Baghdad’s ice cream diplomacy

American and Iranian franchises overcome difficulties to take a slice out of a burgeoning market for fast food.

Iraq Ice cream parlour
Foreign franchises face difficulty importing equipment and training staff due to security concerns [Jane Arraf/Al Jazeera]

In a city like Baghdad, the opening of anything new is an event. The opening of the first American fast-food franchise is a really big event, particularly when it brings together American frozen yogurt and Iranian ice cream.

Call it market forces trumping politics, or call it ice-cream diplomacy. In a country whose many divisions include those who believe America has ruined Iraq versus those who believe Iran has, the new fast food restaurant brought in companies from both.

‘Foodland’ is part of a wave of new restaurants in Baghdad’s upscale Jadriyah neighbourhood. In addition to an Emirati pizza and hamburger chain and the Iranian ice cream chain Ice Pack, a branch of ‘Tutti Frutti’, the American frozen yogurt company are now all finally under the same roof.

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It wasn’t easy.

“We faced a lot of difficulties negotiating the contract. American companies have very specific contracts, particularly in countries that face security problems,” says Hadi al-Haidary, the general manager of Foodland’s parent company Rawnaq Aldur.

Haidary says it took 18 months to negotiate what turned out to be a 22-page contract with the US parent company that covered everything from bringing in equipment and supplies to training employees. He says the company also faced difficulties on the Iraqi side when supplies and equipment were delayed for months and they were unable to get visas for American trainers to come to Iraq. In the end they sent employees to the US for training.

Opening the first Ice Pack franchise in 2008 was considerably easier but also not without risk. 

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“We faced problems at first with Ice Pack,” says Haidary. “Many customers refused to buy Iranian products but our company focuses on good quality and international standards, no matter where they’re from.”

In fact Haidary’s company caused a minor uproar when it opened a branch of the Iranian chain just down the street from the fortress-like American embassy in Baghdad’s green zone. That store is still there and the company now operates 22 Ice Pack branches across Iraq.

“People ask how an American company agreed to deal with a company that represents an Iranian chain but Tutti Frutti didn’t care,” he says.

Car bomb threat

Last week, artists, musicians and writers came to celebrate the opening before the doors opened to serve free frozen yogurt to the general public for the evening.

Iraqis have become so used to the attacks in Baghdad that it would take a lot of car bombs to keep people from trying out a new place.

Gleaming new machines dispensed swirls of fruit-flavored frozen yogurt into cups. A counter held containers of chocolate, cookies and honey-filled candied spheres to mix in. The Ice Pack counter a few feet away with its much different flavors including saffron and cinnamon ice-cream, was closed for the evening.

Annas Sarraf, who runs a Baghdad restaurant guide, says many Iraqis, particularly in Baghdad, would love to see the kind of American chains they can go to in Dubai and other cities.

“After 2003 people are looking for anything Western,” he says. “People are always asking me when we are going to see KFC or McDonalds here. But as you know that is probably going to be difficult.”

Haidary is just 28 and most of the staff are younger.

“Maybe this will inspire young people to start their own businesses someday,” says Ali al-Makhzomy, a founder of the Baghdad Choir who is now the company’s marketing director.

“Maybe one day Iraq will export its own franchises.”

Source: Al Jazeera