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“But I miss Big Mac..”

Updated: Jan 2

e case of dining out culture among Egyptian millennials versus boomers generation by Nourhan Maayouf

During the Covid19 outbreak in Mid-March, the Egyptian government followed immediate measures to limit the spread of the virus, such as banning public events, closure of shopping malls, theatres, as well as mosques and churches and imposing curfew hours. Having no place to wander and losing all my freelance and part-time jobs. I was one of those Egyptians who were confining themselves in their Cairo flat in the overpopulated Downtown area, spending my time laying on my back while scrolling through my social media newsfeed. I saw someone sharing a picture on Instagram of a cake they had just baked. I then remembered the chocolate cake my cousin baked for my mother’s birthday on March 10th, just before the lockdown. I got excited, and texted my young cousin, asking about her recipe. She sent me the recipe afterwards in a voice note message. I baked my first ever delicious chocolate cake following the “a little bit of powdered sugar” and “not so full cup of oil” baking instructions. Since then, I have made more than ten cakes with different flavors, and have become among stress bakers, a phenomenon that occurred during confinement days. ​(Zhang, 2020)


I was curious to know about how others from my generation think about food and how they relate to the kitchen during confinement. I decided to approach single Egyptian youth in their twenties and thirties, from my own personal network, who either live alone or with their parents​(1) . I asked them about how they survive confinement as well as their eating and cooking habits. I found many have developed new skills in the kitchen such as learning and improvising with new recipes. However, I noticed that despite trusting their cooking skills and preferring homemade dishes to formal restaurant dishes, they still crave street food and the dining experience in a restaurant. “A hot and spicy Falafel sandwich”, one of the respondents explained. Another one praised the experience of selecting fresh shrimps and squid in a seafood restaurant, refusing to have it home delivered​(2) .

Growing up in the 1990s I don’t remember going to fast-food or a formal restaurant when I was a child. I am sure there are many from my generation who often dined out with their families. But there is also another segment of youth who were like me. And I am personally thankful that I wasn’t fed unhealthy cheesy greasy pizza from “Pizza Hut” or expired fried chicken from“KFC” until I reached the age of 15. I had money in my pocket and the freedom to hang out with my friends after school hours. My parents, who belong to the middle-class boomers’ generation, preferred healthy homemade and traditional Egyptian meals, compared to food cooked in restaurants which is perceived as unhealthy and westernized. They also valued daily dinner gathering on the dining table, which was considered the main meal of the day. Moreover, they were economically conscious and believed that eating out would go against their budgeting plans. Eating in a restaurant was simply new to their culture and goes against their formal upbringing.

A brief history of fast-food chains and coffeehouses in Egypt

“Wimpy” was the first global fast-food chain to be introduced to the Egyptian market in the seventies, followed by the spread of fast-food chains in the nineties such as “KFC”, “PizzaHut”, “Mcdonalds”, “​Arby’s”, and “Baskin Robbins” ice cream. All have been located in Mohandessin, an upscale Cairo neighborhood at the time ​(Lancaster, 1994)​. Franchising has been of interest for investors motivated by fast-growing consumerist Egyptian population ​(Sandels, 2007)​. “​Mo’men'' an Egyptian fast-food chain was established in 1988 to compete with the global fast-food brands, serving Shawarma and Shish tawook sandwiches, appealing to local middle eastern taste.

The educated Egyptian part of society has become westernized through the influences of Satellite TV. Eating in a fast-food chain was a stance for their social status and adaption to the American fast paced lifestyle and culture ​(Lancaster, 1994)​. McDonalds for example, has attracted middle and upper-class families thanks to the availability of children playgrounds on-site, and offering special birthday packages, a novel habit of Egyptians to celebrate a birthday in a public space. In the US, McDonalds serves cheap and quick meals for those who can not afford to eat out, while in Egypt, it serves Egyptian middle and upper classes. It is considered a special outing on Fridays, and holidays ​(Abaza, 2006).

