For those of you who missed it, Central Asia-based Eurasianet contributor Myles Smith had a great story out of Bishkek about Begemot ("hippopotamus"), a local fast food chain that's revolutionizing the Kyrgyz food scene by selling western-style burgers. Curious to learn more about the story, I sent Smith -- a freelance analyst who has lived in Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan for the last five years -- a few questions to find out how this Central Asian McDonald's was working its way into the hearts and stomaches of Kyrgyz eaters and -- most importantly -- just how does the "hippo" burger stack up against a Big Mac and its other "western" competitors:
1. How did you come upon this story?
Actually, the central processing facility for Begemot is outside the door of my house. I constantly get people ringing the doorbell saying they are coming to apply for jobs. Eventually, I just had to find out for myself.
2. How does the Kyrgyz take on western fast food differ from the real thing?
One of the interesting aspects of Begemot’s re-invention of western fast food is that it its target market and positioning is much more similar to its western antecedents than even McDonald's own relaunch in the CIS. Since its introduction in the late 80s, McDonald's has positioned itself in Russia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Georgia, and other CIS countries as trendy, youth-oriented, sit-down cafe. In the US, it’s a practical, fast meal option. Most people don't eat in, and despite its marketing efforts, few find the place 'cool'. Begemot is similar - a practical, pick-up option, without a lot of pizzaz.
3. Have you been able to gauge the public's response to the hippo burger?
Folks seem to like both the main varieties, and Begemot maintains that they have sold more chicken than beef burgers of late. Clearly they are working in the local market. Begemot believes its basically soaked up the Bishkek market - its management claims to be limited more by the incomes of their potential customer base than any preference for other foods.
The traditional 'hamburger', also known as shawarma, is the ubiquitous meat on a stick, cooked by electric lamp, shaved and put in a flour wrap or white bun with ketchup, yogurt, carrot and cabbage slaw, french fries, and onions. It’s similar to what Begemot offers, and the similarity makes the transition to Begemot a natural one. Also, with its broad supply chain, Begemot burgers are price competitive with these one-man shawarma operations.
4. If you were to put on your food critic's hat, how would you describe the hippo burger?
Can I approach it as an analyst instead? I try to avoid fast food altogether, and don't have much of a taste for it.
Begemot's burgers are from locally ground beef, which has a different taste from what I grew up with. Beef here is generally slaughtered later in life, is free range, and grass-fed. The combination gives it a flavor that many Americans describe as 'gamey', a description I'm not sure I can improve upon. Certainly the meat is fattier, as local preference dictates. Farmers select their meat to respond to these preferences. The chicken burgers (i.e.: 'gamburger from chicken') is made from American chicken legs and thighs and not much else. Such a chicken patty is not marketed in the US – the ones there are derived from a witches brew of fillers, renderings, and lean bits, then reformed, breaded, and fried into oblivion. I prefer the Kyrgyz chicken burger on taste, though I couldn't recommend it for those with heart conditions.
As for the rest - the bun is certifiably fresh, tasty, and a bit bulkier than those of western chains. The standard burger comes with sliced tomatoes, lettuce, and pickles, which are all just fine, especially in summer. They apply ketchup or mayonnaise to both halves of the bun, which is a bit much. American burgers almost always are sauce-above-beef, and are almost always served with onions as well.
The fries are just right, but then again, the frozen fries are imported that way. They are imported from Poland by a Canadian-owned conglomerate. Begemot is now also rolling out onion rings, chicken fingers, milkshakes, which will diversify their product line and perhaps their clientele.
5. Do you see a future for other local fast food enterprises? Any likely contenders?
The potential in Kyrgyzstan is limited by the economy. Few investors are interested in a market that is politically volatile, struggling with corruption, and underdeveloped. Some knock-offs, notably a donut maker called Tom's Donuts that has lifted the US Dunkin' Donuts brand is now distributing quite decent donuts at about a half dozen locations across the city.
Kazakhstan now has KFC, and during a recent visit to Astana, I found it to be by far the most popular option in two different mall food courts. It seems likely to take off. However, the burger market is still wide open, as Begemot is only getting started. I've long wondered why a western burger franchiser hasn't chanced the Kazakh market. Americana Group, the Kuwait-based operator of Kazakhstan's KFC, Pizza Hut, and TGI Friday's chains, owns rights to Hardee's, but not any of the more recognizable competitors. With Starbucks coming to Almaty, I wonder if Americana won't focus on introducing Costa Coffee, which would be more attractive to the high-rolling elite crowd. Kazakhstan, while certainly richer than its neighbors in Central Asia, still doesn't have much of a middle class customer base outside of a couple cities.