AJEats - Karachi burgers - Sanam Maher
"Burger", once a pejorative that denoted someone young, spoilt, and rich, has evolved into a catchall phrase for a newly-politicised youth who support Imran Khan's PTI party [Sanam Maher/Al Jazeera]

The rise of Pakistan’s ‘burger’ generation

How a homegrown burger joint pioneered a food revolution and decades later gave a young, politicised class its identity.

Karachi, Pakistan – On the evening of April 24, 2015, Sabeen Mahmud, the director of The Second Floor, a beloved cafe and communal space in Karachi, was shot and killed.

Mahmud’s murder, and the resounding question of who was responsible, made news within and outside Pakistan. Less than a month later, the authorities announced that they had a culprit: a 27-year-old man named Saad Aziz.

For many, Aziz seemed to be the unlikeliest of suspects. Media reports painted him as a mild-mannered man who had graduated from a reputable Karachi business school with good grades, the father of a baby girl, and a restaurant owner who loved football.

He was “a burger kid”, explained one unnamed friend interviewed by the Pakistani newspaper The Express Tribune at the time of Aziz’s arrest. “He was funny, acted in plays and danced.”

In Pakistan, the label “burger kid” is a loaded one.

Being a ‘burger’

“The implications of being a ‘burger’ are that you are spoiled, and detached from what is going on in the country,” says Monis Rahman, 45, the founder of Rozee.pk, Pakistan’s biggest online jobs portal.

“A burger lives in a cocoon and is enamoured by things outside of Pakistan – by the West,” Rahman explains. The word is often used to describe well-to-do Pakistanis who may have American or British-tinged accents after years spent studying or working outside Pakistan, he says.

Fully dressed with matching accessories even for 8am classes at university, they always own the latest in fashion, cars and gadgets,” is another definition suggested by The Express Tribune. “Their ‘parties’ mimic nightclubs in foreign countries since the poor souls don’t have any clubs here and have to recreate the experience on their own.”

Despite the connotations, being a burger in Pakistan has value, Rahman says.

“People who have stronger English-speaking skills and more international exposure are valued higher in the jobs market.”

2013 elections: Imran Khan and his ‘burger’ supporters

Since 2013, there has been a slow but steady evolution of the term “burger” beyond its pejorative context.

That year, Pakistanis voted in the first general elections in which power was transferred from one democratically elected government to another.

Former cricketer Imran Khan, the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, was dismissed as a “baby boy or a burger boy” by older political leaders, while his supporters were called “burgers”.

“It’s the first time that the burger group will also come out to vote,” quipped politician Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed before the elections in May 2013.

“They’re going to join the chapati-and-salan [curry] folk. They might need to carry their laptops on their heads to protect them from the sun.”

While Rasheed hinted that PTI supporters were more suited to campaigning on social media from the comfort of their homes, he made one crucial point: “If they do come out to vote, they’ll do amazingly well.”

An estimated 46.2 million people voted in these elections, compared with the 36.6 million voters from the previous 2008 elections. The 2013 election saw the highest voter turnout in Pakistan’s history. Thirteen million were first-time voters and more than half the registered voters were aged 18-29.

Rasheed was proved right. Khan’s base of young, educated urban “burgers” helped the PTI to emerge from the elections as the second most powerful political party in the country. With 7.7 million votes, the PTI knocked President Asif Ali Zardari’s party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which garnered 6.9 million votes, from its perch and into third place.

PTI’s burgers began to wear the label with pride; literally, in some cases, as the party’s supporters turned up at rallies and on election day wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Kaptaan’s Burger Army” (“Kaptaan” is a moniker that pays tribute to Khan’s time as captain of the Pakistani cricket team).

That an American fast food has become a catchall phrase for a generation of Pakistanis who flocked to a political party which promised change, including an end to the decades-old hold of the two ruling parties and the rooting out of corruption, has its origins in the story of how the food itself first came to Pakistan. This begins in 1953, a handful of years after the partition of India and Pakistan, when a man named Syed Musa Raza arrived in Karachi.

