When I travel to different countries, I am always struck by the sheer variety and uniqueness of street food. It is one of the most exciting ways to experience a new place, by sampling the street food you can get a feel for the culture. As cities grow more similar, and urban culture more global, fast food is something that stands out for its highly localised innovation. Fast food brands are able to stay with their core, authentic propositions as well as add amazingly different product and menu profiles for their own specific market.
Walking past McDonalds in Singapore I see frequent changes in the board outside advertising the latest innovations. Most of these are Asian fusion flavours. It is interesting that a menu that stands traditionally for sameness and consistency also has space for unique fusion foods. Inherently, fast food is about affordability and convenience. It is prepared and available at short notice, and while it has standardised outcomes, it mixes tastes and flavours. In a way it reflects the values of urban life – on the go, pacy and full of variety and newness.
Why does fast food need to learn from street food? In Asia where the street food culture is still very big, fast food essentially competes for a share of that mind space. Consumers have the habit of stopping at a street side vendor or hawker for a quick snack or meal at any time. Today, fast food represents a quick moment of pleasure in a busy urban context. Which is perhaps why these islands of food need to be more interesting and excite the palate more than ever. When fast food meets local, it is integrated in a very real way into people’s lives. It is about quintessential urban culture which is a melting pot of influences. It also makes business sense for fast food to have local items and flavours on their menu. This can increase the size of the market as new western foods compared to local flavours is more likely to have smaller demand. As local ingredients and expertise are readily available it is easier to innovate and they are cheaper and faster to produce compared to creating new formats at a global level. The sheer speed and access that defines street food is a lesson for fast food brands. Investing in large distribution networks, kiosks, ready-to-eat counters, drive by and delivery are all mechanisms that bring it closer to consumer demand. Street food also has certain rituals associated with it. Eating standing up, for example, or sitting on low stools, waiting for the fresh batch, or watching it being made are all part of the experience. Fast food brands can create rituals that mimic the fresh, raw feeling of the street experience. While this may seem an inconvenience to some on the surface, it adds to the authentic feeling of freshly prepared food. More than the convenience of it, street foods also have the emotional quotient of being pleasure foods. In order to compete with that, local favourite flavours enable fast foods to travel the mile. Pleasure comes from two aspects: comfort and familiarity or new, innovative, foreign textures and flavours. Or a combination of both. This is where fast food brands are playing the game well – fusion flavours in new formats, traditional sauces with modern twists, international food with a dab of the local. Fried chicken with rice or Japanese flavoured burgers are success stories in this regard. The enjoyment of street food is enhanced in a way that is intuitive and easy. By adopting this code fast food brands can slide effortlessly into people’s lives, allowing them to experience the new and familiar in a collision that is unique to the hyper urban environment.