Friday, March 11, 2011

Globalization of the American Fast Food Industry

The globalization of American fast food has made a significant impact on the world at large. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, fast food is food that can be prepared quickly and easily and is sold in restaurants and snack bars as a quick meal or to be taken out. The second definition, listed by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, states that fast food is designed for ready availability, use or consumption and with little consideration given to quality or significance. The last definition is the main reason why fast food creates such a controversy in America. In order to prepare food quickly, little consideration is given to quality and therefore many people blame fast food for weight gain and health issues. The fast food restaurants that we have become familiar with in America are McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, Subway, and Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) to name a few. These restaurants, regardless of the controversy they cause in America, have become very popular across the world. The National Restaurant Association reported that in 2006 the global fast food market grew by 4.8 percent and reached a value of 102.4 billion and a volume of 80.3 billion transactions (1). Considering that there are only seven billion people in the world, 80.3 billion fast food transactions between consumers and restaurants is quite extraordinary. In this paper, I will look at the globalization of American fast food restaurants around the world and the impact they have had on other cultures.
McDonald’s currently has over 30,000 franchise outlets in 121 countries, and serves about 46 million people a day (2). McDonald’s has become known worldwide for their golden arches, which has become as big an American symbol as the American flag. On April 23, 1992, the largest McDonald's restaurant in the world opened in Beijing, China. With 700 seats and 29 cash registers, the Beijing McDonald's served 40,000 customers on its first day of business (3). In a book titled Golden Arches East, James L. Watson discusses the influence that McDonald’s has had on East Asia. McDonald’s has worked with the communities in China where they are located to create a menu that fits their preferences. However, some worry that McDonald's is creating cultural homogenization around the globe. Otherwise known as “McDonaldization”, cultural homogenization is the concept that cultural diversity will be extinct because one corporation would have the power to dictate how everybody ate, read, and dressed.  In this case, the fear is that McDonald’s is controlling the eating patterns of those across the world by offering essentially the same menu to everybody. However, in his book, Watson argues against this by pointing out McDonald’s ability to adapt to the countries where they are located. McDonald’s offers espresso and cold pasta in Italy; chilled yogurt drinks in Turkey; teriyaki hamburgers in Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong; a grilled salmon sandwich called the McLak in Norway; and McSpaghetti in the Philippines (4). McDonald’s has been more than just a restaurant to those in East Asia. People in East Asia use the McDonald’s for after-school meeting places, leisure centers, and as a place for birthday parties. Local patrons have even started learning new eating habits through McDonald’s such as consuming french fries and eating with their hands. Eating with a person’s hands was once a rare occurrence in Japan. Even something as seemingly common as standing in a line to wait one’s turn to order from a pre-set and limited menu is in fact a cultural adaptation (4).
Kentucky Fried Chicken’s parent company, Yum! Brands Inc. operates 3,200 KFCs and 500 Pizza Huts in 650 Chinese cities (5). In addition to owning KFC, Yum! Brands Inc. is the parent company of A&W All-American Food Restaurants, Long John Silvers, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell restaurants. According to Euromonitor International, a London-based market research firm, Yum! has a 40 percent market share among fast-food chains in China compared with 16 percent for McDonald’s (5). The key to KFC’s success, as with McDonald’s, is their ability to adapt to their local markets. Yum! gives KFC customers in China the opportunity to purchase a bowl of congee, a rice porridge that can feature pork, pickles, mushrooms and preserved egg, as well as buy a bucket of its famous fried chicken. They also offer a Dragon Twister, a chicken wrap in a Peking duck-type sauce, and spicy tofu chicken rice based on the cuisine of Sichuan province, home of China’s hottest dishes (5). A big part of their success, which is noticed by customers, is that they bring a sense of cultural hybridity to their restaurants. KFC knows the importance of cultural hybridity in the China markets so much that they promoted the chairman of the China business, Sam Su, to vice chairman of the main board in Louisville. Yum hires Chinese managers for their stores who speak the same Mandarin Chinese as their customers. This also helps the company strengthen ties with other local companies. These managers are also a big part of creating the local cuisine for the menu as they bring their expertise in the culinary likes and dislikes of the culture. Su Yi, a Chinese KFC customer, notices what KFC is doing, “KFC is certainly doing better than McDonald’s at becoming more Chinese…I have lunch at KFC twice a week because there’s always one close by. (5)”
