Downsize me: Israel shuns fast food

By Nathan Jeffay, June 17, 2010
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Burger King is one of several US food chains to have failed in Israel, including Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks

Burger King is one of several US food chains to have failed in Israel, including Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks

For two decades it has been flying the flag for American fast food in a sea of falafel shops and shwarma joints. But Burger King is to vanish from Israeli high streets this summer.

When Burger King started opening restaurants in Israel in the 1990s, American fast food was the "in" thing. Back then, mamash America, meaning "very America", was slang for a great thing. It mattered little that Burger Ranch, originally South African but widely perceived as native Israeli, had been serving burgers in the country since 1972 - the American branding and the experience of eating in a setting identical to the chain's US outlets was a must.

But now the tables have turned. The burger business in general has a hard time competing with traditional Israeli food - both Burger King Israel and Burger Ranch went bankrupt, in 2005 and 2008 respectively.

And now Orgad Holdings, the company that rescued both of them, has decided that if one of them has a future, it is Burger Ranch, because of its image as home-grown Israeli company. The 55 Burger Kings are to become Burger Ranch outlets.

"People regard Burger Ranch with nostalgia," said Tal Rabina, spokesman for Orgad Holdings. "For a lot of people in their thirties, Burger Ranch was the place they went when they were young - where they hung out, had their first kiss. They see it as a very Israeli chain."

Several other American fast food chains have also opened and closed in Israel. When Dunkin' Donuts opened in Tel Aviv in 1996 it broke its own records, selling 3 million doughnuts in eight months.

"Israelis do not stop eating doughnuts," the manager told the New York Times back then. But they did, and five years later the chain closed. Starbucks and Wendy's also tried Israel and left.

"We admire lots of things that come from America but not everything - not the food," said influential Israel food writer Janna Gur, author of The Book of New Israeli Food and chief editor of the food and wine publishing company Al Hashulchan.

"What I know about American fast food is that when it first arrived everyone was very excited about it but the excitement has died pretty fast," said Ms Gur.

According to Orna Baron Epel, a Haifa University academic and expert on Israeli eating patterns, "it's just a matter of the Israeli tastes".

The flavouring of American food does not suit the Israeli palate, she said, adding that Israelis also tend to favour traditional mealtimes at home more than people in many other Western countries.

Her research indicates that if they are eating fast food, they deem falafel and shwarma healthier.

Ronit Endevelt, head dietician for Maccabi Heath Care Services, Israel's second largest healthcare group, said that the market for American-style fast food has been stunted by high prices - Burger King's trademark Whopper meal costs NIS 38 (almost £7).

"The thing in Israel is that junk food is expensive - and that's good," she said, adding that while in America it can be an economical way to feed a family, in Israel it is not.

In her analysis, while American chains still appeal to lower socio-economic groups, interest is shifting to companies offering a "local mixture of American and Israeli".

She gave the example of Aroma, a chain with 100 outlets that serves coffee, sandwiches and salads, and which is expanding by around two new locations a month.

"Today, Israelis are really proud of our food," said Ms Gur. "They travel abroad and complain that the fruit and vegetables don't taste the same and wonder why people don't have all the salads we have."

    Last updated: 4:02pm, June 17 2010