JEDDAH: Let’s face it. Saudis love their fast food. McDonald’s, Hardee’s and KFC are all wildly successful in the Middle East market, but are American fast food chains compatible with the very Middle Eastern rituals of Ramadan?
Not so much. For reasons only Arabs can explain, American fast food is not a good fit when it comes to traditional Middle Eastern food during Ramadan and other cultural and religious rituals.
Fast-food chains entice observers of the fast during the holy month of Ramadan with lower prices and all-you-can-eat offers. But is that enough to replace home-cooked meals with fried chicken and pizza?
Fast-food chains provide instant gratification for families on the go, and especially commuters on the way home from work as they try to get their takeaway before the restaurants close for prayer. But during Ramadan it is a far different story. Families breaking fast at sunset prefer home-cooked meals at home and reserve eating out for special occasions.
Ramadan is celebrated annually by Muslims who fast for about 30 days as the fourth pillar of Islam. Muslims refrain from eating, drinking beverages and smoking from sunrise — at Fajr prayer — until sunset when they break the fast for iftar.
Naif Al-Jabally, a supervisor for one of the McDonald’s restaurants in Jeddah, told Arab News that fast-food chains take a huge hit in food sales during Ramadan. Nearly every restaurant in the Kingdom is closed until after Asr prayer around 4 p.m.
Most fast food chains attempt to attract customers during Ramadan by offering special meals that include dates and with affordable prices as they remain closed during the day and open only in the evening.
McDonald’s, which has a delivery service year-round, offers deliveries during Ramadan from 9 p.m. to dawn. Yet marketing fast food during the holy month does not always work.
“There are way more customers during normal days (the rest of the year) than during Ramadan,” Al-Jabally said. “During Ramadan, we open at 5:30 p.m.”
And when customers do order a Ramadan meal, it is usually from the regular menu.
“There is no noticeable demand for the Ramadan meal,” Al-Jabally said.
Maha Nasir, 45, told Arab News that she likes to enjoy iftar outside the home, but at a restaurant that serves quality food. “We love to have iftar outside with the family once a week,” she said. “We like to go to the open buffet of any restaurant.”
Al-Baik, a Saudi favorite with a reputation for attracting crowds of patrons, also struggles during Ramadan.
“Customers are usually much more in number during the year than in Ramadan,” said a cashier at a Jeddah Al-Baik branch, who noted that the number of customers drop by nearly half during Ramadan.
In fact, Al-Baik makes no attempt to market Ramadan meals to its customers, preferring to stand by its main menu of roasted chicken and deep-fried shrimp.
Al-Tazaj jumps on the Ramadan bandwagon with a SR6 meal that includes dates, Laban, sambosa, soup, water, green salad and Arabic coffee.
Pizza Hut has a special Ramadan Box offer for SR89 that throws in sambosa with its regular pizza selections.
Restaurant operators, however, generally recognize that a fast-food meal defeats the purpose of iftar, which should be a light meal with perhaps something heavier later in the evening.
Maha Nasir makes it a point to avoid all fast-food establishments.
“My kids and I avoid fast-food during Ramadan as the meal because it will be full of fat and that is not good for our stomach. Iftar should be healthy. It can be grilled and contains salad or soup.”
For most families, Ramadan means home, family, fresh and home-cooked food.
Nora Al-Sabea, 29, and the mother of five, told Arab News that it is all about being at home.
“I don’t prefer iftar outside unless there is a family gathering,” she said.
But then, like every parent who is outnumbered by the children, they sometimes cave in to pressure.
“I prefer the food I cook myself. No way will there be fast-food unless the kids are insisting.”