation that wished to be part of the emergent world order had to adopt not just its rules into its legal system, but incorporate the cultural values which undergirded them as well. 

Today, globalization may be an inescapable human condition, but as both an economic and cultural phenomenon, it is less obviously the project of the United States or any other one country than at any time in the past 20 years. Flows of trade, finance, and cultural exchange continue to deepen, but rising uncertainty about who, if anyone, is guiding them has made following their course all the more complicated. 

Yum! Brands (parent company of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Huts) is a case in point. At the time of its spin-off from PepsiCo in 1997, 80 percent of the company’s profits came from the United States, with most of the remaining 20 percent coming from other wealthy nations like Japan, the United Kingdom, and Australia. 15 years later, those numbers had nearly reversed, with 70 percent of profits coming from overseas, and most of those from so-called “emerging markets.” Still-poor but fast-growing regions in Africa and Southeast Asia—the leading edge of globalization’s advance—now serve as hubs for both the sale of fast food and the production of its raw materials, while more affluent countries like China and India are treated as reliable mainstays and the United States is yesterday’s market. McDonald’s, and now even Burger King, Dairy Queen, and Dunkin’ (formerly Dunkin’ Donuts) are following a similar pattern. 

For all these companies, the essential mission of selling meat cheaply and quickly, in roughly identical forms and in roughly identical settings, remains the same, but it’s one advanced by a network of local franchise partners and suppliers who have little to do with the United States. Even as patrons can recognize something essentially American in the biggest fast food chains, there is less reason than ever to call fast food the culinary front of American expansionism. Just as global capitalism is no longer an exclusively American project, fast food is no longer one, either. 

Perhaps then we shouldn’t abandon the fast food metaphor of global capitalism, but revisit it. Even as a regional American phenomenon, fast food represented the last link in a chain connecting every stage of economic development, from agriculture to industry to services. As a global phenomenon, that chain connects soy fields in Brazil to poultry farms, slaughterhouses, and customers a world away.

And the customers, ultimately, reveal the most about fast food’s appeal. While there is something to be said for the addictive properties of meat cooked in its own grease and the industry’s coercive marketing tactics, especially targeting children, no critic of fast food can escape the fact that, around the world, people seem to want fast food. By considering why they do, we might see the world as it is, and where it’s going. 

The Golden Arches at the Gateway of Asia

Fast food moved into Europe and Canada soon after taking over the United States, but it wasn’t until the mid 1970s that the industry had its first encounter with the developing world, opening a passage to a region that has determined its success ever since. 

When McDonald’s arrived there in 1975, Hong Kong was still a British colony, just beginning a transition from grimy colonial outpost to stylish hub of international finance. With new clout came a desire for a new cultural identity. For young people, McDonald’s answered that desire perfectly. To begin with, it offered an experience decidedly removed from the Sino-British binary that had defined Hong Kong since its inception. The distinction was about more than just food. Prices displayed on menu boards meant anyone who could pay was welcome, while novel rituals of ordering, eating, and discarding the trash made a meal out feel exotic, like a visit to a foreign country more advanced than their own. In the 1997 compendium Golden Arches East, the anthropologist James L. Watson wrote that young Hongkongers found in McDonald’s an atmosphere of “laid back, nonhierarchical dynamism” that contrasted not just with their experience of eating at restaurants until then, but with the experience of living in Hong Kong more generally. 

The affection was mutual. For McDonald’s, Hong Kong had all the traits of a frontier town: a place of cultural exchange, where the company could learn the nuances of serving Chinese people before venturing forth into the vast region to its north where bigger fortunes would soon be made. Like any frontier town, it was also the site of the industry’s most profitable investments. By 1992, seven of the 10 busiest McDonald’s in the world were in Hong Kong, and the company’s success was the stuff of legend for both industry executives in the United States and the colony’s own business leaders. 

Mainland China was the obvious next stop, but KFC would beat McDonald’s to the first landing. In 1987, as China emerged from a long period of isolation, KFC opened its then-largest outlet in the world in Beijing, one block from Tiananmen Square. McDonald’s followed in 1990 with a restaurant in Shenzhen before opening its own largest-in-the-world outlet in Beijing two years later. Even a few years after the Golden Arches arrived in the Chinese capital, anthropologist Yunxiang Yan observed, many Chinese considered a visit to McDonald’s a special occasion worth saving for in advance. Lower-income patrons often invited their families for the occasion and splurged on a cab to pick them up to create a more memorable experience. Tourists from distant provinces considered McDonald’s one of the essential stops on the capital circuit, and one which they were quick to boast of when they returned home. Often, Yan observed, these patrons would take their used clam shell containers and drink cups home with them as souvenirs. 

