Christmas, 2, 3, 4

December 22, 2017 § Leave a comment

“This Airport’s Christmas Tree Was So Offensively Ugly They Had to Take It Down”

[T]he people of Beirut, Lebanon were far from pleased with the Christmas tree that was standing in Rafic Hariri International Airport this season.

It wasn’t just ugly—it wasn’t really a tree. The structure was actually made of metal, fire extinguishers, life vests, and other recycled airplane parts.

The tree was actually commissioned as part of an environmental initiative from Middle East Airlines in order “to raise awareness about environmental protection and to prevent logging and awareness on the recycling process.” However, most people traveling through the airport couldn’t really get past the idea that they were looking at what was basically a Christmas tree made of garbage.

. . . . .

After many complaints, the tree was removed from the airport.

Andrea Romano, Travel and Leisure, December 15, 2017

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Of Big Macs, KFCs, and Tall Lattes: A Full Menu of Global Indexes

October 9, 2017 § 1 Comment

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I’ve always wondered about the “heat index” and “chill factor,” ways to say, “We know how hot or cold it is, but here’s how it feels.” Obviously there are scientific factors figured into the calculations, but it makes me think we could also have a “Great Grandma Gordon Index”: “I’m telling you, it’s at least 125 degrees in the shade!” or a “Guy Who Lives Down the Block Index: “It’s so cold I can’t feel my left foot!”

When you travel, you see how much weather standards aren’t standardized around the world, either. For people in hot climates, the winter parkas might come out when the temperature dips below 60°F, or for those where cold is routine, when they register the same temp, it’s time to put on shorts.

But keeping track of relative weather norms isn’t the only concern when going abroad. There’s also that finances thing. You want to know how much money you’ll need to spend while spending time in another city—in terms that make sense. So you might be thinking “How much does, for instance, a Big Mac cost there?”

Well, funny you should ask.

One of the most well-known economic indexes has the answer. Taking its name from the classic McDonald’s sandwich, the Big Mac Index was developed in 1986 by The Economist “as a lighthearted guide to whether currencies are at their ‘correct’ level.”

“Burgernomics,” says The Economist “was never intended as a precise gauge of currency misalignment, merely a tool to make exchange-rate theory more digestible.” But the Big Mac Index has gotten a lot of weighty attention, garnering coverage in textbooks and academic studies. In fact, the index is taken seriously enough that a New York Times article postulated in 2011 that Argentina was artificially keeping its Big Mac prices down to influence its place on the scale. And Computerworld reported this year that the malware Fatboy, a ransomware-as-a-service (software that locks up a computer and demands payment to decrypt its data) uses the Big Mac Index to determine how much ransom needs to be paid for a particular location.

The Big Mac Index is based on the idea of purchasing-power parity. I’m not an economist, so it’s easy for me to get lost in the weeds on economic theories. But rather than use it as a rigorous currency-valuation metric, I see it more as a quick-and-dirty cost-of-living index.

If you have a hunger for that type of thing, too, I’m glad to tell you there’s much more on the menu than just the Big Mac. Here’s a list to whet your appetite:

The Tall Latte Index
Also called the Starbuck’s index, this is another iteration from The Economist, comparing prices from the coffee chain.

The KFC Index
Because McDonald’s has restaurants in only three African countries, the Big Mac Index doesn’t work very well on that continent. Therefore, Sagaci Research developed an index based on KFCs, which are present in nearly 20 nations in Africa. The metric is based on the price of an Original Recipe 15-piece bucket.

The Mini Mac Index
Invented by Benn Steil and Emma Smith of the Council on Foreign Relations, it compares the global prices of iPad Minis.

McDonald’s Index of Humanitarian Access
Jonathan Whittall, head of humanitarian analysis at Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders writes that

no country with a McDonald’s has ever rejected humanitarianism on ideological grounds. It is in those states where the economic and political influence of the west still has space that all components of the west’s foreign policy are accepted: both McDonald’s and INGOs.

The Coca-Cola Index
This analysis branches out a bit more, showing the relationship of Coke consumption with quality-of-life factors. Using UN figures, The Economist (those guys sure are busy), shows that countries’ higher rates of Coca-Cola drinking correlate with higher wealth, health, and political freedom. Have a Coke and a smile?

The Happy Planet Index
Speaking of smiles, the New Economics Foundation publishes this global ranking of “how efficiently residents of different countries are using environmental resources to lead long, happy lives.” (I really wanted to find a “Happy Meal Index,” but so far, it hasn’t been created yet.)

