The food franchising industry is doing well in the Middle East. Buying a tried-and-proven formula for a hospitality venture has allowed both small entrepreneurs and powerful investors to roll out restaurants in their markets while cutting down some of their development headaches and harvesting customer recognition from the strength of international brands. Examples range from lowbrow individual franchisees of sandwich and pizza delivery outlets to the full-scale regional multi-US-brand operations of Kuwait Food Corporation (TGIF, KFC, et al).
Although franchisees in the region had their problems with copycatting or brand disputes, the franchise concept has on the whole worked smoother than the nation’s consumer goods wrestling battles between exclusive agencies and overpriced import monopolies in one corner and product fakers and unethical traders in the other.
International food franchising formulas have been repeated by local conceptioneers who brought, for example, Lebanese restaurants like Caspar & Gambini or Crepaway to the Gulf. The process is also working in the opposite direction of bringing concepts from the GCC to the Levant.
But do people of the region want restaurants that openly offend conservatives? Would they accept franchise outlets that express an alien culture in highly intrusive manner? The issue arose newly this summer over marketing announcements by a Kuwaiti businessman who wanted to land a Hooters restaurant — trademark: only busty waitresses willing to wear tight orange shorts and dress totally down on top need apply — not in Kuwait but in Dubai.
The man’s announcement immediately drew disbelief and some consternation from readers and commentators. A Kuwaiti columnist suggested that Hooters should “keep their breasts in the West.” Officials in Dubai said there was no record of an application to register the venture there and that they would follow “very closely” any moves to establish the restaurant in the emirate.
Not always welcome
Bringing those international brands into your hometown is not everyone’s cup of tea. In pre-enlightened Syria, state representatives once forced eaters to abandon the Colonel’s coleslaw apparently because of a (later reversed) official aversion to Kentuckian chicken commercialism.
However, most failed franchise operations in developed countries as well as the Middle East arguably did not go down because of protests by gender activists or anxious culture guardians. They faltered because their concepts didn’t vie with customers — in Beirut alone, the list is quite long and includes donut makers, ice cream and frozen yogurt, and regional and international fried chicken vendors.
The apparently wishful-more-than-wistful Hooters impresario, a man by the name Jamal Shaheen, gave interviews in June, during which he said that he was looking for a location where he could open a first outlet in Dubai by the end of 2007 and add further outlets in the following year, also in the emirate. He did not elaborate on his investment into becoming a franchisee or if he had a motive other than money for wanting to set up the restaurant.
After his news sparked contrarian opinions, he was no longer available to answer interview requests on the economics of the projects. According to the information on the company’s website in the US, the firm charges a franchise fee of $75,000 per location; typical costs furthermore include an initial investment of between $800,000 and $1.5 million per restaurant.
Given Dubai’s spiraling rent and other costs, an outlet there is unlikely to require an initial investment at the low end of range cited by Hooters. And by the way, the plan to set up in Dubai was already Shaheen’s secondary roll-out plan. He wanted first to launch in Beirut but dropped the idea because of the difficult development outlook.
The reality test of trying if this particular skimpy waitress scheme will be allowed in Lebanon thus fell flat, although it might have caused less of a controversy here. Teasing attires and self-commercialization of women and men in Lebanon are nothing new.
Whereas regional online discussions on the restaurant project revealed many similarities to accusations and justifications that make the pros and cons in debates on sexist business ventures in the US, the wire to trip the attempt of letting Hooters loose in an Arab market may well be that the regional cultural paradigm enforces a public set of norms also when those norms come with a past of having been breached for centuries or millennia in the off.
Announcing raucous plans for a restaurant in open digression of the norms held up publicly in the region may have greatly impaired any chances that such a venture ever might have had in Dubai and any city of the region. Tooting about Hooters appears to have been a bad idea.