As I have travelled around the world, I’ve become an observer of retail food franchises and the way they perform when they are a long way from home.  Catering franchises are among the most potent brands we have.  Customer loyalty can be the strongest you’ll find in the retail sector and the emerging capacity of some brands to develop their brand communities is only going to enhance that.

These brands change the communities in which they reside just as the individuals that join any brand community changes that a little by bringing with them new character traits and values.  Restaurants like McDonald’s and KFC have changed countries and lesser retail food brands do the same to a lesser extent.  Today I made my second visit to what is fast becoming one of my favourite restaurant chains Tony Roma’s and as I sat there listening to The Eagles’ Hotel California I considered the impact they are having on the local community.  Quite significant I believe, because this is Saudi Arabia, where music is banned in any public place.

Here Tony Roma’s is a franchise run by a local Sheik already heavily into retail.  Clearly he is rather more progressive than others of his countrymen and though I don’t know him I am sure he must be a controversial figure.  Although Tony’s famous pork ribs were conspicuously absent from the menu the music isn’t the only taboo he is breaking.  Restaurants in Saudi Arabia are segregated.  Single men sit in one part and families and women on their own sit behind impenetrable screens in a separate part of the building.  They usually even have different entrances.  I’m not sure how this is supposed to work.  I guess it’s something to do with women not being able to eat through a veil and men not being allowed to look at a woman who isn’t wearing one, but, like many things in this country it is a mass of contradictions, doesn’t work and ends up being a bit of a farce (although the “Emperor’s New Clothes” applies here as everywhere).  Certainly in Tony Roma’s it doesn’t work because although they had areas designated as “single men” and “family”, everyone was allowed to sit where they liked, almost like real life!

The success of Tony Roma’s in Saudi Arabia is a testament to the changing tide.  The manager in this restaurant told me that he has clear instructions from head office that the music will be turned off at prayer time and should anybody complain at any other time.  So far though, in three years, complaints have been minimal and mostly from religious police who make inspection visits from time to time.  The real measure of popular feeling however has to be bums on seats and by all accounts the liberals have a landslide.  Whether any other businesses have the bottle to join this movement for freedom of choice remains to be seen.  I suspect they will, but while they are getting their act together maybe you could ponder on two issues this raises.  Firstly, as I have said the power of brands like these to influence change and secondly the fact that maybe the Saudis are not as completely inflexible as we Westerners think.

Michael Weaver
November 11, 2011

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