An affinity for American-style fast foods certainly isn’t a rarity in the world. But the Iranian fascination with American fast food franchises is definitely a complicated relationship.
For over 35 years, no American fast food franchise brands have been able to operate in the Middle Eastern country because of hostility between the American and Iranian governments. It was only in mid-July 2015 that a long-negotiated deal was reached, entailing provisions of eased economic sanctions against Iran (in return for the country’s strictly regulated access to nuclear materials). If successful, one of the potential long-term effects of the deal is increased outside investment into the Iranian economy.
Currently, in lieu of access to the actual franchises, Iranian entrepreneurs have resorted to what is famously referred to as “the sincerest form of flattery.” Opening restaurants using those brands as a muse, only making slight changes – if any – to the franchises’ colors and style. But there is at least a tacit understanding that what they are doing falls in a grey area. Hassan, an owner of an imitation McDonald’s – Mash Donald’s – didn’t want his family name published in an August 2015 New York Times story partially out of fear of retribution from American trademark lawyers.
Anti-American sentiment in the country also makes it hard at times for the proprietors of these imitation chains. There is strong pressure on Iranian entrepreneurs to not be “too American” from government officials and so-called “hard-liners,” those who oppose Western influences on Iranian society.
“If I had called my restaurant McDonald’s, I’d get a visit from the hard-liners,” one unnamed owner said. “So my son advised me to go for Mash Donald’s. It sort of sounds the same.” However, government officials and hard-liners still visited his restaurant to claiming the name was too Western, but “after a while, they got used to it,” he said.
Perhaps he is alluding to lessons learned from the past. Over 20 years ago, another businessman tried to run an official McDonald’s restaurant in the Iranian capital of Tehran. He received initial approval and there was positive reaction from some citizens in anticipation of the restaurant. However, the protests were swift and devastating. His restaurant site was burned down within days by hard-liners. In addition, the approval to open got overturned by the judiciary (the Health Ministry gave the initial OK).
But times are changing. The younger population of Iranians is significantly more westernized, and a number of American brands are very popular within the country without drawing the same kind of ire. In fact, a 2010 call by former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to boycott products such as IBM, Coca-Cola, Nike and others fell on somewhat deaf ears. “The response [was] ridicule,” said Bahman Baktiari at the time. Baktiari is the director of the Middle East Center at the University of Utah.
Though attitudes are seemingly changing, why take the risk? The franchise principle of replication is a basis for the answer.
When entrepreneurs open a franchise, one of the most common reasons stated as a plus is the presence of established brand equity. When people visit a franchise they have a good idea of what they are going to expect because the franchisor of that specific brand has invested countless hours and dollars in creating a system for the replication of its business’ product or service.
It’s an approach that, fittingly and maybe not surprisingly, was pioneered by McDonald’s Corporation founder Ray Kroc. According to his official McDonald’s biography, Kroc “wanted to build a restaurant system that would be famous for providing food of consistently high quality and uniform methods of preparation.” To that end, Kroc and associates like Fred Turner, the first head of operations for the franchise, created comprehensive specifications that all McDonald’s adhere to within certain allowances.
It’s a process that all franchisors emulate to a degree. But they aren’t the only ones. The same holds true for owners of the imitation establishments as well. “We are trying to get as close as we can get to the McDonald’s experience,” says Hassan.
However, appearance is the only way Mash Donald’s resembles its muse. The food is very different. For instance, the burger that is closest to McDonald’s hallmark Big Mac is a baguette burger at Mash Donald’s. It includes meat, cheese and turkey ham. Other popular menu items include a falafel sandwich and hot dogs in baguette bread.
McDonald’s isn’t the only food franchise that should be “flattered.” Other imitation brands in Iran include Kabooki Fried Chicken (KFC), Pizza Hat (Pizza Hut), Burger House (Burger King), Subways (Subway) and Super Star (Carl’s Jr. /Hardee’s).
Additionally, Iran isn’t the only country with a number of imitations. Many countries like China, Japan and Greece have imitations of popular fast food chains, even when the franchise companies operate within their borders.
For more on Iran’s imitation franchise brands, have a look at this photo essay.