• Bolivia and the impossibility of McDonald's

    In Spanish, the word taste (‘sabor’) etymologically derives from the word knowledge (‘saber’): to taste is to know. Bolivia is a poor country with little access to material goods, but its close relationship to the land creates a strong relationship with food. - Fernando Martinez, creator of Fastfood Off the Shelf (a documentary on why McDonald's failed in Bolivia)

    A couple of hours ago, news that McDonald's had totally shut down in Bolivia circulated the Internet. Well, it wasn't entirely true. McDonald's did shut down but it was back in 2002. But that's not the point of this entry. Apparently, the world is being reminded of the historic event because of the recent release of "Fastfood off the Shelf," a documentary on why McDonald's failed in Bolivia.

    According to Treehugger.com, the multinational food giant McDonald's has 31,000 restaurants all over the world. In 2002, however, it had to close all its eight branches in Bolivia. Associated Press came out with an article narrating how thousands of Bolivians supposedly stood in line to get their last Big Mac before the fastfood chain closed shop.

    "It was very hard to get used to McDonald's, it's like another planet," said Miriam Torres, a kindergarten teacher who saved up for one week to take her two sons to celebrate one final birthday with Ronald McDonald.
    At the same time, the ones interviewed said they felt "betrayed" that McDonald's gave up on them "in search for greener pastures."

    But not all were sad to see McDonald's go.
    Bolivia is a country with nearly 60 percent indigenous population. McDonald's catered mostly to the other 40 percent who had the economic means to enter the restaurant.

    Although McDonald's prides itself as an economical and friendly place, most of Bolivia's indigenous population had never tried a hamburger for lack of money or lack of welcome.
    "I've wanted to try the food but I never have," said Esther Choque, an indigenous woman dressed in colorful robes waiting for a bus outside a McDonald's restaurant.

    "The closest I ever came was one day when a rain shower fell and I climbed the steps to keep dry by the door. Then they came out and shooed my away. Said I was dirtying the place.
    "Why would I care if McDonald's leaves if they do such bad things?"

    Fernando Martinez, the creator of the documentary "Fastfood off the Shelf" said that while economy is the main reason for the failure of McDonald's, "Behind economy there’s sociology and cultural practices. In a small country in the world, culture beat a transnational, without any political pressure or other arguments. That a company like this did not generate profits is explained in that the public could go there one, maybe two times, but ultimately preferred the local flavor."

    "Mahilig kumain ang Pinoy pero meron nga bang 'food culture' dito?" a friend asked in Twitter. Well, there is a Filipino taste and obviously a cuisine (I recently wrote about its evolution) but I think a majority of Filipinos are still beholden to Western taste. Like me. I try my best to finally come to terms with Filipino food (I have a long way to go) but I can't easily shake off my Western upbringing (My first birthday was at McDonald's and it has been my favorite fastfood franchise up  until high school.)

    Frankly, I don't think we'll do away with fastfood in the near future. Why, we even hail Jollibee as part of Pinoy culture so forget about junking fastfood.

    As for Bolivia, while McDonald's failure is partly a reflection of the poverty in the country, it is also a good indication of their cultural resilience. So good riddance! Bolivians should be thankful that McDonald's left them for greener (and gullible) pastures.

    From Treehugger.com:

    The documentary includes interviews with cooks, sociologists, nutritionists and educators who all seem to agree, Bolivians are not against hamburgers per sé, just against ‘fast food,’ a concept widely unaccepted in the Bolivian community. Fast-food represents the complete opposite of what Bolivians consider a meal should be. To be a good meal, food has to have be prepared with love, dedication, certain hygiene standards and proper cook time. One might be hard-pressed to find consumers even outside of Bolivia who wouldn't agree with that definition of 'a good meal', yet none have expressed it so profoundly by simply choosing not to eat at McDonalds. There may be something a bit snarky about celebrating a corporate failure, even if it hardly dents the fast-food giant's bottom line, but it's difficult not to judge Bolivia better off for having rejected a restaurant so often associated with a menu of dubious nutritional value and less-than eco-friendly business practices.

    1 comments → Bolivia and the impossibility of McDonald's

    1. Tks for this article! This was one of the first that popped up as I was searching for more on Bolivia's shutdown of McDonald's. Bonus that it's from a Filipino perspective. As a Fil/Am involved in food movement work I've been interested in the ways colonial legacies impact all our connections to food and the land. Like Spam and corned beef and vienna sausage, American foods were valued by my WWII-era parents despite their processing, packaging, preservatives and low nutritional value even while traditional foods would've been much healthier. I wasn't raised in the Philippines, so I write as an outsider, but I do turn to Doreen Fernandez's writings on indigenous Filipino cuisine inspiring and a delicious pushback against fastfood multinationals. So will McDonald's and Burger King and KFC or Jollibee release their hold on the Philippines or on Fil-Ams? Maybe not in our generation, but you never know! aileen@kitchenkwento

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