Why I Love Jordan’s Rogue Franchise Restaurants and Bootleg Economy

Published May 23rd, 2019 - 07:36 GMT
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(Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)

When Papa John's’ former CEO John Schnatter was caught saying the ‘n-word’ in a corporate conference call, the global pizza franchise apologized and rushed to scrub away Schnatter’s ever-smiling face from the company’s identity; a hard task as his face plastered every commercial, menu, pizza box and photo the company had produced up to that point.


There’s only so much distance they could create: after all, John Schnatter bequeathed himself the title of ‘Papa John’ and promptly named the eatery after himself.

But something funny happened, or rather didn’t happen, in the Papa John's I frequented in Amman, Jordan. Despite the controversy, John’s beaming face blessed the storefront, and a pre-recorded video of Papa John looped endlessly above the cash register, reminding us that this pizza chain indeed offers “better ingredients” and “better pizza.” 

“Huh,” I thought. “I suppose the locations in Amman haven’t gotten the memo.” But a full year later, John’s face is still saturating Amman’s Papa John’s, and a recent, tiny scandal explained why that is, and reminded me why I love Jordan in the process. 

It turns out, the Papa John’s in Amman appear to be fake, unlicensed locations. They’re likely bootlegged Papa John's. And it’s not the only one: Burger King, Fudruckers, Little Caesars all look like near-perfect mirrors of the real thing.

It turns out, the Papa John’s in Amman appear to be fake, unlicensed locations. They’re likely bootlegged Papa John's. And it’s not the only one: Burger King, Fudruckers, Little Caesars all look like near-perfect mirrors of the real thing.

Like all business-related matters in Amman, the details are murky and difficult to verify, but the food and decor are nearly identical to licensed franchises, even if the corporate headquarters does not claim them as official locations.

A big portion of Amman’s economy seem to revolve around a unique ‘fake-real’ blend.

It reflects the particular place in which Jordan’s economy sits. The country is tied into the global market well enough to attract a plethora of McDonalds, Starbucks, and luxury clothing and car brands.

But it’s not honed enough for rogue franchises to be shut down or effectively challenged. Nor is it rich enough for so-called ‘official’ things like DVDs to squeeze out the labyrinth of pirated DVD stores occupying prime real estate in Amman’s downtown. The peculiar combination allows us to engorge our stomachs with familiar foods perfected by corporate monoliths, suspecting all the while the money we paid for the meal is staying more or less local.

 

The Simulacra of Donuts Factory and the ‘Freezie’

They are papa john’s and burger kings, just not Papa John’s and Burger Kings. 

Papa John’s Jordan Facebook Page (Facebook)

Beyond the fact that Papa John’s Jordan insists on keeping Papa John Schnatter on the marketing, another glaring indication that these location may not be real is the fact that the official Papa John’s website does not list any locations in Jordan. They’re some in the U.A.E., Bahrain and Egypt. But none in Jordan. 

A curious redditor reached out to the official Papa John’s Facebook page with concerns than the ones in Amman may be fake. The customer service rep initially was under the impression that the chain’s stores had been closed. When he or she was made aware that they are actually open and operating, they said they are working on “enforcing this with the former franchise.”

‘Former franchise.’ 

The same seems to be happening with Burger King and Fudruckers where they were all initially officially licensed for a time. But somewhere along the way, they lost the license and were likely ordered to stop operating under the name of the parent company. Neither official websites report having locations in Jordan.


Burger King Jordan’s Ramadan Special (Burger King Jordan Facebook page)

Instead of closing and going quietly into that good night, the locations in Amman appear to have simply ignored that order and continued operating with the same name, menu and brand identity, assuming they could get away with it.

They are papa john’s and burger kings, just not Papa John’s and Burger Kings. 

Interested to find out more, I called the parent company that owns the Papa John’s, Burger Kings and Fudruckers in Jordan and asked if the locations were indeed certified official. I got radio silence on the other end.

Interested to find out more, I called the parent company that owns the Papa John’s, Burger Kings and Fudruckers in Jordan and asked if the locations were indeed certified official. I got radio silence on the other end.