Arsalan Taj Ghumman, 30, former president of the Karachi chapter of PTI's student wing (standing) says it's a source of pride to have brought 'burgers' into the political fold [Image courtesy Arsalan Taj Ghumman]
Arsalan Taj Ghumman, 30, former president of the Karachi chapter of PTI’s student wing (standing) says it’s a source of pride to have brought ‘burgers’ into the political fold [Image courtesy Arsalan Taj Ghumman]

McDonald’s: Pakistan isn’t ready for burgers

Originally from Lucknow in pre-partition India, Raza spent several years after partition in 1947 working in the Middle East. 

Although he knew no one in Karachi when he arrived, his son, Ashfaq Raza, 53, says: “My father dreamed of starting up a business that would ensure people would know of us and know our family’s name.”

As his nine sons moved to the United States and England for their studies, Musa Raza, who is no longer alive, urged them to return to Karachi as soon as they could to start up a business.

Ashfaq’s older brother, Iqbal, a flight engineer, travelled frequently to Europe and witnessed the arrival of McDonald’s there in the 1970s. “He saw the long lines outside McDonald’s restaurants and hit upon the idea of bringing the franchise to Pakistan,” Raza says.

In 1978, the brothers approached the McDonald’s corporation. They were promptly turned down. “They told us that Pakistan was not ready for burgers,” Raza recalls.

They made an offer to Burger King who gave them the same answer.

“So we took that as a challenge,” Raza explains. “We wanted to prove these multimillion-dollar chains wrong.”

When McDonald's and Burger King turned the Raza family down, they saw it as a
When McDonald’s and Burger King turned the Raza family down, they saw it as a “challenge” to create their own burger joint, says Ashfaq Raza [Al Jazeera/Sanam Maher]

Bringing burgers to Pakistan

To learn the ropes, the brothers spent a few months working at a McDonald’s near their family home in Hartford, Connecticut. At one point, Raza and five of his brothers worked at the same outlet.

Their colleagues did not know that they were there to soak up all the information they could about running a fast food enterprise.

“We even offered to work for no pay,” says Raza, who spent three months at McDonald’s while in high school.

The brothers were paid $1.80 an hour and worked their way up from cleaning the restrooms to learning to make the food, handle equipment and manage staff. In late 1978, the Raza brothers returned to Karachi and began testing burger recipes.

“Our friends warned us that this was a bad idea,” Raza says. “At that time, there were no burgers in Pakistan – just bun kebabs.” The bun kebab, a local variant of the burger, consists of a slender minced meat patty and a potato or lentil patty. Slapped inside a bun and garnished with a fried egg, onions, chillies and chutney, the bun kebab is a staple at roadside cafes or street vendors’ carts and is gulped down in three or four bites. But the brothers didn’t want to make what Raza refers to as this “poor man’s burger”. 

“I’m sure many people told McDonald’s in the 1950s that American households weren’t interested in what they had to offer,” Raza says. “But McDonald’s changed the game. That’s what we wanted to do – change the model of how and what people ate in Pakistan.”

They spent three months perfecting a tender beef patty with a peppery spice and the slightly sweet “secret sauce” that cut out the need for what Raza calls “frills”, like tomatoes or onions.

In the following months, the brothers laid down the foundation for Pakistan’s first burger joint, and created a blueprint that would be replicated in hundreds of fast-food outlets in the country for years to come, its simplicity belying the mammoth task of creating an entirely novel approach to eating out.

Homegrown enterprise

The brothers were determined to source all the food products locally – this was to be a proudly Pakistani enterprise – and so while equipment had to be brought in from the US, everything from ketchup to straws and paper ramekins for sauce had to be made in the country.

“You won’t believe it, but at that time, there was only one supplier in the country who made disposable cups, and it was selling them to the national airline only,” Raza recalls. “They refused to sell the cups to us because they didn’t think it was worthwhile and they didn’t understand what we were trying to do.” It took the family five years to convince the company to produce the 16-ounce cups Mr Burger needed.

