For­eign food chains brave risks for a bite of Iran

'Things are chang­ing at full-speed here. I'm very ex­cited to be a spec­ta­tor to its evo­lu­tion'

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

For years, Ira­ni­ans have had to put up with the likes of "Mash Don­alds" and "Pizza Hat". Now real Western food fran­chises have fi­nally ar­rived, but do­ing busi­ness in Iran is not for the faint-hearted. De­spite strict in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions be­ing eased un­der a nu­clear deal with world pow­ers last year, the Ira­nian econ­omy re­mains bogged down by red tape and strug­gles to at­tract for­eign in­vestors. But a cou­ple of Euro­pean food fran­chises have de­cided the risks are worth tak­ing for a taste of the es­ti­mated $7 bil­lion (six bil­lion eu­ros) Ira­ni­ans spend in restau­rants each year, and which lo­cal con­sul­tancy ILIA says will dou­ble in the next decade.

Spain's Telepizza opened its first out­let this month through an Ira­nian con­sor­tium that plans to pump 100 mil­lion eu­ros into ex­pand­ing na­tion­wide. But one of the first Euro­peans to re­ally get his hands dirty on the ground is 41-year-old French en­tre­pre­neur Amaury de la Serre, who bought the rights to launch Sushi Shop in Iran af­ter fall­ing in love with the coun­try dur­ing a visit in 2013.

The first branch of the high-end French chain opened last week in a chic north Tehran neigh­bor­hood, mark­ing the cul­mi­na­tion of a bruis­ing 18 months of work. "There's a strong gov­ern­ment will to bring for­eign cap­i­tal and know-how here, but at the day-to-day ad­min­is­tra­tive level, it's hell," de la Serre told AFP. 'No pain, no gain'

"Ev­ery­thing takes time, ev­ery­thing is com­pli­cated. It is very, very dif­fi­cult to deal with cus­toms. "But no pain, no gain. And things are chang­ing at full-speed here. I love this coun­try and I'm very ex­cited to be a spec­ta­tor to its evo­lu­tion." Get­ting the sup­ply chains run­ning was cer­tainly com­plex-the restau­rant uses 150 mostly lo­cal sup­pli­ers and must ship fresh fish from Nor­way three times a week. It took a year just to get the li­cense to im­port Ja­panese sauces, and nav­i­gat­ing Tehran's no­to­ri­ous real es­tate rack­ets was a saga in it­self.

The gov­ern­ment says it is try­ing to stream­line its bu­reau­cracy, but Iran ac­tu­ally fell three places in this year's ease of do­ing busi­ness rank­ings from the World Bank, down to 120 out of 190 coun­tries. Still, some of the big­gest headaches are back in Europe, where banks are so afraid of US penal­ties that they freeze ac­counts at the mer­est whiff of a link to Iran.

"It's crazy. We went to the French Min­istry of Econ­omy and they gave us a list of all the banks that would agree to work with Iran. But when we called them, ev­ery sin­gle one said no," said de la Serre. Even­tu­ally he found a small pri­vate bank will­ing to han­dle his trans­ac­tions be­cause they have no links to the US. 'Then Mr Trump ar­rived'

But while he re­mains bullish on Iran's eco­nomic prospects, there are enough storm clouds on the hori­zon to keep him cau­tious. "We wanted to launch sev­eral brands at once, but then Mr Trump ar­rived so we're tak­ing the foot off the pedal a lit­tle," said de la Serre. The US pres­i­dent has wor­ried would-be in­vestors in Iran with his ag­gres­sive stance against the coun­try.

Just this week, he an­nounced new sanc­tions over Iran's bal­lis­tic mis­sile pro­gram and what it called Tehran's sup­port for ter­ror­ist groups in the Mid­dle East. Con­ser­va­tives in Iran still rail against Western "cul­tural in­fil­tra­tion", even if the time in 1994 when the first postrev­o­lu­tion Mc­Don­ald's was burned to the ground-two days af­ter open­ing-seems a dis­tant mem­ory.

To­day, Iran's af­flu­ent mid­dle class has largely re­jected ide­ol­ogy and is hun­gry for for­eign brands, while fast-food has spread like wild­fire even in re­mote vil­lages. And even con­ser­va­tives rec­og­nize the ur­gent need for jobs with un­em­ploy­ment at 12.5 per­cent, and far higher for young peo­ple. "Ex­pan­sion in the fast-food sec­tor is a job cre­ator pre­cisely where Iran needs it most," wrote Es­fand­yar Bat­manghe­lidj, founder of the Europe-Iran Fo­rum, in a re­cent brief­ing note. "Af­ter all, many of the world's great­est en­trepreneurs got their start de­liv­er­ing piz­zas." — AFP

Chefs pre­pare sushi at a high-end French sushi chain that opened the pre­vi­ous week in north­ern Tehran. — AFP pho­tos

Ira­ni­ans look at the menu at a high-end French sushi chain.

Ira­ni­ans are served at a high-end French sushi chain.

(Above be­low ) A wait­ress takes a plate of sushi from the kitchen at a high-end French sushi chain that opened the pre­vi­ous week in north­ern

An Ira­nian woman works be­hind the counter.

Ira­ni­ans or­der at a high-end French sushi chain that opened the pre­vi­ous week in north­ern Tehran.

Ira­ni­ans stand out­side a high-end French sushi chain.

A wait­ress takes a plate of sushi from the kitchen.

Ira­ni­ans eat at a high-end French sushi chain.

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