BAGHDAD – Baghdad’s embattled residents can finally get their milkshakes, chili-cheese dogs and buckets of crispy fried chicken. Original recipe or extra spicy, of course.
American-style restaurants are spreading across the Iraqi capital. The fad is a sign that Iraqis, saddled with violence for years and still experiencing almost daily bombings and shootings, are prepared to move on and embrace ordinary pleasures – such as pizza.
Iraqi entrepreneurs and investors from nearby countries, not big multinational chains, are driving the food craze. They see Iraq as an untapped market of increasingly adventurous eaters where competition is low and the potential returns are high.
“We’re fed up with traditional food,” said government employee Osama al-Ani as he munched on pizza at one of the packed new restaurants last week. “We want to try something different.”
Among the latest additions is a sit-down restaurant called Chili House. Its glossy menu touts Caesar salads and hot wing appetizers along with all-American entrees like three-way chili, Philly cheesesteaks and a nearly half-pound “Big Mouth Chizzila” burger.
On a recent afternoon, uniformed servers navigated a two-story dining room bustling with extended families and groups of teenagers. Toddlers wandered around an indoor play area. The restaurant, located in the upscale neighborhood of Jadiriyah, is connected to Baghdad’s only branch of Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken, a U.S. chain concentrated in a handful of Midwestern and Southern states.
Azad al-Hadad, managing director of a company called Kurdistan Bridge that brought the restaurants to Iraq, said he and his fellow investors decided to open them because they couldn’t find decent fried chicken and burgers in Iraq. He called the restaurants a safe investment for companies like his that are getting in early. He already has plans to open several more branches in the next six months.
“Everybody likes to eat and dress up. This is something that brings people together,” he explained. “People tell us: ‘We feel like we’re out of Baghdad. And that makes us feel satisfied.’”
Baghdad’s Green Zone and nearby U.S. military bases once sported outposts of big American chains, including Pizza Hut, Burger King and Subway, but they shut down as U.S. troops left last year. Because they were hidden behind checkpoint-controlled fortifications, most ordinary Iraqis never had a chance to get close to them, anyway.
Yum Brands Inc., owner of the Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC chains, has no plans to return to Iraq for now, spokesman Christopher Fuller said. Burger King declined to comment on its Iraq plans, and Subway did not respond.
Dining out in Iraq is not without risk. Ice cream parlors, restaurants and cafes were among the targets of a brutal string of attacks that tore through Iraq on Aug. 16, leaving more than 90 people dead.
Iraqis say the chance to relax in clean surroundings over a meal out is worth the gamble. For them, the restaurants are a symbol of progress. “This gives you a feeling the country’s on the right track,” said Wameed Fawzi, a chemical engineer who was eating Lee’s fried chicken strips with his wife, Samara.
Ali Issa is the owner of fish restaurant al-Mahar, which specializes in masgouf, the famous Iraqi roasted carp dish. He said every country in the world has burger and fried chicken restaurants, so why shouldn’t Iraq?
Besides, he said, he and his family are fans of “Kentucky,” the name Iraqis use for fried chicken, regardless of where it’s made.
“Sometimes we need Kentucky. Not just fish, fish, fish,” he said.