Following the McDonald’s model, the Raza brothers wanted to hire students to work at the outlet. But they did not anticipate the stigma associated with working in a kitchen.

“Kids from Karachi were embarrassed about getting a job at a restaurant and, moreover, they didn’t want to do basic chores like cleaning the floor,” Raza says.

Some employees would appeal to Raza – “I’m a Syed [families believed to be direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad], how can I mop the floor?” Raza laughs at the memory now. “They didn’t realise I am a Syed as well. I cleaned the floors and tables for two years until the employees came around to it.”

1980: Mr Burger is born

One year later all that remained to be decided was the name. “There used to be a restaurant in Hartford named Mr Steak,” Raza recalls. “When we were trying to come up with a name for our business, that name clicked.” 

And so, Mr Burger was born. “It was simple, easy to remember and whether someone was educated or not, it was easy to pronounce,” Raza says.

His brother Iqbal, the flight engineer, travelled to Paris frequently and after the name was settled, he strolled down the Champs-Elysees and found an artist who sketched a logo for the business.

In 1980, the Raza brothers opened the doors of the first Mr Burger in Karachi’s Nazimabad neighbourhood. They served five kinds of burgers – Mr Burger, Beef Burger, Chicken Burger, Egg Burger and Veggie Burger – for five rupees each (five cents today), French fries (Rs2) and flavoured slush (Rs2 a cup). The prices ensured that even students on shoestring budgets could buy a meal of fries and slush.

“Within minutes we had nearly 150 people crammed into this tiny space,” Raza recalls. “People in the neighbourhood had been watching as the restaurant was being constructed and they were so curious about what we were selling that we didn’t even need to advertise our opening – the news just spread through word of mouth.”

Mr Burger pioneered a new way of eating in Pakistan [Sanam Maher/Al Jazeera]
Mr Burger pioneered a new way of eating in Pakistan [Sanam Maher/Al Jazeera]

Introducing fast-food culture

The brothers did not just introduce a new food to Pakistani consumers – they served up the fast-food culture that they had seen in the US, one that a majority of Pakistanis had never been exposed to as international travel was a privilege reserved for the rich.

While some customers were annoyed that the restaurant only served burgers – “You won’t believe how many people asked us why we didn’t have nihari or biryani on the menu,” Raza says – others wanted a taste of this “American food”.

“They wanted to try it, but they were confused about how to eat a burger,” Raza says. “Some would pick it apart and then use the bun as roti to scoop up bites of the patty.” Raza and his brothers would then demonstrate how to unwrap the burger’s paper covering, and pull it down halfway to form a pocket while eating.

Customers would sit at a table and holler at servers to bring their food over or get angry that they weren’t being waited on, he recalls. “They had no clue about self-service, takeaway food or disposable items – people returned wrappers and cups to us until they learned they could throw leftovers in the trash.”

Mr Burger’s “no smoking policy” was an alien concept too. At the time, there was a marked shift in attitude towards more gun-toting as AK-47s, brought by Afghan refugees fleeing the Soviet invasion in their country, flooded the black market. “Some people – especially the big shots – would pull a gun on my employees if they asked them not to smoke inside the restaurant,” Raza remembers. “They felt insulted.”

Back then, the brothers couldn’t find a Pakistani company making sliced cheese. “One of my customers walked in with a packet of Kraft cheese slices he bought in America,” Raza says. “He was used to eating a burger with cheese abroad and that’s what he wanted.”

Raza tracked down a small company that manufactured butter and desi cheese or paneer in Sahiwal, Punjab. “They tasted the Kraft cheese and then spent months trying to make it,” he explains. Once the taste mimicked the yellow plastic-wrapped Kraft slices, the suppliers proudly brought a large block of cheese to the restaurant.

“I looked at it and I said, ‘What is this?’ You see, they didn’t have a slicer for the cheese,” Raza says, laughing. They imported a cheese slicer from the US and taught the supplier how to use it.

At first, a social equaliser  

So who came to Mr Burger? “Everyone,” Raza says.

In the first 15 years of business, Nawaz Sharif, the current prime minister, used to come for the chicken burgers, as did former President Zardari, who at the time was Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s fiance.

