Postcard from Iraq: From fast food to sweet treats, Baghdad tucks into American chains

Food businesses are flourishing in Iraq despite economic woes, making them a favourable investment in the war-ravaged country

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The vibrant culinary landscape in Iraq is set to change as American brands enter its food scene.

A city rich in history, Baghdad has long been a centre of gastronomic delights, going back to its days as the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate between the eighth and 13th centuries.

Now American brands have ventured into this ancient metropolis, with the stage set for an infusion of new flavours.

From beloved fast-food franchises including Kentucky Fried Chicken, Hardee’s, Burger King and Pizza Hut to indulgent dessert chains such as Cinnabon, these American pioneers are poised to reshape Baghdad's culinary landscape.

Twenty years after the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime, Baghdad finds itself embracing a new era of international cuisine.

The presence of multinational chains and foreign companies in Iraq serves as a symbol of “recovery, security improvement and stability”, lab doctor Zaid Al Badri, 68, tells The National as he shares a table with his family outside KFC and Pizza Hut, in the vibrant Baghdad neighbourhood of Jadiriyah.

The smell of fried chicken and spices fills the air as eager customers queue to place their orders.

Inside KFC, uniformed servers make their way through packed halls bustling with families and groups of teenagers.

There is a lively and welcoming atmosphere, with conversations blending with the sounds of sizzling fryers and clinking cutlery.

Mohammed Ayad, an oil engineer, enjoyed eating at fast-food restaurants such as KFC while studying for six years in Moscow. He is excited to indulge in familiar flavours in Baghdad.

“I’m happy they have opened a place here,” Mr Ayad, 25, tells The National.

But the prices, ranging from 6,500 Iraqi dinars ($5) for a kids' meal to 59,500 dinars for a family meal, are expensive, he says.

He paid 29,500 dinars for the eight-piece bucket meal. That is nearly double the price he used to pay in Moscow.

“But the taste is unparalleled and I’m happy,” he says.

Food businesses have flourished in Iraq recently, owing to the population's deep passion for food.

Local and foreign businesses have spent millions of dollars to bring international food chains to the country, with the majority coming from Turkey and Gulf states.

New local brands have also been established with the help of foreign chefs and staff.

A short walk from KFC, the scent of freshly baked cinnamon rolls attracts customers to Cinnabon.

It’s really amazing to have original brand here and that will be highly appreciated among Iraqis, as they love food
Saif Ali, Baghdad businessman

The venue offers a variety of baked goods that Iraqis seem to enjoy.

“It’s really amazing to have original brand here and that will be highly appreciated among Iraqis, as they love food,” says businessman Saif Ali, 44.

Mr Ali also believes the prices are too expensive compared with the Cinnabon outlets in other countries.

Omar Al Jabouri, managing director of Al Salail for General Trading and Food Services, the franchisee of Cinnabon, said the menu was made more costly by import costs.

“For sure, the prices will be higher than its peers, but this is a foreign brand so the ingredients and equipment are not bought from local markets, they are imported exclusively for the chain,” he said.

“There are many obstacles in Iraq for projects, including corruption, energy issues, transportation and [a fluctuating] exchange rate. All of that impacts prices.”

He was pleased with the amount of customers that had been served only days after the venue opened, he said.

“Iraqi people are eager to try foreign brands as they offer high-quality products, which can’t be compared to other brands,” Mr Al Jabouri said.

Cinnabon is not the first American brand franchised by Al Salail. It is looking to expand further with new brands.

“We bring successful brands to Iraq and we spare no effort to make it a success,” he said.

“We are optimistic that we will succeed.”

Updated: May 20, 2023, 2:42 PM


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