Furthermore, we see Coffee Houses or “Qahwa” that have been around throughout the 20th century. “Qahwa” is a local coffeehouse serving the public, regardless of their social class. They have always been a male dominated space. Its location in street corners and on squares is ideal for gossiping and learning about neighborhood news. It usually serves traditional local beverages such as tea and Turkish coffee. In the nineties, the “Qahwa” has undergone a shift. Artists and intellectuals started to hang out regularly in iconic “Qahwa” of Downtown such as “Qahwet el Bostan”, to discuss art, culture and politics. Later on, “Qahwa” started to take on a modernized look when they were moved inside shopping malls and started to be called “coffeeshop”. The coffee shop serves new western beverages such as espresso, and cappuccino, they are also spaces for younger generations with unique mindsets. For example, “Yamamah center” and “Ramses Annex” were among the first shopping malls established in the nineties in Cairo. We find a coffee shop on the ground floor of “Yamamah center” that is both a coffee shop as well as a gallery. Its location near the Fine Arts school in Zamalek has attracted clients who are interested in arts. ​(Abaza, 2006). ​However “Qahwa” that is the local coffeehouse still exists in street corners, preserved as a male dominated space and still serving traditional beverages.

From the mid-nineties to the two-thousands, prestigious hotels such as the Nile Hilton, Marriott, and Sheraton started to organize traditional Ramadan evenings, serving Iftar (breakfast) and Sohour (meal eaten right before fasting), accompanied by an entertainment program of whirling dervishes. Ramadan Iftar is a traditional family gathering, where you eat indoors in the form of family gatherings. Now it is a habit among the middle and the upper class to eat outdoors. According to a study undertaken by the Nutrition Institute, the number of meals eaten outside the home has increased from 20% in 1981 to 46% in 1998 ​(Abaza, 2006).

Restaurants experience and environmental psychology

Dining in a restaurant or having a drink in a bar, has its own unique irreplaceable experience. During confinement, we miss going to a restaurant and to be around people. Patrons are influenced by ambient, social, and design factors when dining in a restaurant. In an article titled “Turning the Tables: the Psychology of Design for High Volume Restaurants” by Stephani K. A. Robson, the author describes these factors in ​ detail and how restaurant owners use them to apply turning table policy(3)​ . Ambient factors are those that affect the atmosphere of the environment such as colors, sounds, lighting, and scent. Social factors are those that affect human’s activities, such as the degree of restaurant crowdedness in the restaurant and as a result the patron’s personal space. And last, the design factors include elements that physically make up the environment such as the walls, furniture, floors and equipment.

During the confinement I was longing to hang out on a rooftop of a hotel located in the upper-class Zamalek area in Cairo. That rooftop has a marvelous Nile view, and serves both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, as well as Shisha pipes. I longed for the experience of drinking a cold beverage while looking at the Nile during sunset. Humans are social beings and they hang out in restaurants because they long to be around people. Patrons choose restaurant areas that are busy with people, but not too much, especially if the distance between the tables is small. This affects their own personal space. If we analyze the “rooftop” space, it is spacious with a big distance between tables and between big size chairs that allows the patron to feel in control of his or her own space. The “rooftop” is divided into two areas, one is only opened for patrons if the other one is full. In this case, patrons go for busy areas, feeling they can move to the other empty area anytime the space becomes overcrowded and limits their personal space. Lighting plays an important role, because the rooftop has a dim warm light that matches the Nile view and invites for relaxation. The chairs are comfortable and invite you to stay for a long time. The space is minimal with decorative arts that allow patrons to focus more on the Nile view. The rooftop has no ceiling, which provides good day light that enriches the outdoors experience.

Egyptian social dramas that portray restaurants situations Millennials have the tendency to eat in fast-food chains and drink cappuccinos in coffee shops, which goes against the culture of their parents of the boomers’ generation, which was raised in traditional family gatherings, and their men hanging out in Qahwas or local coffeehouses. They prefer eating traditional food such as kebab or seafood in local moderately priced restaurants, that care about the quality and portion of food rather than the ambiance.

To highlight how both generations perceive fast-food and restaurants differently, I present two examples from two favorite Egyptian social dramas “Yomyat Wanees” or “Days of Wanees”(1994) and “Seventh Neighbor” (2018). These social dramas succeeded in capturing the struggles of Egyptian middle-class families and resulted in a big buzz at the time. The two examples depict situations of a middle-class family dining in a restaurant. It is as if we see the same family from the 1990s growing to the 2000s, with the same mindset of the boomer parents’ generation and their culture clash with their millennial kids. Let me explain: In “Yomyat Wanees” (1994), we find Maysa, a middle aged working mother coming back from work rushing to the kitchen to prepare dinner for the family, facing issues of a blocked sink and burnt food in the oven. Her husband Wanees comes back from work, surprising her with a living duck, asking her to cook it for dinner. A duck dish is known to be effortful, especially with a living duck. Maysa asks her husband for help, but he excuses himself. She then bravely cooks the dish alone without any help to be ready for their kids when they come back from school. The kids however are craving pizza, that is perceived by the parents as westernized street food; expensive and lacking nutritional value. Wanees however agrees to take them out for an ice cream after they finish their initial homemade duck dish. The kids chose to go to a restaurant that serves both pizza and ice cream. After looking over the menu, the parents are shocked by the expensive dishes that are too pricey for the income of a middle-class family, however they decided to order one pizza for their eldest son who insisted on having one and ice cream for the rest of the family ​(Yomyat Wanees, 1994)​.

