FOOD-JAMAICA: Move Over Locals Make Way For the Giants

G. Anthony McLaren

KINGSTON, May 26 1998 (IPS) - With American fast food stores springing up all over the country, local entrepreneurs are fighting to keep ahead of the competition, but already they seem to be losing the battle.

“With a good customer service programme teamed with millions of advertising dollars to compete against, we just don’t stand a chance,” says one local entrepreneur.

“We now see half the customers come in as we did a year or two ago. They (the overseas franchises) are pushing customer service on a large scale and that is what gives them the edge,” she adds.

And the overseas-based companies are attributing their success in the market to the way they carry on their business which guarantees customer satisfaction, they say.

“Products, prices and customer service have to be right. The Jamaican public’s attitude towards these elements shows in their willingness to patronise some establishments as opposed to others,” says General Manager of Popeyes International, Peter South.

Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), Burger King, Pizza Hut and TCBY have all set up camp in various areas of Jamaica and all seem to be doing thriving business. There are more than 100 fast food chain stores here.

Some attribute the rapid expansion of the fast food industry to the tendency of Jamaicans toward fatty foods.

“It seems that our tropical environment is one which encourages the use of oil in the preparation of our dishes,” says Dr. Susan Minott- Arscott.

Recent warnings by medical professionals about the relationship between the consumption of fatty foods and certain diseases have seemingly not acted as a deterrent.

“Chicken and chips, hamburgers, hot dogs — all American food — have all but taken over our traditional diet of ground provisions, rice, peas and beans and meat,” says Dr. Geoffrey Frankson, a Health Promotion Consultant in Trinidad and Tobago.

The patty, a local crust-filled, meaty pie, has been popular with Jamaicans for decades. Other spicy local delicacies like jerked chicken and jerked pork also remain popular.

But the emergence of companies like Burger King and Pizza Hut have meant food stores that showcase local dishes have had to go back to the drawing board in a bid to remain competitive.

One of these stores is Tastee’s, makers of the patty. Because it is considerably cheaper than its overseas counterparts, the patty is still a big seller for Tastee’s which has had to add variety to its list to keep up with its overseas rivals.

“The patty is not as expensive as the pizza or the burger so it still holds its own,” says an executive at Tastee’s, which is now in its 26th year of operation.

One patty, although smaller than a hamburger but which consumers say is quite filling, sells for 46 cents, a hamburger for 2.46 dollars and the pizzas range in price from between 5.80 and 15 dollars.

Whatever the reasons, the aisles of the Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken stores are normally packed, especially in the evenings when exhausted workers are heading home.

In the mornings it is no different, says a manager of one Burger King store in Kingston, “sometimes it gets real maddening.”

Debbie Richards, Assistant Manager of one of Burger King’s outlets says on a week day some 2,000 customers walk through the doors of that particular store situated in the heart of the capital city. That figure increases to 3,000 on the weekend.

There are 10 Burger King outlets throughout the island.

McDonald’s has also found favour with Jamaicans’ voracious appetite for fast food service. They opened their sixth store here recently.

Last year, Subway, the popular North American sandwich store, opened another branch, adding to four others operating in Kingston.

Taco Bell and Kenny Rogers Roasters are the babies of the industry beginning operations just over six months ago, but both have already begun making inroads into the competitive market.

“We provide a better quality meal than just the ordinary burger,” says Peter Wong, General Manager of Taco Bell.

“There’s got to be continuous promotion to keep the awareness level alive, says one KFC executive. “There’s always the challenge of having to come up with something new.”

“Something new” entails making the menus more attractive and less expensive. It also includes incentives such as prizes and vacation trips.

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