Burger joint is Iran's answer to McDonald's

Iranians concoct copies of US fast-food firms ahead of possible entry of the real McCoys

TEHERAN • Despite the smiling clown, a symbol of the Great Satan's love for meat, buns and fries, there were no angry mobs shouting "Death to America".

Instead this Teheran neighbourhood smelled of juicy burgers, flipped by a cheerful Iranian teenager named Jahan in a kitchen crowned with a flashing logo that looked remarkably similar to the golden arches of McDonald's - perhaps the best-known symbol of US fast-food imperialism. Its ever- smiling clown with a red jacket, yellow pants and red oversize shoes was also present on a large poster.

No, McDonald's has not opened in the Iranian capital, weeks after a nuclear deal that will ease global sanctions and possibly portend a change in revolutionary attitudes towards US companies.

This is Mash Donald's, Iran's home-grown version. "We are trying to get as close as we can to the McDonald's experience," said the owner, Hassan, who did not want his family name published out of fear of Iranian hardliners and US trademark lawyers.

Still, resemblance to the US menu ends quickly. "Try our Mash Donald's 1.5-foot-long super sandwich," says one poster, while another reads: "Mash Donald's Falafel sandwich!"

Mash Donald's and other knockoffs of US food culture are increasingly dominating the streets of major Iranian cities, symbols of the increasing disruption to the official revolutionary anti-American narrative predominating since the 1979 overthrow of the Shah and the siege of the US Embassy.

This narrative is about to come under even more pressure if the nuclear deal succeeds and Western companies return. Iran's leaders are hoping for petroleum firms to invest in their oilfields, for aircraft makers to sell them hundreds of much-needed planes and for Western companies to form partnerships in their technology sectors.

But the arrival of foreigners might also undermine the values propagated by the state, hardliners warn. So when the real McDonald's recently posted an international franchise application for Iran, it created quite a buzz. Some politicians were quick to warn that there would be no McDonald's in Iran.

In a statement apparently meant to calm but not kill the speculation, McDonald's said it has "not set a firm date for the development of McDonald's restaurants in Iran", while also inviting any Iranians interested in a franchise opportunity to complete the application.

Mr Gholamali Haddad Adel, an influential lawmaker, is dismayed by the front pages of some Iranian newspapers.

"They speak of the return of McDonald's," he said in an interview on Khabaronline, a conservative website. "Here lies a danger. They are opening their arms wide for the United States and zealously talk about its companies."

Iran is not uncharted territory for McDonald's, which had outlets here before the 1979 revolution.

In 1994, a brave Iranian sought to open an official franchise in Teheran, exciting many citizens but also drawing the attention of hardliners. After two days, the restaurant site was burned down.

"If I had called my restaurant McDonald's, I'd get a visit from the hardliners," Mash Donald's owner said. Officials and vigilantes for revolutionary purity still inquired about the name, saying it was too Western. "After a while, they got used to it," the owner said.

Other fast-food replicas have proliferated, with quirky changes in the names to give the owners some deniability. Teheran now has Kabooki Fried Chicken (KFC), Pizza Hat (Pizza Hut) and Burger House (Burger King).

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 04, 2015, with the headline 'Burger joint is Iran's answer to McDonald's'. Print Edition | Subscribe