Little Caesars, another global pizza chain, does not report to have any official franchises open in Jordan, but that hasn’t stopped a handful of rogue Caesars from operating independently, providing inconsistent if cheap pizza to the hungry masses.

 

Loving the Fake

Instead of the coveted ‘blizzard’ that rests at the spiritual center of Dairy Queen’s identity, you get an identical looking ‘freezie.’


Slightly unsettling advertisement on Dunuts Factory’s website (Donuts Factory)

Dairy Queen in Jordan looks like it weathered a similar corporate controversy to Papa John’s et al., but handled it slightly differently. Dairy Queens used to inhabit certain wealthy areas in west Amman, like Abdoun, offering up a rarefied collection of American-style desserts.

Fun anecdote about the location in Abdoun: the first time I went there, I saw a mother and her child, dressed down in full-camouflage, including camo cargo shorts, speaking American-style English. The sight baffled me. In the middle of the Middle East, here was a family that looked like they were woken up in their tiny hometown of Tomball, Texas, forced to board a flight directly for Amman, and once they landed, they went straight for the first familiar place in sight: a Dairy Queen.

Fun anecdote about the location in Abdoun: the first time I went there, I saw a mother and her child, dressed down in full-camouflage, including camo cargo shorts, speaking American-style English. The sight baffled me. In the middle of the Middle East, here was a family that looked like they were woken up in their tiny hometown of Tomball, Texas, forced to board a flight directly for Amman, and once they landed, they went straight for the first familiar place in sight: a Dairy Queen.

Only now it’s not a Dairy Queen; it’s a Sizzle Grill. Instead of famous and proprietary ‘grillburgers,’ you get ‘sizzlers.’ Instead of the coveted ‘blizzard’ that rests at the spiritual center of Dairy Queen’s identity, you get an identical looking ‘freezie.’ At one point, Dairy Queen Jordan really did exist, but the stores lost their license to be Dairy Queens, so they changed their facade a bit, re-named some choice menu items, and re-opened like nothing ever happened.

Donuts Factory, a virtual reconstruction of the more-known Dunkin Donuts, chose another path entirely. Rather than attempt to get an official license for a franchise, the owners simply copied everything they could find about Dunkin Donuts, including the font type, menu selection and interior decor. Donuts Factories maintain wield an iron fist grip on the local Donut market, with 16 listed locations throughout Jordan.

The decision to call it ‘Donuts Factory’ instead of the more grammatically correct ‘Donut Factory’ continues to be a source of silent joy.


Comparison of logos

Coming to Jordan for the first time, I took great comfort in knowing I still had access to warm, fresh donuts. The fact they came from a Donuts Factory rather than a certified Dunkin never bothered me.

I once asked an employee of Donuts Factory if the store was secretly run by Dunkin as a means to enter the Middle East market. He scoffed. “No, we’re just a rip-off,” he said bluntly. Well that settles that. 

Coming to Jordan for the first time, I took great comfort in knowing I still had access to warm, fresh donuts. The fact they came from a Donuts Factory rather than a certified Dunkin never bothered me.

What’s remarkable about all these is that, save a few horror stories of employees rushing to a nearby market to fetch ingredients, they all mirror their official versions quite well.

The food generally tastes the same, and they spared no expense to simulate the experience of walking into The Real Thing, sitting down on color-coordinated chairs, and receiving branded meal experiences. 

 

Embracing a Bootleg Market

It’s not David vs Goliath here: it’s Goliath vs. David dressed up to look exactly like Goliath. 

Which brings me to something I’ve admired about Jordan since I’ve arrived here years ago: bootlegs and pirated copies abound, and many are celebrated as a core part of Jordan’s market. Very few seem to worship massive, global brands or assume they are the ultimate arbiters of quality. 

A quick venture to Amman’s historic downtown (al-balad, in Arabic), you’ll find a slew of DVD and video game stores without a single original copy in their stocks. Movies are packaged inside small, plastic cases with descriptions written by someone who may or may not have seen the movie and used Google Translate to summarize their thoughts on it. The discs are blanks with a copy burned onto it. It’s not unusual to buy a copy only to have Korean subtitles littering the bottom portion of the screen.