Moving to “Seventh Neighbor” (2018), Lamia and Layla are two middle aged sisters, going to a restaurant with their millennial kids. The two sisters complain about the menu which is only written in English, a language they don’t understand. They also get puzzled by the unfamiliar dishes. Lamia asks the kids “what is Risotto like?”. Moreover, they worry about the high prices and decide to share in one dish, a gesture perceived by the kids as unmatching the restaurant ethics and sabotaging their social image.

Lamia defends her attitude in the restaurant by saying “in our generation, the girl who dines at Wimpy is not well behaved”. In another scene, in a hospital room, we find Heba and her brother, laying and sitting on the hospital bed, seated next to them is the mother and the aunt. Hala, the young cousin, enters the room bringing an expensive “Dunkin Donuts” for breakfast, which costs 780 EGP (expensive for the income of the Egyptian middle class). The mother and the aunt started blaming her that she paid such a large amount of money for western breakfast. They would have preferred it if she had bought Kebab instead with the same sum of money ​(Seventh Neighbor, 2018).

In conclusion, millennials were born in the age of globalization, franchising and the spread of fast-food culture, establishments of shopping malls, and the modernization of coffeehouses. In the nineties, Egyptians were introduced to breakfast croissants, cappuccino, and espresso. They learned to eat Japanese sushi, Thai, Indian, Italian and Lebanese cuisines ​(Abaza, 2006)​. During confinement, developing a close relationship with the kitchen is a behavior praised by the parents from older generations; witnessing their own kids finally making peace with homemade meals and learning new cooking skills. However, Egyptian millennials still craved food that has a unique “fast-food” identity and street experience such as “Egyptian Koshari” and “KFC”. Food such as “sushi” and “ice cream” that is difficult to be cooked at home and best to be done by a professional chef or requires certain professional cooking tools. And finally, it is about the experience of dining in a restaurant, the environment of the space and the social aspect. Notes: 1In Egypt, the majority of single youth live with their parents until they get married due to social and economic reasons. The egyptian youth who live alone, in my interviews, are those who live abroad in urban cities such as London and Dubai due to their career demands. 2 ​Home delivery is a common service in Egypt, where Egyptians rely on having daily consumables such as food and medicinal products delivered to their home step.

3 Turning tables is a policy followed by many restaurants to increase the number of patrons per hour to make more money.


References:

Abaza, M., 2006. ​Changing Consumer Cultures Of Modern Egypt.​ Leiden: Brill, pp.169, 170, 171, 172, 181, 183. Lancaster, J. 1994. Fast Food on Fast Track To Acceptance in Egypt [Online] Washignton Post

Sandels,A.,2007.I​NDEPTH-Franchising Outgrows Fast Food Phase.​ [online] AmCham.

Seventh Neighbor.​ 2018.Ep6 and 24 [tvseries]. Yomyat Wanees. 1994. Season one. Ep 1 [tv series].

Zhang,J.G.,2020.​WhyWeStress-BakeInTimesOfCrisis.​ [online]Eater.

About the Author: Nourhan Maayouf is currently an MA student at École de Design et Haute École d'art du Valais, studying Arts in Public Spheres. Her research and artistic practice revolves around domestic themes, gender issues, and contemporary human relationships. She likes to represent the Egyptian middle-class in her work, particularly females and her millennial generation. Direct conversations and practical interactions with the public is her primary form of research. Maayouf initially comes from a business background and has worked in the field of qualitative research and communication besides her visual art practice. She likes to bring her formal research skills and writing experience in her artistic practice. Throughout her artistic career she has won local and regional awards, most prominently is Absa bank l’Atelier grand award in South Africa, topping one hundred African artists in contemporary art in 2016.

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