American fast food on the menu in Pakistan

Anti-American sentiment may have reached historic highs in this country, but for many Pakistanis, the indignation does not extend to their bellies.

Just over the past few days, Islamabad inaugurated its first Hardee’s restaurant and its first American-style sports bar. In recent months, McDonald’s not only reopened its only restaurant in the capital but also added a home-delivery outlet. Those businesses join existing burger joints and other American fast-food restaurants such as Pizza Hut, KFC and Domino’s Pizza.

The proliferation of American food options in Islamabad and elsewhere in Pakistan stands in stark contrast to the growing resentment most Pakistanis feel toward the United States. According to an opinion survey released last month by the Pew Research Center, only 12 percent of Pakistanis have a favorable opinion of the United States, and 69 percent see it as more of an enemy than a partner. Approval ratings are at their lowest point since 2002, according to the Washington-based organization.

Mohammad Nouman, a businessman from the western city of Peshawar, said he likes to stop by McDonald’s whenever he comes to Islamabad because his daughters enjoy the food and the attached playground. He said he has misgivings about U.S. policy in the region, but he said those feelings are not incompatible with visits to McDonald’s.

“I don’t see things like, ‘This is an American brand, so I shouldn’t go there,’ ” he said.

A Pakistani woman and child (L/C) play with Ronald Mcdonald (R) outside a newly opened Mcdonald's outlet in Rawalpindi. (FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

After opening its first Pakistani restaurant in Lahore in 1998, McDonald’s now counts 21 outlets across the country. Hardee’s launched the first of its four restaurants in Pakistan a year and a half ago and plans to open a total of 25 within five years.

Nowhere is Pakistanis’ love of American fast food more apparent these days than at the newest Hardee’s. A few days after a much-hyped opening attended by U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter and his wife, lines of customers still extended outside the doors. Nawaz Sadiq, manager for development and training at Hardee’s, said the outlet has served an average of 5,000 to 6,000 customers a day so far.

“The Pakistani market is very much brand-conscious,” Sadiq said. “Pakistani people are against America because of its policies, but at the same time, people want quality.”

Unlike in the United States, fast food here is among the more expensive eating-out options. At 390 Pakistani rupees, or about $4.50, a Big Mac is out of reach for most people. Consequently, many customers are part of Pakistan’s highly educated class and have spent time in the United States, or have at least more favorable opinions of the United States than most of their countrymen.

That has not prevented U.S. chains from being the target of attacks. Bomb blasts have hit KFC and McDonald’s outlets in Karachi in recent years, and armed guards and metal detectors are standard at fast-food restaurants.Moteeb Ahmed, the manager of Islamabad’s American Steakhouse, said his restaurant has never been vandalized, but at times of surging anti-American sentiment, he has covered up its sign as a precaution.

But for Mohsin Masud, owner of the brand-new restaurant 3rd Base, security is not a major concern. Masud, who spent time in the United States and Canada, said he opened his sports bar because he couldn’t find good hamburgers in Islamabad. The restaurant, which has a Facebook page, also specializes in steaks and chicken wings. But one standard sports-bar item is conspicuously absent.

“The only thing missing is the beer,” Masud said, because it is impossible for Muslims in Pakistan to obtain an alcohol license.

Brulliard is a special correspondent.

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