To people who grew up in the United States or Europe, the idea that anyone (but adults, especially) could be so enamored with fast food might be surprising. The high cost of a fast food meal compared to the standard streetside food options in China partly explains the excitement. In the mid-1990s, a typical meal for a family of three cost one-sixth the average Chinese worker’s monthly wage, making it a luxury for most patrons. But as in Hong Kong, the experience of being in a fast food restaurant was always a bigger draw than the food itself, even for those who could afford to go multiple times per week. Chinese news during this time typically associated fast food’s success with its “atmosphere of equality and democracy,” Yan noted. Servers at McDonald’s and KFC were polite by training, and a patron ordered from the counter, facing a uniformed official as an equal. No matter who they were, patrons could expect to be treated with dignity and respect. Many went merely to experience “a moment of equality,” Yan wrote in Golden Arches East

When I asked my Beijing informants about the equality factor, they all pointed out that banquets in Chinese restaurants are highly competitive: people try to outdo one another by offering the most expensive dishes and alcoholic beverages. It is typical for the host at a banquet to worry that customers at neighboring tables might be enjoying better dishes, thus causing him or her to lose face. Such competition does not exist at McDonald’s, where the menu is limited, the food is standardized, and every customer receives a set of items that are more or less equal in quality. 

That “moment of equality” came with a real sense of possibility—and power. In the way that a Chinese restaurant is many middle class Americans’ first encounter with a foreign culture, for Chinese people in the 1990s, a KFC or McDonald’s was a first brush not just with the United States, but with capitalism. At a time when the state provided every essential service, fast food offered Chinese people the rare chance to use their money to buy something useless but fun. And in that way, it gave people a chance to be a new kind of person—a consumer—and to be recognized as that before anything else. 

The Globalization of Taste 

China would eventually become the most important country in the world for the fast food industry. KFC was especially aggressive in its expansion, finding new frontiers within its borders years after its first arrival, and often becoming the first western outlet of any kind in many cities with over a million people. On the heels of its successes in China, the industry became more adventurous, with expansions in Asia, Latin America, India, and Africa accelerating through the 1990s and 2000s. 

With that newfound internationalism, the industry tailored an identity that was independent of any single country—including the United States—marketing their brands as local expressions of a global phenomenon. Avoiding national affiliations has given these companies the flexibility to present themselves as supra-national entities, unmoored to any one country or national culture in particular. A brochure I picked up at a KFC in Portugal informed me that “every day, ten million customers are served at KFC, the largest chain in the world specializing in chicken.” The company led “more than 17,000 restaurants in 109 countries, and of course, in Portugal, proudly since 1996.”

For people separated from the agrarian life by only one or two generations, and who grew up eating within limits defined by familial tradition and the availability of local ingredients, fast food represents a liberation from a lifetime of cultural and geographic constraints. One doesn’t eat off the land at a fast food outlet, but off the global economy. 

Abundance has not yielded variety, of course. No matter where you eat it, fast food always tastes the same, with only slight variations to accommodate local preferences. In the Philippines, for instance, McDonald’s, serves spaghetti with a sweet tomato-based sauce, while in Turkey, soft serve ice cream topped with apricots is a typical accompaniment to the usual helping of burgers and fries. In Amritsar, India, McDonald’s went as far as opening a new outlet with an entirely vegetarian menu, with items like a “McAloo Tikki Burger,” complete with a patty made from potatoes, for 50 cents. 

Overwhelming sameness is not some unintended side-effect of streamlined supply chains: getting chicken and beef to taste at least similar everywhere is often harder than making it taste different in each region. Different breeds of cattle and chicken eating different grains can change the terroir of their meat, just as a Coke bottled in Mexico tastes different from one bottled in the United States. Global homogeneity is a feat that only a truly global company can pull off, and if only for that reason, it’s also one of the industry’s biggest selling points, particularly in developing countries where new consumers are unlikely to take such displays of international synchronicity for granted. For many of the industry’s newest loyalists in Addis Ababa, Dakar, and Astana, the idea of eating the same thing and in the same way as other people around the world is as exciting a culinary possibility as there is. 