And while we’re on the topic of quality of life, we have

The Better Life Index
from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

The Legatum Prosperity Index

The Human Development Index and The Gender Development Index
from the United Nations Development Programme, and

The Where-to-Be-Born Index
from the Economist Intelligence Unit

And finally, if you’re looking for some straight-up cost-of-living indexes, take a look at

Expatistan’s Cost of Living Index and

Numbeo Indexes
The Numbeo site describes itself as “the world’s largest database of user contributed data about cities and countries worldwide.” Not only does it have an overall cost-of-living index, it also includes indexes that compare property prices, crime, health care, pollution, traffic, quality of life, and travel costs.


(D.H. and R.L.W, “The Big Mac Index,” The Economist, July 13, 2017; Daniel Politi, “Argentina’s Big Mac Attack,” Latitude, The New York Times, November 24, 2011; Darlene Storm, “Local Cost of a Big Mac Decides Ransom Amount for Fatboy Ransomware,” Computerworld, May 8, 2017; Jonathan Whittall, “The McDonald’s Index of Humanitarian Access,” MSF Analysis, February 7, 2014)


[photo: “NRT: McDonald’s Menu,” by jpellgen, used under a Creative Commons license]

Exporting Fast Food: The Biggest American Chains

April 5, 2013 § 7 Comments

Ronald McDonald in Thailand

Ronald McDonald in Thailand

You already know that McDonald’s is the global king of fast-food success, but do you know which US chains are next in line outside of America’s borders?

Well, the answer depends on how you define success. If overall non-US sales is important to you, then number two is KFC, followed by Burger King (according to figures from 2011).

But if you’re more of a How-many-international-restaurants-do-they-have? kind of person, then Subway comes after the Golden Arches and KFC.

Or maybe you care about who’s expanding the most. In that measurement, McDonald’s isn’t in the top five. The three American companies that opened the most non-US units—from 2009 to 2010—are Subway, Dunkin’ Donuts, and KFC.

All this information comes from QSR‘s “Global 30,” a sortable list ranking the top American “quick-service” restaurants outside the US.

Below are the ten American chains with the most restaurants outside the US. That’s the list I’m most interested in, since that gauges your chance of running into one of them overseas. Most are in Taiwan, so I’m adding embellishments from my experiences during my time in Taipei. We had more than our fair share of American fast-food outlets in the capital city, but there were still some gaps. I mean, how can a city of 6 million be Taco Bell-less?

  1. McDonald’s – 18,710 units
    When we first arrived, we didn’t have the vocabulary to order individual items, so we just ordered meals by number. This meant a soda for even our smallest child, and we had four children. One day I walked up three flights of stairs (most McDonald’s in Taiwan are vertical) balancing 6 Cokes on a tray. I was pretty proud that I’d made it and pretended to stumble when I got to our table . . . and spilled the whole tray. . . . On another day we went to our local McD’s to find out that they’d run out of hamburger. I didn’t know that was possible.
  2. KFC – 11,798
    The extra crispy chicken at Taiwan’s KFCs is spicy hot, which we grew to like more than its American counterpart. And because the Taiwanese like dark meat better than white meat, when we ordered a bucket of chicken, we could substitute white for dark at no extra cost. One negative is that their KFCs don’t have slaw. I love KFC’s slaw.
  3. Subway – 10,109
    You could almost replace your vegetable-vocabulary unit in language learning with several trips to Subway. If you want the right toppings on your sandwich, you simply have to learn the words. Pointing at “that green thing” won’t do. Building a sandwich at Subway is like a chapter test. . . . By the way, a Subway near us in Taipei also ran out of meat. For a few days it was a salad shop.
  4. Pizza Hut – 5,890
    We had a Pizza Hut around the corner from our last apartment in Taiwan. Loved their pepperoni pizza. Not so crazy about toppings with peas or corn . . . or squid . . . or tuna.
  5. Starbucks – 5,727
    Most of what I have to say about Starbucks I’ve already said here. The chain has made a big enough impact on the tea-drinking island of Taiwan that several coffee shops have sprung up with circular green logos and/or copycat names (ecoffee, for example). My favorite was the shop that had a sign that said, in a small font, something like, “We’re Not,” over the very large, “STARBUCKS.”
  6. Burger King – 4,998
    For a while, my absolute favorite sandwich was a bacon cheeseburger from the Burger King in Keelung next to the train station, eaten on the train as I and a teammate rode back to Taipei after our evening Bible studies with students at the National Taiwan Oceanic University. My second favorite sandwich near the station was a da chang bao xiao chang, or “big sausage wrapped around a small sausage” (the outer “sausage” was made from sticky rice).
  7. Domino’s – 4,422
    After serving for two years as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan, Scott Oelkers returned to Minnesota and double majored in Chinese and economics. Following his graduation, he got a job as a buyer for Domino’s Pizza International and worked his way up to vice president. He sold franchise rights in Taiwan to a private equity firm, and the firm asked him to run the business for them. He did, and in the process became a minor celebrity in Taiwan with his humorous TV commercials. Now Oelkers is president and CEO of Domino’s in Japan. He’s still making commercials, like the one below that just came out last month. Betsy Isaacson of the Huffington Post calls it “the most awkward ad in the universe.” I guess one man’s awkward is another man’s profitable.
  8. Dunkin’ Donuts – 3,005
    When the first Mister Donut opened in Taipei in 2004, the lines were so long that there was a sign a ways back on the sidewalk that read, “240 minutes from this point.” Dunkin’ Donuts came not long after, and we were glad to see one open in our neighborhood. We held our team meetings there for a while because we usually had the upstairs mostly to ourselves. Not a good sign. It closed.
  9. Dairy Queen – 802
    There’s no DQ in Taiwan that I know of (and we usually heard about those kind of things). I do see from an article in Taiwan Today that one was slated for opening in 1986 “located near Church’s Texas Fried Chicken and Lotteria in Taipei.” Someone else with a longer history in Taiwan would have to say whether it ever opened its doors.
  10. Papa John’s – 755
    We’re getting farther down on the list, and neither is there a Papa John’s in Taiwan. But that doesn’t mean there’s not room for another pizza franchise, or room for some other kind of fast-food chain. The question is, which one should it be? . . .

