In Egypt they’re eating McFelafel under the Golden Arches

Published June 29th, 2001 - 02:00 GMT

Meet the McFalafel—the traditional Arab finger-food made of a deep-fried patty made from a paste of ground chick peas and spices, served in a hamburger bun with pickles, lettuce, tomatoes and a sesame-based tahini sauce—which a month ago debuted in McDonald’s restaurants across Egypt. 


For the McDonald’s corporation, this latest offering represents an attempt to appeal to the specific taste of the regional market. But, while the jury is still out, it could be hard sell. While the felafel itself if familiar, its setting most certainly is not. Egyptians are more used to eating it stuck in the pocket of a pita bread, along with finely sliced vegetables. And then there’s the price, which even at a modest 38 cents is still three times more than what one will pay for a regular felafel meal from a street-side food-stand. 


For its part, McDonald’s is not deterred by the possibly steep odds. Egyptian consumers are being inundated with ads for the “el-Miallem,” a combo meal selling for 75 cents, including a McFalafel, fries and a medium Coke. It compared to $2.80 for the better known but non-vegetarian Big Mac meal. 


And when it came to the electronic media, McDonalds also went all out, hiring the services of Shaaban Abdel-Rahim, a once obscure singer who at the start of recent Palestinian uprising hit pay dirt with a mega-hit, called “I hate Israel.” For McDonald’s Abdel Rahim relinquishes regional politics in favor of gastronomic comment. “If you take one bite,” he sings, “you can't stop before finishing off the whole roll.” 


However, as the campaign proved controversial, McDonald’s expeditiously moved on Thursday, June 21, to cancel the gingle, in response to an appeal by the American Jewish Committee. 


The Middle East has long proven an enigma to the world’s largest food chain. After avoiding the region, it made its debut in October 14, 1993. And, while it has come to dominate the Israeli fast-food scene, it was not an easy going at first. The religious authorities were not partial to the McDonald’s menu, which by mixing milk with meat inherently is at odds with Jewish dietary laws. Even today, most of the Israeli branches do not sport a kosher certification. The few that do hang the coveted document in their windows do not sell cheeseburgers and remain closed on the Sabbath. 


Interestingly it was Israel’s agricultural lobby that almost prevented MacDonald’s entry into the country. The corporation’ s strict quality control demanded that a specific variety of potato be used for the French fries, which as it so happened was not grown locally. Israel imposes a customs duty on imported potatoes, and McDonald’s asked the government to grant in an exemption. The government refused. So, after importing the desired potato for a year and absorbing the cost, a farm was set up to grow the potatoes locally. 


Two months after the Israeli launch, McDonalds first restaurant opened in Saudi Arabia. There are now 32 branches with plans for continued expansion. Two restaurants, located in the Holy City of Makkah, are quite unique, being the only McDonald’s in the world that serves exclusively to Moslem customers. These restaurants are also the only two that are fully staffed with Moslem employees. 


When McDonald’s entered Egypt in 1994, it launched two restaurants in Cairo simultaneously. So as not to be seen to be favoring customers from any one part of the capital, it opened one branch in the Mohandiseen district and another in the northern district of Heliopolis. 


In 1994, McDonald's opened its first store in Bahrain, and that number has grown to six with 150 employees. There two, there were initial obstacles to overcome. The corporation went to court against a local restaurant chain, Marhaba Restaurant, claiming that the “M” in Marhaba’s sign infringed on McDonald’s trademarked Golden Arches. Eventually, as part of a court settlement, McDonald’s agreed to pay for the changes to Marhaba’s signs and letterhead. 


And sometimes McDonald’s has experienced trouble in Middle Eastern markets where it is not even present. In 1994 a hamburger vendor in Tehran was forced to change its menu to only Persian food, after it was accused by Islamic activists of being a McDonald's franchise. Evidently the Ravaq restaurant’s mistake run an advertising campaign featuring golden arches. Of course, had McDonald’s been planning to launch in Iran, Ravaq could have found itself on the other end of a McDonald’s suit. 


For the record, ever since it was founded in a small US town in 1954, McDonald’s grew to be the largest foodservice retailer in the world, serving 43 million customers every day. And, since its international expansion started in Canada in 1967, it came to operate on six continents and in 119 countries. Today, eight of McDonald’s 10 largest and busiest restaurants are located outside the United States. The busiest restaurant is located in Moscow and serves an average of 90,000 customers daily. ― (MENA Report)

© 2001 Mena Report (

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