During the day, queues would spill out of the restaurant and on to the street.

“Everyone, no matter how important or rich they were, had to get in line,” he says. Initially, the space was a great equaliser. High-ranking police officials and businessmen briefly rubbed shoulders with students and labourers at Mr Burger. But soon, there was a return to the well-worn grooves between these classes.

“We had space for only four hanging tables – no chairs – inside the restaurant, so we’d clean and wash down a space outside where people could sit,” Raza says. “Some movie stars, rich people and celebrities who wanted to avoid the aam aadmi [common man] began to come in after 10pm and would sit on this cleaned floor to eat their burgers.”

While the fast food concept was new for a majority of people, it thrilled others to finally have access to a beloved staple of life outside Pakistan.

“Members of foreign consulates and diplomatic missions in Karachi were so happy they could finally have a burger here,” Raza recalls. His first sweet taste of success came from these customers. “You are the McDonald’s of Pakistan,” they would tell him.

American culture trickles out

By the mid-1980s, there were five Mr Burger outlets in Karachi. The tantalising brush with American culture that Mr Burger offered trickled past the palate and into other parts of customers’ lives in a way that Raza had not anticipated.

“Customers began objecting that the teenagers who came to Mr Burger were behaving in a very ‘Westernised’ way – they would come there for dates,” Raza says. “The kids are sitting too close together, they are holding hands,” he recalls customers complaining.

For Raza, this was a source of pride. “I felt very happy that this was a safe space for these teenagers,” he says.

“To this day I have customers coming in with their wives and they tell me, ‘Our first date was at Mr Burger’. Their children call me Uncle Burger.”

The ‘burgers’

And these “Westernised” customers were given a name: burgers.

According to Raza, the phrase was coined by Pakistani comedian Umer Shareef back in the 1980s. “He saw that people of a certain class and from certain well-off neighbourhoods such as Clifton and Defence would come to Mr Burger a lot and he started calling them ‘burgers’,” Raza claims.

In an interview last year, Shareef confirmed the term was used to describe people from this “certain class”, and he used the analogy of food to describe “burgers” as distinct from the aam aadmi.

“[In the 1980s] I started noticing women in restaurants who were the kind of people to pick up a roti using a tissue paper,” he said.

“We had never done anything like that, so I asked myself, ‘What class do these women belong to?'” It was a class that preferred to align itself with the West, and behaved as though it did not even know how to eat a common roti, he implied.

The 'Westernised' customers of Mr Burger were dubbed 'burgers' [Sanam Maher/Al Jazeera]
The ‘Westernised’ customers of Mr Burger were dubbed ‘burgers’ [Sanam Maher/Al Jazeera]

The rise of fast food

By 1995, the Raza brothers were flipping more than 100,000 burgers a month. A year later, they received word that they were being “watched”.

“Some of our customers told us that they had been employed to thoroughly research Mr Burger, to see how it had done so well in Karachi,” Raza claims. McDonald’s was coming to town, and Mr Burger was no longer the only option for Pakistanis in search of fast food.

In 1993, Pizza Hut was the first foreign franchise to land in Pakistan, followed by KFC in 1997 and McDonald’s a year later.

Today, KFC reportedly has the largest share – 37 percent – of the fast-food market in the country, followed by McDonald’s at 26 percent, while other foreign franchises have made inroads here too such as Hardees, with 6 percent of the market share.

For consumers under the age of 19, who accounts for 45 percent of Pakistan’s population of more than 185 million, burgers have always been a part of life, whether by way of the small roadside kiosks or international brands.

In 2013, BIL Foods, the franchiser for Fatburger, predicted that demand for fast food will continue to grow and estimates a 30 percent increase in Pakistan by 2017.

Local chains, American flavours

Industry sources say that it is difficult to put a number on the market share for homegrown fast-food businesses, but they agree that it is swiftly growing to cater to the demand.

Shahvez Fazail, 33, for instance, founder of the online delivery service Food Genie, has signed on more than 60 burger chains in the last year, including Mr Burger, and of these, new local businesses outnumber the foreign entities.

