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Food for Thought

The Food Chain

Want a coffee? a burger? a pizza? There are as many options as there are variety of foodstuffs. However, more and more of the choices seem to be limited to franchised chains. In Manhattan, it’s as if there’s a Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts on every other block — how much coffee or pastry goods can a person consume?

The chain mentality is not limited to cities in the United States. Many of the major brands have expanded into the global market so KFC in Eden Prairie, Minnesota should taste the same as the KFC in Beijing, China. Some expansions are more successful than others for cultural reasons. KFC is much more popular in China than McDonald’s. The reason is likely that chicken is a more familiar food to the Chinese than beef (cow). Know your market may be a truism but that’s why McDonald’s sells the Maharaja Mac lamb burger in India. Given this success, Mickey D’s should definitely consider a pork patty for the Chinese market.

Food franchises have advantages. If you walk into a Starbucks in Seattle, birthplace of the coffee empire, it will offer the same types of drinks as the ones in New York, Beijing, or Tokyo. The biggest difference is price. A latte that cost ~ $3 in North America is a comparatively high-end luxury item at the same relative price in Beijing. But if you need that coffee fix and a taste that’s familiar, then it’s worth the costs. After all, there was a period when we all thought paying more than $1 for coffee is ludicrous — the “expense” cachet is something that many strive for.

Starbucks and McDonald's Global Expansion

Infographic illustrating the global expansion of various chains - click for larger image.

Franchisees are entrepreneurs in their own way. They license the expertise and support of the chain to serve a market. It’s usually less risky than setting out on your own as the chains will do the research and provide the necessary starting materials and advice. The smarter chains will also encourage local creativity. The Big Mac was a creation of an early McDonald’s franchisee. And many local chains do have flavors and variations targeted for the region.

Still the bulk of the food offered by franchises is the same — the business plan is to sell the familiar. The familiar is easy; there are no unknowns and expectations are minimal. Food chains do deliver the comfort of the familiar especially in foreign countries. However, for every chain store, there is a mom and pop that has closed, or didn’t even open and potentially a local cuisine that has disappeared.

Part of the adventure of living in a new city and being an expat is exploration and eating in a McDonald’s in Paris isn’t an introduction to French culture, even with french fries. And who knows, walking into a non-chain may mean discovering a new food fad — after all, every chain started as single store once.


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