A Saudi chicken-nugget chain is having a breakout moment at the world’s fair in Dubai, prompting speculation that it might one day challenge behemoths like KFC and McDonald’s. And why not? The world could always use more fried fowl, and in more flavors. 

But Al Baik and the Abu Ghazalah family that owns it should heed the example of the last non-American fast-food chain to bid for international status.

In the mid-1990s, Jollibee had already bested McDonald’s in the Philippines, begun to branch out across Asia and the Middle East — and was plotting to make landfall in America. The expansion ultimately happened more slowly than anticipated, as Jollibee realized it needed a different business formula to become a truly global player. Al Baik might, too.

Full disclosure: My one experience of an Al Baik chicken dinner, in Jeddah 12 years ago, was underwhelming. The friend who took me there insisted it was superior to KFC or McDonald’s, which seemed a very low bar. Still, far be it for me to gainsay the judgment of the late Anthony Bourdain, who visited the same Jeddah outlet that very year and declared the nuggets “not bad.”

Or ask just about any Saudi. Al Baik is the kingdom’s largest restaurant chain, with more than 50 outlets, and its nuggets are the nearest thing to a national dish. The only debate among devotees is over the reason for this success.

Some attribute it to the cooking technique: The nuggets are fried under pressure, or “broasted,” a process invented and trademarked by a company in Wisconsin. The method uses less oil than conventional frying, and allows the meat to remain moist under a crisp batter. Other fans swear the secret is in the sauce, a creamy and garlicky concoction they maintain is more to the Saudi taste than any condiments on offer at American chains.  

Jollibee partisans in the Philippines and elsewhere view their beloved chain with equal devotion. Its sauces, which tend to be sweeter than the American norm, are drawn from the Filipino flavor palate. Banana ketchup, anyone?

As Al Baik’s success is to the Saudis, Jollibee’s defeat of McDonald’s in the Philippines is a matter of national pride and an article of faith. Jollibee’s international expansion strategy was predicated on its appeal to the worldwide Filipino diaspora. Al Baik, for its part, is counting on the brand recognition it enjoys with tens of millions of Muslims who have sampled its nuggets while on pilgrimage to Mecca. The association, however subliminal, with the hajj can’t hurt.

But, as Jollibee discovered, tastes don’t always travel. In 1996, the company’s goal was to have about 500 international outlets by 2000. Two decades past that deadline, there are fewer than 300. Or, to put it another way, McDonald’s has opened more restaurants in the Philippines (it now has more than 600) than Jollibee has outside the country.  

To its credit, Jollibee never allowed its international plans to distract from its domestic rollout. It has twice as many restaurants in the Philippines as McDonald’s. There’s a lesson there for Al Baik: Always be opening outlets in your home market.

And here’s another: If at first you don’t succeed abroad, try another way. Jollibee CEO Ernesto Tanmantiong hasn’t given up his global ambitions. As he told Bloomberg News recently, he still aspires to become one of the world’s top five restaurant operators. Only now he has a larger menu. Using the war chest built up from its domestic success, Jollibee has acquired a number of other chains, including Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Smashburger, the Red Ribbon network of bake shops, and bubble-tea company Milkshop.

Tanmantiong will continue to expand his flagship brand: A 7,000-square-foot Jollibee restaurant opened in New York City’s Times Square earlier this year. But for Americans who don’t take to banana ketchup, he now has other brands from which he caters to non-Filipino tastes.

For Al Baik, then, the key might be never to depend on just one sauce.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.