The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why a South African fast-food chain is making a political statement in Washington

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JOHANNESBURG – Last week, as Washington began gearing up for Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, black signs appeared quietly in the windows of the six D.C. outposts of Nando’s, a South African chicken restaurant, and tucked into the pages of 60,000 copies of the Express, a free commuter newspaper published by The Washington Post.

On one side of the sign was an unbranded red heart and a block of text proclaiming: #EVERYONE IS WELCOME.

"Nando’s Peri-Peri is an Immigrant EMPLOYING, Gay LOVING, Muslim RESPECTING, Racism OPPOSING, Equal PAYING, Multi CULTURAL chicken restaurant where #everyoneiswelcome,” explained the back of the sign. "On January 20, place this sign in a publicly visible place to let everyone visiting our city know #everyoneiswelcome."

That outspoken messaging wouldn’t come as a surprise to South Africans, for whom Nando’s — a homegrown icon turned international chain — has long been synonymous with the sort of irreverent social commentary more commonly served up by comedians and political cartoonists than restaurants, however casual.

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In one of the company’s more infamous South African ads, for instance, a pensive Robert Mugabe, the 90-something president of Zimbabwe, sits by himself in an empty dining room reminiscing about his friendships with a cast of now-deposed or dead fellow dictators. As Mary Hopkins’s “Those Were the Days” plays, Mugabe flashes back to a water-gun fight with Moammar Gaddafi, a raucous night of karaoke with Mao Zedong and a day spent making sand angels with Saddam Hussein.

As the screen flicks back to the present, a voice opines, “No one should ever have to eat alone … so get a Nando’s six-pack meal for six.” The ad generated so much controversy in Zimbabwe for its perceived disrespect toward Mugabe that it was quickly pulled from the air.

The brand’s identity owes much to the timing of its establishment in the late 1980s, during the dying days of apartheid rule. The chain, whose main offering is Mozambican-style spicy chicken, grew up with South Africa’s rowdy young democracy, when an irreverence for the powerful was stitched into the social fabric. It quickly developed a branding style with an adolescent mouthiness to match the country’s.

In recent years, Nando’s ads have featured acerbically witty takes on corruption, censorship and South Africa’s nagging xenophobia crisis. In that last ad, a voiceover tells foreigners: “You must all go back to where you came from.” Group by group, the country’s immigrants, including white settlers and even most of its black residents, disappear in puffs of white smoke, leaving only a native Khoisan man standing alone in an empty landscape. “Real South Africans love diversity,” the ad concludes. “That’s why we’ve introduced two more items.”

“Nando’s has really gotten under the skin of society here,” says Andy Rice, a branding expert in Johannesburg. But its campaigns, he points out, aren’t just about taking an abstract moral stance. They have helped the company carve out a unique commercial space in a country crowded with other fast-food outlets hawking chicken and fries.

“When a big issue hits the papers, people are already guessing what Nando’s reaction will be," Rice said. "That sells.”

For Nando’s, which now has about 1,200 locations globally, that’s exactly the point — to tap into the “proverbial dinner-table conversation” wherever one is taking place, says Sepanta Bagherpour, vice president of marketing at Nando’s USA and former marketing manager for Nando’s South Africa.

In the United States, where the first Nando’s branch opened in 2008, the company had already made a few minor forays into social-commentary-based advertising before Trump’s ascent to the presidency. In 2015, it celebrated the legalization of marijuana in the District by giving out free chicken — at 4:20 p.m., because "weed jokes are easy." And last year, the chain draped its D.C. restaurants as well as its social-media pages in rainbow colors to celebrate the city's pride day.

But as Washington prepared for Trump's inauguration this month, Nando’s saw a unique chance to target a far bigger audience, according to Bagherpour.

“We thought we could introduce ourselves to all these new visitors and in a way that reflects our values as a company,” he said. “If we have an opportunity to introduce ourselves through a bigger social conversation, that’s something we’re interested in doing.”