Skip to main content

Worldview Podcast

Spotlight: The Reverse Globalization Of Fast Food

America’s most famous export is perhaps its fast food. After the Cold War ended, McDonald’s became a symbol of liberalization in formerly communist countries.

But with American fast-food chains represented in almost every country around the world, many are reinventing the genre and sending it back. Jollibee, a Filipino chain, Nando’s Peri Peri, a South African Chain, and Pollo Campero, a Guatemalan chain, all operate locations in the Chicago area. Many more foreign chains hope to expand into the United States.

Burger King is now based out of a Canadian Company, which is owned by a Brazilian Company, and KFC has more locations in China than the U.S. It’s a trend of reverse globalization that captures everything from labor issues to food security to culture and economics.

Worldview’s Jerome McDonnell spoke with veteran food historian, Andrew F. Smith, the author of Fast Food: The Good, the Bad and the Hungry on the subject.

Jerome McDonnell: Could you tell us about one of the foreign restaurants in America?

Andrew F Smith: There’s Jollibee, which is the largest fast-food chain in the Philippines. McDonald's is a far No. 2. They quickly expanded into Southeast Asia and then into the Middle East. Now they've come into the United States. Initially, they just they targeted Filipino immigrant communities, but now they've learned a lot about what Americans want. So they've provided an attractive source of food and they're doing extremely well.

Developing countries are doing this too. They’ve figured out something that is very attractive to an American audience. I had a chance to go to Nando’s, and it wasn’t what I expected. It was very good.

McDonnell: It’s hard to know who owns what fast-food chain now.

Smith: All large businesses are global. What they do best is figure out where they make their greatest profits and that's where they'll invest. In particular, they do it in places where those services aren’t being offered. Whether we like fast food or not, it provides a service that large numbers of people are attracted to.

By my count, there's least 50 non-American-owned fast-food chains that are now operating in the United States. Most of them have gone unnoticed. Some like Manchu Wok, serving Chinese fare, is from Canada and has expanded rapidly into the United States. There's certainly a large number of fast-food chains that have originated in other countries that are expanding into the U.S. simply because the markets are here. They're not trying to duplicate what’s already available. So most of them don’t have hamburgers and french fries and soda.

McDonnell: All of these foreign companies that have adopted American fast-food practices also seem to have adopted the bad labor practices, too.

Smith: That's a problem in the United States. There certainly are some employment concerns — the obvious is with those who are undocumented and can't complain to local authorities about business practices. But, you've seen lots of demonstrations to raise the minimum wage — not just in food but in all sorts of businesses — to fifteen dollars an hour. It’s a decent pay for what's being offered.

But in developing countries, a steady paycheck is everything. And in developed countries, it’s also better. The last I checked, the minimum wage in a Denmark fast-food establishment was $19 an hour, and they all get health insurance and benefits. So the model can succeed by offering good services, good programs, and good money to employees. There is no reason why the model can't be applied in the same way that it has been in Denmark.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire interview, which originally aired on August 31, 2017. This segment was produced and edited by Julian Hayda.

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.

CLOSE X