What is true for patrons is often more true for employees. In one 2005 study, sociologist Carolyn Hsu found KFC employees in the city of Harbin, China, who had given up better-paying jobs at state-run companies in the small cities of their upbringing to scrub countertops and mop floors at a fast food restaurant in the bigger city up the road. What Americans derisively called a “McJob” in the United States was, in this still under-developed corner of Asia, a chance to participate in the global economy for the first time. 

“Working in a western restaurant allowed them to participate in the world of the center and cast off the taint of the periphery,” Hsu wrote. “As employees, they could participate in ‘scientific’ rationalized practices”—frying chicken in deep purpose-built machines according to exacting health standards—“meet foreigners, eavesdrop on da kuan (big shots) making deals, and taste the same food that people were eating in New York, Tokyo, and Paris.”

Writing in Roads & Kingdoms, Saba Imtiaz offered a similar account about KFC’s arrival to Pakistan in 1997, where the opening of the first multinational fast food chain was as clear an indication as any that their nation had joined the international order. “Being seen at KFC wasn’t just about eating out. It was about gaining a bit of foreignness, being on the right side of the glass windows, and eating the same fried chicken served in Dubai and America.” The glass facade of another KFC I visited in Phnom Penh, Cambodia offered a similar message. Through the doors, it said (in English, no less), customers could experience “the same taste enjoyed in Sydney, Kuala Lumpur, and Portland, Oregon.” 

Elsewhere, eating fast food has emerged as a form of rebellion against political constraints. After Israeli forces blockaded the Gaza Strip, a network of couriers, linked by taxis and underground tunnels to Egypt, sprung into action to ensure customers under siege could still eat KFC. For $27, a Gaza resident could have a 12-piece bucket of chicken delivered (cold) in around four hours. In explaining the need for such a complex affair, the network’s 27-year-old organizer described it in unmistakably political terms, as though the point wasn’t so much to eat fried chicken as it was to enjoy the fruits of global capitalism over and against Israel’s best efforts to deny them. As he told the New York Times, “it’s our right to enjoy that taste the other people all over the world enjoy.” 

In developing countries today, Americanness is not the primary appeal of fast food, if it ever was. The draw is more abstract—a shared sense of modernity and international connection. Eating fast food doesn’t transport one to another country, but it does allow a person to transcend the limits of their birth. If fast food represents any place, it’s an idealized place, one where consumerism is the unifying culture, and disposable income—not caste, ethnic group, or party affiliation–is the only requirement for belonging. 

Franchising the World 

Fast food’s detachment from local trappings is more than just an image. It’s rooted in the industry’s ownership model. Since the early days of its U.S. boom in the 1950s, fast food has grown by splitting the duties of ownership through a franchise model. The basics of the arrangement are common knowledge to many Americans: essentially, a big company like McDonald’s or KFC (the franchisor) owns the intellectual property that gives the brand its power, including the logo and the recipe for the secret sauce or the 11 herbs and spices, then licenses it to a smaller company (the franchisee) for a fee and a cut of the profits. The franchisor stands to benefit from the franchisee’s success, while the franchisee is left to handle the more prosaic (and often riskier) aspects of the business, such as maintaining the building, security, hiring and firing workers, and insurance. Having the association of a big corporation with a sellable product gives franchisees cachet with investors, making it easier to finance new restaurants, but ultimately it’s the franchisees and not their corporate overlord who are on the hook if they can’t pay off a loan. 

In this way, franchising split the usual risks of running a business. But franchisees could also persuade locals to trust them, giving a neighborly identity to what would otherwise be a faceless, multinational corporation. In her book Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, historian Marcia Chatelain describes how the industry first learned these advantages in the United States. In the midst of the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, many corporate executives, including some at McDonald’s, felt compelled to extend the institutions of capitalism into majority-Black, urban areas. At the time, McDonald’s already proliferated in majority-black parts of American cities, but Black franchisees were unheard of. By bridging that gap, these executives believed, McDonald’s could position itself as an ally of Black communities, expanding in their neighborhoods while also forming a new class of Black entrepreneurs [1].

