Thanks to various reforms that the Myanmar government has enacted in the past two years — not to mention the elimination of Western sanctions — many Western companies are now eager to do business in the long-isolated country. Yes, plane-loads of get-rich-quick capitalists are practically having orgasms at the thought of access to a new untapped market. Coca-Cola has opened a new bottling plant, car manufacturers are eyeing the country, there is a bidding war going on for lucrative telecommunications concessions, and credit card behemoths such as Visa and MasterCard are belatedly making their presence known. It’s all both exciting and frightening. How will the humble people in Myanmar deal with all these sudden big changes?
As you would expect, in the wake of such new commerce, we will be sure to witness the arrival of Western fast food franchises. An article in the Myanmar Times last month announced that Kentucky Fried Chicken would be opening up outlets in Myanmar this year. Just think: Colonel Sanders rubbing shoulders with Aung San Suu Kyi. On second thought, let’s not think too much about that. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t rank KFC on any list of fine dining establishments. And yet, based on the write-up about KFC in the Myanmar Times, you would think they were reviewing an upscale restaurant. Here is what the very excited writer for the newspaper had to say:
“This time it’s the real thing, not a lookalike like the place that recently sprang up in Dagon township. To set local mouths watering on May 11, KFC held a tasting session at Inya Lake Hotel.
My friends and I arrived at 4pm, which just happens to be the time we normally stop work for a snack. So after listening to the welcoming speech of the vice president and chief marketing officer of Yum Restaurants International, Vipul Chawla, we were ready to sample the goods.
First I went for the original recipe: attractively aromatic, crispy without excess oil. From my first bite I found it pleasingly crunchy on the outside and juicy and moist within. But it was quite salty, so I think it will go well with rice.
Then I turned to the hot and spicy version. I believe many Myanmar will find this most palatable, along with other similar dishes on the menu, though perhaps the original recipe is preferable for children.
In other countries, KFC adapts its fare to local taste. In Thailand, for instance, you can get chicken with rice and green sauce. Here in Myanmar, they are already busily researching local eating habits to craft a product aimed at Myanmar taste buds.
When KFC does officially open, their menu will feature fried chicken, sandwiches and salads, along with various drinks.
This month’s tasting session represents KFC’s first attempt to survey local demand and assess consumer needs in Myanmar. Now they are going to decide where, when and how many KFC outlets they will open.”
Well, obviously someone is excited about the advent of KFC coming to town. And I suppose when you’ve been denied such treats your entire life, discovering the Colonel and his buckets of crispy chicken breasts must seem terribly unique and exotic. This news brings back memories of the KFCC outlet that opened in Mandalay about three or four years ago. Yes, K, F and a double C. As you would suspect, it was a total KFC ripoff, complete with a Colonel Sanders logo on their sign. Alas, it didn’t last more than a year or so. Perhaps the pizza they were plugging didn’t captivate the local diners.
I have no doubt that the younger generation of Myanmar consumers will be drawn to Western fast food franchises like KFC, judging by the popularity of donut shops and local attempts at fast food that have sprung up in shopping malls in Yangon and Mandalay in the past decade. Who needs Kentucky Fried Chicken when you have Tokyo Fried Chicken! But I can see the younger generation in Myanmar forsaking local institutions such as the Burmese teashop, in favor of shiny and mesmerizing fast food joints. Some people would say that it’s all about choice — freedom to choose, baby! — and that you can’t deny people the right to eat where they want. Yeah, that’s true. But in a country that has gone for so many decades without the blight of Western fast food franchises, it saddens me to see such “progress” spoiling things. Then again if Pizza Hut opens and offers a Pickled Tea Leaf topping, I’ll be first in line to try it.