A quick venture to Amman’s historic downtown (al-balad, in Arabic), you’ll find a slew of DVD and video game stores without a single original copy in their stocks. Movies are packaged inside small, plastic cases with descriptions written by someone who may or may not have seen the movie and used Google Translate to summarize their thoughts on it.

These stores aren’t in back alleys rarely visited by tourists or the police. They’re on the main venue, in full view of the world, asking millions of annual tourists to peruse inside.

In some cases, bootlegged copies are actually venerated above the thing they’re copying.

Nowhere is this more clear than the Amman’s friday market (souq al-juma’a).

There, a labyrinth of hastily erected stalls occupy a massive, concrete lot. It sits in the no-man’s line of the city’s socio-economic geography, in between the wealthier ‘west Amman’ and the poorer ‘east Amman.’ Because of this, you’ll find a rare mix of middle class, Artsy Jordanians and Palestinians, expats and moms of huge families; all vigorously gathering used clothes, toys bags and knick-knacks.


Friday Market (7iber)

The clothes come in bulk piles, gathered from donation centers and sold for prices that range between 60 cents and USD 15. Although it depends on the shipment, most of the clothes come from the U.S. and U.K., from families, businesses and corporations that discarded their leftover clothes thinking they would be better-used in the ‘developing world.’ 

Unbeknownst to them, the donated clothes have formed a market entirely of their own in Amman.

Some of the clothes in the piles are strikingly idiosyncratic: shirts commemorating family reunions from 2003, a funeral of a beloved grandma, a bible camp’s outing, a brewing company and countless small university volleyball teams.

Other clothes hidden in the piles, however, are barely used luxury brands: Marks & Spencer, Gucci, Ralph Lauren, Timberland, Supreme, Saks 5th Avenue, Chanel, Dr. Martin, Hugo Boss, Kate Spade, Lacoste; it can all be found if you just dig deep enough into the clothing pits. 

They’re all generally the same price too; about 2 dollars for a shirt, 7 for a winter coat, no matter the brand. A friend found a full-length cashmere wool coat from Paris and bought it for 8 dollars. Googling it later, she found it typically sells for 400.

In stalls selling new products, the clothes will be rubbery knock-offs of the brands you can find if you look hard enough, except the knockoffs will be more expensive. Once I walked past an actual, used Gucci t-shirt for USD 1.50. I looked at it for a moment then decided against it. A few moments later, a man called out to me, excitedly telling me he was also selling ‘Turkish-made Gucci’ for USD 15. He wanted me to know he was selling fake Gucci from Turkey, as if it were better than the slightly-used-but-definitely-real-thing a mere four feet away.

Once I walked past an actual, used Gucci t-shirt for USD 1.50. I looked at it for a moment then decided against it. A few moments later, a man called out to me, excitedly telling me he was also selling ‘Turkish-made Gucci’ for USD 15. He wanted me to know he was selling fake Gucci from Turkey, as if it were better than the slightly-used-but-definitely-real-thing a mere four feet away.

This kind of thinking is hard to come by in an America that champions small businesses in its rhetoric but makes sure monolithic mega-corporate giants pay nothing in taxes. In Jordan, the real thing is celebrated less than the general challenge to construct mirrors or bootlegs.

It’s not David vs Goliath here: it’s Goliath vs. David dressed up to look exactly like Goliath. 

The downside is international businesses have a difficult time traversing an economic landscape built to be somewhat informal. On the whole, it likely disadvantages Jordan’s ability to compete on the global market. But McDonalds, Subway, Popeyes and Chillis have all managed to keep their official locations without a mutiny.

In a country with no notable natural resource reserves and in an economy that’s dominated by the service sector, small businesses and knock-offs form a critical economic lifeline. 

When I leave Jordan, I will miss this subterranean element of its economy, though there are certainly dozens of other countries with similar love for the bootleg. The delightfully strange ‘Donuts Factory’ leaves me stronger impressions and better memories than its clean-cut American counterpart. The knowledge that I’m buying a plagiarized Papa John’s Hawaiian pizza always feels like a triumph over bureaucratic red tape and bloodless proceduralism.

Who wants The Real Thing© when there’s “the real thing?”
 


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