McDonald’s turned to one of its managers, Roland Jones, to lead the effort. A native Tennessean who had grown up in segregated Memphis, Jones had begun to manage a McDonald’s in suburban Washington, D.C. after learning the ways of white society during a stint in the military. During the 1968 unrest, he had won the attention of the company’s corporate leaders for leaving the relative safety of his store to drive the burning streets of the capital to check on the mostly Black staff at other McDonald’s. Soon after, Jones was tasked with recruiting the company’s first Black franchisees. As Chatelain writes, Jones believed “the right person would possess a mix of characteristics learned inside and outside of school.”

Jones recalled thinking that McDonald’s needed to find someone “who could communicate with the corporate structure, and identify with blacks on the grassroots level. Familiarity with “grassroots” meant being attuned to what was happening on the streets and on the stock market. Grassroots businessmen were regular folk who managed to survive the ins and outs of Chicago’s slums and who could command respect from gang members and corporate board members alike [2].

McDonald’s was desperate enough to recruit Jones’ Black franchisees that it exempted them from its usual self-financing requirement, allowing them to join with other, better-capitalized white partners. Hence, some of the company’s early inner-city forays were built on so-called “zebra” or “salt and pepper” partnerships, with white partners serving as silent, minority investors and Black partners as the majority owners and faces of the business. But the imbalance of power made such arrangements fraught, and Black franchisees often accused their white partners of taking advantage of them and saddling them with debt. 

McDonald’s eventually paid millions to rid itself of negligent partners, but the company accepted those and other costs as necessary. Black franchisees could bring credibility to McDonald’s in Black neighborhoods in ways their white peers never could. 

Years later, fast food companies found local partners to be just as useful as guides and advocates in the developing world as they had been in inner city America. In the way a company like McDonald’s could shift identities, from a large, faceless corporation to a small, locally-owned business depending on the situation, in a given country it could be a foreign company or a domestic one.

In developing countries today, franchisees are typically large family businesses with holdings that represent a cross section of the local economy. In addition to being McDonald’s’ sole franchisee in Sri Lanka, the Abans Group sells appliances, leases three-wheelers, and provides office custodial services. Transcom, KFC’s franchisee in Bangladesh, grows tea and manufactures insulin. The Mohinani Group, KFC’s franchisee in Ghana, makes tires and plastic packaging and sells luxury real estate. Different business interests come with different skills, many of which can be useful when running something as complex as a restaurant chain. 

Franchisees are also useful for their relationships. Building a fast food outlet from scratch can easily cost millions of dollars, and franchisees often have ties with regional banks which can provide the necessary capital. Friends in government can also ensure a construction project gets its permits on time. In poor countries rife with corruption, taking such essential steps can be a dirty business in itself, and it’s there that franchisees offer another advantage: insulating fast food companies from local power structures. 

Take the story of Kith Meng, founder and chair of the Royal Group, one of two companies which own KFC’s sole franchisee in Cambodia. Kith was born in Cambodia, raised in Australia, then returned to his home country to make an early fortune in the 1990s by supplying the local United Nations peacekeeping mission. As he became more successful, Kith developed contacts in the highest levels of the Cambodian government, expanding his wealth alongside his personal network to make investments in hotels, telecoms, a lottery, a bank, a TV station, and a bus line. Each success only confirmed Kith’s status as an oligarch. But in a country rife with endemic corruption and political drama, he managed to present himself as one above the usual problems. Still, Kith’s image was never so neat as the reality. In a leaked cable from 2007, U.S. diplomats, quoting a local source, described him as a “relatively young and ruthless gangster… notorious for using his bodyguards to coerce others into brokering deals.” 

Shady dealings were apparently a habit of the family. Last year, Kith Thieng, Kith Meng’s older brother, was arrested with 50 kilos of drugs at a club where he was known to entertain Cambodian elites [3]. Kith Thieng was the vice-chairman of Royal Group and a director of Kampuchea Food Corporation, the joint-venture co-owned by Royal to manage KFC in Cambodia. Now serving a four-year prison sentence, Kith Thieng no longer holds a management position with Royal, but a corporate registry continued to list him as a director of the joint-venture long after his legal troubles. 

