Fast food fan's pilgrimage from New York to Dubai
A self-confessed "Fat American" named Jon Gabrus jumped in a taxi near his home in Brooklyn, New York City one morning this month, and set off to order a pizza.
More than 13 hours, six movies and 11,000 kilometres later, a weary Gabrus arrived on an Emirates flight to Dubai, hunger unabated by the effects of jet lag and airline food.
A short taxi ride brought the comedian and actor to one of the city's many branches of Pizza Hut, where he was finally able to place his order: a Crown Crust Carnival cheeseburger pizza.
What had brought, in his own words, a "sweaty, bearded, sleep-deprived" 30-year-old man halfway across the world just to order fast food?
The answer is that the Crown Crust pizza is unique to the UAE. Pizza Hut Middle East's menu describes it as "grilled mini cheeseburgers nestled in a golden crown crusts. All in a pizza topped with beef, fresh tomato and lettuce, delightfully drizzled with Pizza Hut's special sauce".
Americans cannot buy a pizza whose crust is studded with little cheeseburgers unless they have a passport and an airline ticket, but the country that invented fast food seems mesmerised by it. After numerous incredulous reports in the US media, a website called College Humor commissioned Gabrus to fly to Dubai and taste one.
"I hammered down slices and it was definitely good, in an over-indulging type way," Gabrus later told his web audience, while admitting he was so exhausted that he "couldn't finish the pie".
Arva Ahmed, who blogs on food in Dubai at I Live in A Frying Pan, also tried the Crown Crust, writing that the first bite "instantly sent a train of goose bumps popping down my spine. This was a pizza experiment that had clearly gone completely, and horribly, wrong". (The National's food editor, Emily Shardlow, gives her verdict.)
But why create a pizza/cheeseburger combination that many would say does no favours to either dish? And why sell it only in the Middle East?
While Pizza Hut's parent company in the US declined to answer questions about the thinking behind the product (which also comes in chicken and cream cheese versions), the answer seems to be that if the Crown Crust Carnival range sells well in the UAE, it might do the same in many other markets.
Sana Toukan is the research manager at the Dubai offices of Euromonitor, a consumer research company. The multicultural UAE market, she explains, is particularly attractive to international brands, both as a testing ground for new products and as a place where people have a high disposable income and want to spend it.
"You have a local population who have not been affected by the current economic crisis," she says. "And then there are many expatriates, Arab, western and south Asian."
Added to the mix are a large number of holidaymakers who come to Dubai and Abu Dhabi looking for a change of scene.
"People are much more open to experimentation when they are on vacation," Ms Toukan says. "So they don't want a normal pizza, but they might have a shawarma pizza."
Many Middle East franchises of international fast food chains create new dishes designed to appeal to local tastes. McDonald's famously produces the McArabia, a sandwich of grilled chicken or kofta served in flatbread. Further afield, Pizza Hut in Pakistan offers pizzas with a shish taouk topping.
Yet the Crown Crust pizzaburger seems on the surface (which is covered with tomato, lettuce, melted cheese and a "special sauce") to have no particular appeal for any taste, whether Arab, south Asian or any other of the dozens of nationalities that call the UAE home.
The market here, though, is ideal for a such a product, says Ms Toukan. Pizzas and burgers symbolise western affluence, while fast-food chains, which have enjoyed exponential growth in the region, are seen as smart places to dine.
One example is Tim Hortons, the restaurant chain from Canada that entered the UAE market this year and hopes to open more than 100 outlets in the region within five years.
In its native land, Tim Hortons is regarded as closer to McDonald's than Starbucks. In the UAE, though, most consumers do not distinguish between one cafe that serves "Timbits", a type of deep fried doughnut, and another that offers a trendy soy latte.
"In the UK, for example, people are moving away from the idea of fast-food chains," Ms Toukan says. "But the local population here is more interested in western chains."
Another key factor is that the worries that fast food can damage your health have yet to make an impact in the Gulf. Something as obviously calorific and fat laden as the Crown Crust range might seem shocking in Europe and North America. But in the UAE it just looks tasty. And, at Dh48 for a large pizza, filling and within many budgets.
At the same time, it is reasonable to guess that Pizza Hut is testing the market. But that does not mean that London and New York should brace themselves for its arrival. Success in the UAE means it is much more likely to be launched in such places as Jordan, which are too small to test new products, but nevertheless where fast food is increasingly popular.
Above all, though, companies such as Pizza Hut are looking towards the Saudi market, with a population of 26 million that is greater than the rest of the other Gulf nations combined.
But the UAE, of course, is not just about fast food. This is a market that forces multinational companies to adjust marketing and product lines in other ways. Cosmetic companies will alter make-up not just for skin tones, but for local preferences. L'Oreal, the world's largest cosmetic company, based in France, offers much brighter colours in the UAE than it does in Paris.
Then there is the local love of bling. Cars, watches, home furnishings all seem to glitter more in the malls of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Sana Toukan says: "When I go to Harvey Nichols in London and then here, it's like being in a different shop".
Although not as different as a pizza that thinks it's a cheeseburger.
Updated: May 20, 2012 04:00 AM