Amidst the occasional televised chants of “Death to America” that are mostly disregarded by the majority of the population, a common truth lies amongst the Iranian people: They love the American people and its fast food. Albeit hard to believe — given the current political stalemate that has brought about staunch sanctions — the Islamic Republic of Iran is the most pro-American country in the Middle East.
Although the US and Iran have no diplomatic relations, restaurant owners have attempted to emulate American fast food franchise. Since the early 2000s, bootleg American fast food franchises have made their way throughout the country and have captured the hearts and taste buds of Iranians alike.
Baskin-Robbins has popped up in Tehran, complete with 31 flavors and its signature pink spoon. According to its owners, the ice cream is in fact gelato ice cream.
Although there are bootleg Baskin-Robbins in Iran, Iranian ice cream company Choopan beat the American franchise’s Guinness World Record of having the largest tub of ice cream at 5 tons of chocolate, beating Baskin-Robbins’ 4 tons of vanilla. In a statement, Baskin-Robbins mentioned, “While we understand another company is vying to break this record, we remain focused on serving our guests around the world our delicious variety of ice cream flavors, custom ice cream cakes and frozen treats, and wouldn’t rule out trying to break another record in the future.”
The Mexican grill fast food franchise known for its signature burritos and tacos has a bootleg version in Iran, complete with its smoked chili logo. Although it serves Mexican dishes like burritos, nachos, and virgin margaritas, it also serves Iranian pizza and hot wings.
What separates the original Chipotle from its bootleg sister is that it is the first American restaurant to reduce genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in its cooking and ingredients.
Driving on the main road by the Caspian Sea, there just so happens to be a conspicuous bootleg Domino’s Pizza. Whereas the original Domino’s is solely a delivery franchise, in Iran it is a restaurant where one can enjoy pizza or any of its other non-original menu items such as French fries.
KFC restaurants in Iran closed after the 1979 revolution and although varying versions of KFC existed – such as Kabooky Fried Chicken and Super Star Fried Chicken – it took Amir-Hossein Alizadeh, the owner of the bootleg franchise, five years before the Iranian government allowed him to open KFC.
Yum! Brands Inc., which owns KFC, denied having opened any restaurants in Iran. Its spokesperson asserted, “We have filed a legal action against the company and individuals claiming to have rights to open KFC restaurants in Iran.”
Because of sanctions on Iran, the price of chicken has tripled, which prevents some Iranians from having one of their favorite food staples.
McDonald’s is the international representative of American pop culture. This is why in 1994, someone managed to open a bootleg version for two days, only to be threatened by the Basij with arson. Mash Donald’s is the closest emulation of the most prominent symbol of American food consumerism, with locations in Tehran, Mashhad, and other cities. Mash Donald’s not only serves hamburgers, but hot dogs in baguette bread.
In Iran Pizza Hut is spelt “Pizza Hat” – which makes sense since the symbol for the franchise happens to be manipulated into a man with a hat. Pizza Hat not only serves pizza, but lasagna and chicken wings as well.
The Iranian government seems to be fans of infiltrating Pizza Hut as well: in 2011, a ring of CIA informants were captured at a local Pizza Hut restaurant in Beirut, Lebanon by Hezbollah and supposedly Iran. The spy ring apparently even used the word “pizza” when discussing meeting times.
Raees Coffee – literally “Boss” Coffee – is a popular Iranian coffee franchise that happened to adopt the logo as well as the black and green color scheme that Starbucks has – except Raees has a man with a mustache and a top hat. According to an article by Reuters, Starbucks attempted to sue the bootleg franchise with no success.
Besides serving coffee and desserts such as crepes, it also serves occasional doses of nationalism: on the annual “Persian Gulf Day,” it covered cappuccinos and lattes with a cinnamon Persian Gulf stencil.
In the Motel Ghoo area by the Caspian Sea in the North of Iran, there is a Subway franchise look-alike – except for the scrambled writing on its storefront. Upon entering, the owner managed to replicate the submarine sandwich ordering system offered by Subway, complete with 6-inch and foot-long subs and even the “Eat Fresh” slogan. However, don’t expect to order ham at this place: ham is not part of the Islamic diet. What this bootleg Subway happens to also serve is pizza – a popular Iranian delicacy.
Interestingly, Ali Saifi – a member of the Iranian Diaspora – owns some 390 Subway restaurants in the United States. Perhaps one of his family members opened up the bootleg version in Iran?
The name might sound familiar to you because it is actually the namesake of a popular burger at Carl’s Jr., also known as Hardee’s in the Middle East. Super Star was a big hit when it first opened on Valiasr Street in Tehran during the early 2000s. Not only is the menu reminiscent of the American fast food joint, it gained notoriety after a rumor circulated that burger buns were imported from the original franchise located in the Emirates.
In 2002, journalist Azadeh Moaveni described the bootleg franchise as a place where “smiling employees wear polo shirts monogrammed with the Carl’s Jr. star, Thank you is printed on the swinging door of the trash can, and a comments box solicits complaints. The only design element that would be out of place in an authentic branch is the discreet plaque reminding customers to please respect Islamic morals.”
Super Star has since expanded with more locations and a sister franchise: Super Star Fried Chicken (SFC) – you can imagine what the menu there consists of.