Looking Ahead: Food for Thought in Belgium

August 3rd, 2010 § 1 comment § permalink

The June issue of Metropolitan, the Eurostar’s complimentary magazine, covered the opening of the first Starbucks in Belgium last February, in Antwerp’s Centraal Station. The magazine itself launched in May.

Two thousand people (in a country whose total population is ten and a half million) were in attendance for the Starbucks opening, some showing up as early as 5:30AM. Howard Gutman, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, was also on hand. Apparently, this was quite an event because Belgium has been famously resistant to international franchises. KFC withdrew in the ‘70s; McDonald’s held on, but its presence is diffuse (Belgium has one of the lowest numbers of McDonald’s stores per capita in Europe) and it cedes the number one slot to the French chain Quick. Pizza Hut alone has taken off, perhaps because pizza is not otherwise widely available. But 19 year old George El Kyperian seems to speak for much of his age group when he says:

“I sometimes drive two hours across the border to Holland to get Burger King.”

The “We Want Burger King in Belgium” Facebook group has drawn thirty-nine thousand members in its six months of existence.

Harry De Landtsheer, Belgian operations director for the café chain Le Pain Quotidien, tries to explain. He notes that Belgian has “the highest labor costs in Europe… also, there is a very high minimum wage (€1,440.67 a month).” I am glad to know the Fulbright is less than minimum wage.

De Landtsheer adds:

“As an American company, we have to translate all the manuals and advertising into three languages, which takes time and money.”

Well, if you ever need a freelancer… Incidentally, all the articles in Metropolitan were in French and English, though this, like a few select others, was also in Dutch. The French was perfunctory and perfectly serviceable.

A good burger may be hard to find, but I look forward to snacking in a country with a three-story Frietmuseum. (Fries, like Tintin, are yet another Belgian creation mistakenly ascribed to their prominent neighbors.) Richard Hill, author of The Art of Being Belgian, chalks the relative absence of multinationals not up to xenophobobia or to anti-Americanism but to “skepticism in the Belgian mind” and an inherently conservative national character.

“Belgium is a slow starter,” he says. “It was the last European country to start shopping online and was behind the rest of Europe in adopting email. And young people eventually revert to the preferences of their parents.”

What an odd pronouncement. I imagine a nation of reactionaries, in decor and fashion slowly traveling backwards in time, as kids grow up to don their parents’ clothes and eventually live in their houses. Much food for thought and conflicted feelings as, these days, I browse for Brussels apartments online and wonder about the future.

Where am I?

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