The concept of soft power can be applied to the globalization of American fast food. The notion of soft power refers to the cultural, social, intellectual, and ideological ideas, values, attitudes, and behaviors that influence human life (4). As mentioned, the McDonald’s golden arches have become a symbol of America for people in other countries. As one of Watson’s informants told him, "The Big Mac doesn't taste great; but the experience of eating in this place makes me feel good. Sometimes I even imagine that I am sitting in a restaurant in New York City or Paris. (3)" Patrons of the McDonald’s in China eat there more for the environment rather than the actual food itself. The soft power that fast food restaurants are having around the world is the ability to sell an image to a population that would not normally have access to the “American way of life”.  Therefore, those who like what they experience in the American fast food restaurants change their eating habits, areas of socialization and even ways of communication. A comparison of customer behavior in McDonald's and that in comparably priced or more expensive Chinese restaurants shows that people in McDonald's were, on the whole, more self-restrained and polite toward one another. One possible explanation for this difference is that the symbolic meanings of the new food, along with customers' willingness to accept the exotic culture associated with fast food, has affected people's table manners in particular and social behavior in general (3).
In the fourth week of our discussion questions, we looked at an article written by Benjamin R. Barber named “Jihad vs. McWorld”. The article essentially talks about how the world is being separated through religious conflicts between countries, otherwise known as a jihad, while being brought together simultaneously through a cultivation of fast music, fast computers, and fast food, otherwise known as the McWorld. Religious reasons, however, are not the only reasons why countries are falling apart. Barber cites many examples in his article of countries such as India and Yugoslavia who for political reasons are struggling as well. The main point in this article, which pertains to the globalization of fast food, is the universalizing of markets that American fast food restaurants are creating. Although the restaurants that I refer to in this paper do well at adapting to their local markets, they still bring the consistency of food, service, and their symbols wherever they go. The symbols of McDonald’s, for example, would be Ronald McDonald, the golden arches, and the bright yellow and red colors they use in every restaurant. People have been conditioned to identify these symbols with McDonald’s and on an even larger scale, America. One of the four imperatives which Barber mentions in his article is the information-technology imperative. The ever-growing technology in today’s world makes it easier for fast food restaurants, based out of the United States, to keep track of their global ventures. Scientific progress embodies and depends on open communication, a common discourse rooted in rationality, collaboration, and an easy and regular flow and exchange of information (6). In this case, the scientific progress would be the expansion of new stores, consumer based research through the Internet, and the ability to run thousands of restaurants simultaneously from one location.
            The fast food industry is growing at an ever-increasing speed throughout the world. The expansion of American fast food comes with much more than it appears the restaurants initially expected. The restaurants went into countries with the expectation of just serving food to customers at a fast pace and low price. However, they have slowly changed countries diets, social lives, and economic positions. The restaurants create job opportunities for people while at the same time causing other local businesses to close. They have done a great job at adapting to their local markets yet they remain the closest things to America that many of their customers have experienced. For this reason, the impact that the restaurants have on people goes far beyond the food being served. People go to KFC, McDonald’s, and Pizza Hut for the experience rather than the food. Young children in East Asia have begun incorporating french fries into their diet, which is very different from their typical diet of rice and vegetables. People center their social lives around McDonald’s such as having birthday parties there and even getting married. In January, McDonald's added wedding packages to its Hong Kong menu. This is the only city in the world where McDonald’s offers the service, prompted by frequent inquiries about fast food weddings from customers in recent years (7).  The influence of soft power that fast food restaurants bring with them can be noticed just by looking at the foreign populations that consume the food. The information-technology imperative shows us that the universalizing of the fast food markets around the world is growing. Fast food has become a staple in the lives of people all across the world and the more that restaurants adapt to their local markets the less cultural homogenization we will see.


1. Duram, Leslie A. Encyclopedia of Organic, Sustainable, and Local Food.:
     Greenwood Publishing Group, 2010. Google eBooks. Web. 8 Mar. 2011.
4. Crothers, Lane. Globalization & American Popular Culture . Rowman &
     Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2010. Print.

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