One of Fazail’s clients is Ali Raza, 38, owner of Burger Inc. Raza studied and worked in the US before returning to Karachi in 2004. He, like many fast-food restaurant owners in Karachi I spoke to, spent his formative years abroad where he got his first job. He believes that the local burger chain boom has arisen partly because of the lucrative growing demand, but also from a need to cater to consumers like himself – a generation that has been exposed to international fast food trends and franchises.

“Part of our personalities are very rooted in another culture,” he explains. “Its not just those of us who have returned to Pakistan, though – everything is so accessible via the Internet and we travel so much now that we all want to be part of an international culture that we see so much of.”

While those who have returned to Pakistan relish traditional food, they also crave American burgers, he says. That’s where the local chains step in.

“The international brands are great, but they’re all about convenience and volume,” he explains. “They can nuke you a burger in three minutes, but I’ll make it from scratch, with the freshest of ingredients and the best quality beef in the market.”

Despite the friendship between Pakistan and the US being lukewarm at best over the past few years – a 2014 Pew Research Center poll found that 59 percent of Pakistanis view Americans unfavourably – our palate still takes its cues from the US.

Local burger chains try to offer the best of both worlds, bringing fresh, homegrown produce to a menu with a decidedly American flavour. 

Naveed Savul, 47, the owner of Burger Lab, which he started nearly four years ago, also feels the local market is spurred on by food trends outside of Pakistan.

“We were very used to overly processed, synthetic-tasting fast food, but then we saw a change in the US and Europe – a return to organic, fresh cuts and locally sourced ingredients,” he says.

In the years Burger Lab has been operating, Savul has noticed greater demand for “gourmet burgers” – burgers with blue or gouda cheese, for instance – which, costing more than Rs700 ($6.68) have become staples on restaurant and cafe menus, catering to customers with deep pockets. According to the consumer research firm Euromonitor International, the annual disposable income of Pakistanis increased by 23.1 percent between 2008 and 2013 and expenditure jumped by 24.5 percent.

“Unlike my generation, kids today have a lot of money and there’s an entrenched culture of eating out or ordering in,” says Raza of Burger Inc.

Harbingers of change

Since the day Mr Burger came to Pakistan, burgers – the food, the concept – have become harbingers of change.

“I feel so happy when I hear people using this term ‘burgers’,” Ashfaq Raza says, laughing. “It makes me think of Mr Burger. It reminds me of how people doubted us when we were starting out, but then called us pioneers, and began to follow us.”

“The Pakistani market is very trend-oriented, but it’s a small percentile of consumers who start these trends,” says Savul, owner of Burger Lab. These consumers manage to spark something. “One definite reason for this demand for burgers is the idea that, ‘The cool people are eating them’,” Savul feels.

PTI and its supporters arguably hope to capitalise on the possibilities that such trendsetters offer, and perhaps redefine what it means to be a burger.

“I think that when they [critics] refer to us as ‘burgers’, they are talking about people who are from the educated class,” says Arsalan Taj Ghumman, 30, the former president of the Karachi chapter of PTI’s student wing, Insaf Students Federation.

“We have never been involved in corrupt politics, we aren’t afraid to question what we are told and we don’t believe that politics must be a game of fear and threats.”

For Ghumman, it is a source of pride that the party was able to bring a generation of “burgers” into the fold.

“The most ignorant people are those who belong to the upper class in Pakistan,” he says.

“They have been given every opportunity in life by God and they have everything that one could desire. It is very difficult to attract these kinds of people to political activism, and if PTI has done so, it is a big victory for the party.”

When PTI’s critics comment on the branded clothes that these party supporters wear, their income or accents, and use the word “burger” as a slur, Ghumman has a simple retort: “Would you call Mohammad Ali Jinnah a burger? He lived abroad, he was educated in London and he worked there, and he liked to dress a certain way. Can you call the founder of our country a ‘burger’?”  

You can follow Sanam on Twitter at @SanamMKhi