Burger boom as fast food finds fans in Baghdad

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Baghdad’s Mansour district is the heart of the fast-food scene.

At the height of sectarian fighting in 2006 and 2007, it was tough to find shops open along the neighborhood’s main drag. Militants targeted shop owners in a campaign to undermine government efforts to restore normality.

These days, roads are packed with cars. The traditional Arabic restaurants long popular here now find themselves competing against foreign-sounding rivals such as Florida Fried Chicken, Mr. Potato, Pizza Boat and Burger Friends.

There is even a blatant KFC knockoff called KFG, which owner Zaid Sadiq insists stands for Kentucky Family Group. He said he picked the name because he wanted something similar to the world-famous fried chicken chain. And he believes his chicken is just as good.

“In the future my restaurant will be as famous as KFC. Why not?” he said.

One of Mansour’s newest additions is Burger Joint, a slick shop serving up respectable burgers and milkshakes to a soundtrack that includes Frank Sinatra. It is the creation of VQ Investment Group, a firm with operations in Iraq and the United Arab Emirates.

Its Mansour store is outfitted with stylish stone walls and flat-screen televisions. Another branch just opened across town in the commercial district of Karradah.

The group also runs the Iraq franchises of Pizza Pizza, a Turkish chain, and is planning to launch a new hot submarine sandwich brand called Subz.

Mohammed Sahib, VQ’s executive manager in Iraq, said business has been good so far.

Even so, running a restaurant in Iraq is not without its challenges.

Burger Joint’s servers had to give up the iPads they originally used to take orders because the Internet kept cutting out, he said. Finding foreign ingredients such as Heinz ketchup and year-round supplies of lettuce is also tricky, and many customers need help understanding foreign menu items like milkshakes and cookies.

Health experts are predictably not thrilled about the new arrivals.

“The opening of these American-style restaurants … will make Iraqis, especially children, fatter,” said Dr. Sarmad Hamid, a physician at a Baghdad government hospital. But even he acknowledged that the new eateries aren’t all bad.

“People might benefit psychologically by sitting down in a quiet, clean and relatively fancy place with their families, away from the usual chaos in Iraqi cities,” he said.

Purveyors of traditional Iraqi specialties, who might be expected to oppose the foreign-looking imports, don’t seem to mind at all.

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