For those of you living outside the US, are there any restaurants that you long for? For you American expats, what tastes do you miss, and what do you think would go over well among the locals?

Wendy’s? It comes in at number 11. Taipei used to have at least one. I’ve heard stories from my former coworkers, and a Taipei Wendy’s is even the setting for a short scene in Ang Lee’s 1994 movie, Eat Drink Man Woman.

Or how about Long John Silver’s? It didn’t make the Global 30. One came to Taipei for a short time. We ate there a couple times just to try it out. As I recall, it didn’t last more than a year.

Oh, yeah. There’s Taco Bell (#19). Why can’t you find more Taco Bell’s overseas? I can’t count how many times I heard American expats say that when they get back home the first thing they want to do is eat at a Taco Bell.

I asked a good Taiwanese friend—who had studied at a US university—if he thought Taco Bell would do well in Taiwan. He wasn’t sure that it would, as Mexican flavors don’t always fit the Asian palate. Then I asked him about Arby’s (#21). It seems to me that roast-beef sandwiches could fit in in a lot of cultures, and I like them a lot, too. He said, no, that he didn’t think that there would be enough room for parking. That seemed strange since most fast-food restaurants in Taiwan don’t have any dedicated parking at all. When I questioned that, he said that Arby’s are just too big for Taiwanese. I was confused. Were we talking about the same thing? They’re too big, he said again. Who in Taipei would have room to park an RV?

Hmmmm. Maybe our miscommunication has birthed an idea. How about setting up a fleet of mobile Arby’s in RVs around the globe. I wonder. . . .

(“The Global 30,” QSR Magazine, April 30, 2013; “Scott Oelkers: Bringing Something Extra to the Table,” College of Liberal Arts, University of Minnesota; “Personality, Pizzaz Mixes with Pizza,” Taipei Times, September 9, 2002; Ashley Chang, Tiffany Huang, and Alan Wu, “Mister Donut—Worth the Wait?” Centered on Taipei, December 2004/January 2005; Betsy Isaacson, “Domino’s Ad Featuring Japanese Computer-Generated ‘Vocaloid’ Hatsune Miku Is Incredibly Awkward,” March 8, 2013; “Dairy Queen Joins American Parade of Food Chains to ROC,” Taiwan Today, December 29, 1986)

[photo: “Sawatdee Khrab!” by iamagloworm, used under a Creative Commons license]

Merry Christmas, Colonel Sanders-san

March 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

In the early 1970s, a Christian missionary school in Tokyo was looking for turkey for Christmas dinner. Finding none, a representative contacted the local Kentucky Fried Chicken and ordered chicken instead. A KFC employee suggested the company turn the request into an ad campaign, and Japan has never been the same since. Today, KFC’s Christmas Party Barrels are so popular that sales for December 23, 24, and 25 usually equal half of what is sold during a normal month, and Christmastime customers wait in long lines to pick up their orders, placed as early as October. Very few in Japan celebrate Christmas for its religious meaning, as less than 2% of Japanese even call themselves Christian. Instead, consumerism is emphasized, and the focus is on gifts, decorations . . . and chicken from the Colonel.

(Lindsay Whipp, “All Japan Wants for Christmas Is Kentucky Fried Chicken,” Financial Times, Dec. 19, 2010)

[photo: “KFC Colonel Santa” by Kleemo, used under a Creative Commons license]

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