To state the obvious, if the Kith brothers were employees of Yum! Brands, the company would have likely fired them by now. But despite the cascade of bad news, Yum! has apparently found no need to find a new franchisee in Cambodia. Detachment has protected the company from reputational harm. 

Transcending Nationality With Fast Food 

What does fast food’s enduring cultural appeal in the developing world mean for capitalism? When Thomas Friedman pitched his “Golden Arches theory of conflict prevention,” the idea was not just to represent a new world order as something desirable, but also American’s dominance within it. To an audience understandably concerned about globalization, Friedman presented the new paradigm as essentially the internationalization of the American way. The sameness that so characterized the fast food product extended all the way down through its underlying ownership structures and supply chains. To merely open its doors to a McDonald’s franchise, a country first had to adopt laws compatible with the United States and open itself up to imports of all the components of burger and fries it couldn’t produce on its own. “Countries that plug into globalization,” Friedman wrote in a follow-up to his original column, “are really plugging into a high degree of Americanization.” Making the world safe for McDonald’s meant first making it safe for American capitalism. 

But fast food has rarely embraced the American association in its overseas marketing. More recently, with rising nationalism around the world, fast food companies have shifted their identities to match their customers’ increasingly nationalist impulses. That’s especially true in China, still the most important fast food market in the world. In a two-minute TV spot in 2018, viewers saw pop star Han Lu meeting the actor and singer Bo Huang on a train speeding through four decades of Chinese economic reform, from a Beijing inundated with bicycles in the earliest days of the reform period, to the 2008 Summer Olympics, to a montage of freeways, satellite dishes, and robots. “Who would have thought that the past 40 years would bring so much change?” Bo asks. The ad ends with family and friends enjoying a meal from KFC. 

Not long after the ad aired, more than 250 KFCs were rebranded in Hubei province to honor Lei Feng, a hero of the Maoist era. The new campaign included a cartoon Lei, complete with trademark fur hat and red star insignia, adorning the global fast food brand in the iconography of Chinese communism. 

Despite wrapping itself in the flag, it would be ridiculous to consider KFC Chinese. Since 2016, all of the 8,000-plus KFCs, Pizza Huts, and Taco Bells in China have been owned by an independent company registered in Delaware and traded on the New York Stock Exchange called Yum China. 

But that’s not to say KFC is American, either. Yum! Brands, the company which owns all of KFC’s intellectual property, including its name and recipes, is headquartered in Kentucky, but Yum China is headquartered in Shanghai. Probing the franchisee’s corporate filings, you’ll find references to more than 80 subsidiaries in nine jurisdictions, including more than a dozen in Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and some Caribbean tax havens. In disclosures, Yum China even warns investors that any lawsuit filed against it in the United States—still officially its home country—may be fruitless as nearly all its assets are in the Chinese mainland. 

Just as fast food represents a culture unattached to any place in particular, the industry which sells it has stretched the franchise model to evade obligation to any one jurisdiction. As national governments quibble with each other, and borders and cultural identities are hardened, businesses without any national loyalties are integrating as aggressively as ever. Contrary to what apologists like Friedman told us a generation ago, what fast food tells us now is that the American officials who gave rise to  globalization have ceded its control to the businesses they always intended it to benefit. The dream of a global polity, wherein even the lowliest person, committed to the values of internationalism, can achieve membership as a “global citizen” is over. The reality of a global market and its corollary, the global consumer, is only becoming more advanced. 

[1] Creating new entrepreneurs also opened new avenues for financing from government channels, such as the U.S. Small Business Administration, which was then looking to rebuild American inner cities through lending to black entrepreneurs. For a more thorough look at this part of the story, see Jou, Chin. Supersizing Urban America: How Inner Cities Got Fast Food with Government Help, University of Chicago Press (2017).
 [2] Having credibility with gangs would prove essential in Chicago. Chatelain details how one of Jones’ recruits, a former barbershop owner-turned-franchisee named Herman Petty, persuaded the Blackstone Rangers gang to stop extorting his Southside McDonald’s. The deal was essential to McDonald’s continued success in the area.
[3]  The news has been enough to get Cambodia observers to wonder if Kith’s once venerated connections in government have been severed. Cambodian oligarchs often run illegal side businesses, but as local observers tell me, the government only cracks down when they fall out of favor for other reasons.

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