As Georgia rushes to embrace the West, American-style fast food franchises are trying to make inroads into a country with a rich culinary tradition. For now, local restaurateurs and gastronomers say, Georgian cuisine still has the upper hand. But the times they are McChanging. Sensing a market opportunity, two global fast-food players are set on expanding their footprint in Georgia.
The US hamburger chain Wendy’s will open its first restaurant in Tbilisi next year, part of 25 Wendy’s expected to open in Georgia and its southern neighbor, Azerbaijan, over the next decade. McDonald’s, which runs four locations in Georgia at present, is also expanding; the chain has plans to invest 5.5 million lari ($3.37 million) to build restaurants in the Black Sea town of Batumi, a summer-tourism hub, and in the southeastern town of Rustavi, once the center of the Soviet metallurgy industry. The chain also plans to add a restaurant to the one currently open in Kutaisi, the new site for Georgia’s parliament. The three other restaurants already operating are in Tbilisi.
And Georgians appear hungry for more. A rumor in 2011 that Starbucks was coming to Tbilisi caused a Facebook frenzy. “We are part of [the] world so we need we want STARBUCKS!!” one of 10,212 fans wrote on the “We want Starbucks in Tbilisi” page. The report could not be confirmed.
Attitudes toward fast food restaurants in Tbilisi have not always been warm. Some residents opposed the appearance of a McDonald’s restaurant back in 1999 in downtown Tbilisi, staging a small protest to express their disapproval of what they saw as an eyesore. Crowds of Georgians, though, happily gobbled up the burgers.
Amid an increasingly aggressive government and media campaign to show that the remote South Caucasus country is, in fact, “part of the world,” Georgians today are also more welcoming of outside influences. The government, in fact, used one of McDonald’s Tbilisi locations for a media meet-and-greet with a Russian soldier who crossed into Georgian-controlled territory after the 2008 war. Coverage showed the soldier happily wolfing down a Big Mac and fries.
Fast-food franchise owner, Davit Ingorokva, the owner of VD Capital, a large restaurant group which holds the local franchise for the Atlanta, Georgia-based Texas Chicken, argues that “fast food, and American fast food, especially, will take its place on the market definitely.”
“Maybe it will take a year or two, maybe it will take even more, but it will come sooner or later,” Ingorovka said.
The onslaught of fast food, though, is raising questions about how Georgia’s own strong culinary traditions – think Eastern Mediterranean meets Middle Eastern – can survive.
ReThinkCuisine food blogger Uzair Qadeer contends that developing countries like Georgia embrace fast food as they embrace Western culture; not necessarily for the cuisine itself. “In those countries, we have seen a whole generation of fast food [fans]. They think fast food is ‘cool,’” Qadeer said.
At the same time, the fast-food phenomenon raises the prospect of a generation of Georgians losing touch with traditional dishes.
One Georgian restaurant and hospitality group disagrees. “Georgia food might change some, develop, but ... Georgian people like our tradition,” said Nino Mamaladze, the spokesperson for MGroup, a company that owns several Georgian traditional restaurants as well as Japanese, Italian and American eateries in Tbilisi. “We try to develop it, but not lose it.”
As part of that mission, MGroup launched a project to track down old family recipes from throughout the country for a 40-dish menu to be served in one of its Tbilisi restaurants. Selections include pumpkin stuffed with rice and figs, and a soup based on Cornelian cherries.
“All of this food has a history,” said Mamaladze. “It is not commercial; we wanted to find this and pass it to a new generation.”
At the center of the Georgian culinary tradition is the supra, a multi-course feast replete with a litany of toasts that can last for hours. Preparation for a supra – men oversee the grilling of the meat, women everything else – can also take hours.
Jenny Holm, a Washington, DC-based freelance food writer who lived in Georgia for several months, says Western fast food doesn’t pose the biggest challenge to the survival of the supra meal. “More and more women work full time,” she said, leaving less time for meal preparation.
While McDonald’s in Tbilisi appears to have assumed some supra-style functions – hosting birthday parties for youngsters, or serving as wifi hangouts for teens -- Holm noted that there is still a deep appreciation for “slow cooking” in Georgia. And Western fast food cannot easily encroach on that turf. “I don’t think they threaten each other,” she said.
Georgian-style fast food joints, such as bakeries offering a range of bread pastries, including khachapuri (a thin cheese pie), or cafes serving quick-order khinkali (stuffed dumplings), long preceded McDonald’s and Wendy’s. One Georgian fast-food chain, Ori Lula, is now offering khachapuri on a stick – with unknown success.
Ingorokva, the fast-food entrepreneur, agreed that, for now, Georgians still prefer items like khachapuri to Western fare when they are grabbing food on the run. “I think it will still need some time before Georgian customers will learn what is fast food,” he said. “I mean, somebody has 15 lari [about $9.25] in their pocket, they prefer to go and eat khachapuri or khinkali -- whatever they know, instead of risking to taste something [about which] they have no idea yet.”
Ultimately, the supra, along with other culinary traditions, will remain strong, Ingorokva believes. “[T]his is a part of their life … I don’t think it’s going to disappear.”
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist who also works as editor of Investor.ge, a monthly publication by the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia.