Thursday, March 26, 2009

McDonald's: The Worldwide Phenomenon

For a food chain serving nearly 47 million customers daily, being both creative and profitable may prove a bit hard, or at least many people would think.

McDonald's, though, proves that by employing creativity, tweaking menus and slogans, refurnishing locations, and providing cheap food to millions of customers, a company even this big can turn a profit when times are tough.

With over 31,000 locations and 400,000 employees worldwide, McDonald's has grown both in good times and bad.

True, it may not be my first choice, but oftentimes I always end up going at least to one McDonald's in every country I visit. Sometimes it is because I am hungry; sometimes to escape the rain or, conversely, acrid weather; but usually it is because of my sheer curiosity: indeed, just what will there be on a menu this time around?! In Sweden, surprisingly enough, where there seems to be a paucity of Mexicans, there was a taco burger (which was also both very affordable and tasty). In Japan, there are both teriyaki and shrimp (ebi) burgers; in Korea - bugogi burgers; in Thailand, the McThai chain has Thai-style coffee available; and in Israel there are both kosher and non-kosher establishments, with the former being more pricey, though more ubiquitous and better located (unsurprisingly). And they serve amazing pita burgers, too.

In Belarus and Iceland, the Big & Tasty is advertised just like its U.S. counterpart, yet it is actually big (indeed, about twice the size of the U.S. version) and much tastier (I swear it's some special sauce they use).

Moreover, in Europe, the quarter-pounder is available, but its name is tweaked: it is called the McRoyal, owing to the metric system.

And in Russia, McDonald's offers amazing breakfasts--quite a variety for a country having just discovered McDonald's less than 20 years ago. This expansive variety is also kind of hard to fathom when recalling the monotony of things in the days of Russia's communist past: oftentimes restaurants would have just a few items on their menus, and even many of those scarce items were unavailable upon inquiry. Today, Russia's McDonald's hash browns are the freshest and best I've tasted anywhere, which is surprising, because at least in neighboring Belarus I know that the potatoes McDonald's uses for their hash browns are imported from the Netherlands. Yes, Belarus may be the world's number one potato consumer per capita, but apparently the quality of Belarus's potatoes leaves much to be desired, at least when it comes to McDonald's standards.

I can go on and on.

My point isn't to extol the virtues of McDonald's, for I have no incentive to do so: I've never worked there, although its global headquarters in Naperville, Illinois, are located just 50 miles from my home.

However, McDonald's does seem to offer a good all-around deal for its consumers: quite recently, more upgrades and renovations have made way for a more ambient atmosphere with music, free wi-fi (or, in some countries, stationary computers), an open-late or 24-7 attitude, drive-thru options, and food at fairly low prices. Luckily--and very belatedly--healthier options such as salads have started appearing, too.

It is quite an interesting food chain that keenly caters to local tastes while maintaining a global outlook.

And at times of a global economic slowdown, establishments such as this look only to benefit from penny-pinched consumers.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Riverdance Spectacle

I had no idea it would be this good.

In fact, I've only merely and randomly heard of Riverdance before, kind of the way most people hear of Aflac and immediately think of that inane yet humorous duck from television. Indeed, all I knew about Riverdance is that, well, the group dances.

Luckily, now I have much more than rudimentary knowledge about this theatrical show, which consists of traditional, fast-paced Irish step dancing. Arms and legs are largely kept stationary, and the group has been performing for 15 years now to standing ovations worldwide.

Even more lucky for me, the only reason I ended up going to the show this past Thursday at the Rosemont Theatre is that I obtained six complimentary tickets from my parents, who in turn obtained them via a family friend. Thanks!

I highly recommend this show for anyone who wants to get an instant burst of adrenaline. Actually, I recommend this for anyone who likes not only the aforementioned, but also world-class performances, excellent music, and amazingly synchronized dancing at its best. Riverdance, quite simply, contains all of these in abundance.

Don't miss it.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ambivalent Dubai

I've always wondered how Dubai can be both a financial business-cum-expat hub and a very conservative country (at least by world, not regional, standards). After all, it is Dubai that is trying to open up to the world in order to diversify its economy, attract hordes of tourists, and make as much money as it can.

Well, it's about to get even more conservative--and harder to attract those tourists and their hard currency.

According to Internet reports, a local newspaper recently published new rules that are either being mulled or that have already been officialized. In any event, quite soon banal activities such as dancing and playing loud music in public will be banned. In addition, couples who are kissing, holding hands, or hugging could facing detention, large fines, or, in some instances, deportation. The Economist adds that "miniskirts and skimpy shorts would no longer be tolerated outside hotels and other private areas." And other illegal activities will include drinking alcohol outside licensed premises, swearing and displaying rude gestures in public, and the like.

Indeed, the latter rules seem to make sense. Drinking alcohol in public in a Muslim country, no matter how secular, just does not feel right, unless the majority of locals do it (such as in Kazakhstan). Swearing and displaying rude gestures are misdeamonors quite common to many of the countries in the West.

And it is true that, by regional standards at least, these rules may seem quite tame.

However, if Dubai is trying to become a global hub, shouldn't it adopt more global, worldly standards? While the aforementioned rules will not be applied to private resorts, the mere fact of someone being detained for wearing a regular bikini to a public beach in one of the most open regions of the Arab world still feels a bit hard to fathom, at least in this blogger's opinion.

The row that erupted between the U.K. and this Arab emirate when two Brits (a couple) were detained in October for having sex in public is only a prelude of things to come, it seems. True, the couple was at a beach, but they should have exercised common sense. They should have been deported, but Dubai's authorities sentenced them to three months in prison for public indecency. For a place that is marketing itself as the global hub of the Middle East (and one currently experiencing severe problems due to the global economic meltdown and an tenuous housing market), this only creates unneeded negative publicity.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The New Oil

Euronews today played a 150-second segment on water scarcity, in connection with the ongoing World Water Forum that is taking place in Istanbul, Turkey. The results of the conference focusing on this increasingly scare resource were covered in a different segment, in which the channel noted that several protestors were ironically dispersed using water cannon. However, that incident is trivial if looking at the bigger picture. And that bigger pictures, according to the pan-European news channel, is quoted as follows:

"Turning the tide on the planet’s water problems will be enormous. It is estimated that one in six people in the world do not have access to safe drinking water and the lack of sanitation is the world’s biggest cause of infection.

Most of our water consumption goes into agriculture (66 percent), industry accounts for 20 percent, domestic needs 10 percent, and about four percent evaporates from man-made reservoirs.

H2O remains one of the most unevenly distributed commodities on Earth. For example, someone in the West who takes a five-minute shower uses more water than the average person in a developing world slum uses in a whole day.

In many parts of the world, water shortages are a major cause of conflict. Such is the case in Darfur, western Sudan, and in the Middle East, where water is a major issue between Israel and its Arab neighbours.

One solution for wealthy, water-scarce countries is desalination. But it is a costly, energy-guzzling procedure. It is only an option for rich nations like Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, the world’s biggest producers of desalinated water.

An added stress to world water supplies is population growth, with the global population predicted to soar from 6.5 billion to more than nine billion by 2050.

And global water shortage faces another major challenge: climate change. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, for example, the most productive agricultural region in the world, water levels have reached dangerously low levels. A drought emergency was declared last month and along with the soil, farmings jobs have dried up.

Many experts say water has become the new oil and, unless dramatic solutions are found, access to it will become the world’s major source of conflict in the future."

P.S. The two graphs pictured are courtesy of

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Whopper Bar

On Tuesday, Burger King unveiled its plan to take on rival McDonald's McCafe brand: the grand opening of its mouthwatering Whopper Bar.

No, it's not a candy bar that tastes like a whopper, nor is it a venture that will serve alcohol. It is, however, a unique idea that is the first of its kind among major U.S. fast food chains.

The first Whopper Bar opened on March 10 at the Universal CityWalk in Orlando, Florida. Burger King's CEO stated in a recent interview with Fox Business Channel that the next location will be Munich, Germany (this summer), with future Whopper Bars likely in Hong Kong, Los Angeles, New York, Rio de Janeiro, and Singapore. If all goes to plan, six such locations will be opened by the end of 2009, with 500 more locations mulled in future years if these ventures are deemed successful. Unlike regular Burger King establishments, though, the Whopper Bar will be targeting such venues as airports, casinos, cruise ships, and stadiums.

The quirkiness of such an idea lies in the underlying, quite revolutionary, concept: customers being able to watch their burgers being made. With a choice of 22 topping available--including, but not limited to, guacamole, smoked bacon, and steak sauce--Burger King cannot be castigated for a lack of trying. Indeed, such a plethora of toppings creates a whole smorgasbord for the consumer, which may help rally BK's stock and create excitement amongst the clientele.

The menu will feature the regular Whopper, as well as its Bourbon and Double counterparts; Pepper Bacon, Three-Cheese, and regular Steakhouse XT burgers; and more. At the moment, there are no plans to add the Whopper Junior to the menu, however.

The design is also new: an open kitchen with a new bar setting (as pictured above). The traditional Burger King colors have also been changed, both in the bar itself and in employees' uniforms, which have been tailored to match the new black, gray, and red look.

Quite original, indeed, but will this grandiose scheme catch on?

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Global Property Bust

Another day, another sign of mounting hardship for millions of people worldwide.

As foreclosures in the U.S. increase, bargains are readily available, yet many of those willing to scoop these homes up at highly discounted rates cannot get their hands on credit as readily as before, if it all. Thus, the toxic assets that burden many U.S. banks prevent a reversal of this vicious circle.

So as these foreclosures continue and sales improve very slowly, many localities find it increasingly onerous to hold on to the properties. The result? They have devised a new method to jettison these properties--a method that smells of prudent economics, despite the numerous protests: auctioning off the properties to the highest bidder.

At least that's what New York is doing. Hundreds of homes are being put on sale in bids starting as low as just a thousand dollars, with many homes scooped up at prices that in many instances were more than 50% off their peak.

Not to be outdone, protesters vociferously voiced their qualms at what they consider to be a flagrant move, as millions are suffering while some of these select few buyers are making money from their misfortunes.

True, there are people who are making money from these properties, but isn't this a better scenario than the alternative: having the state take over these properties, burdening it in the process, only for it to resell the properties to interested parties in any case? Or to have the property just stand there and depress other property prices in the vicinity? Surely this is the lesser evil, or at least in this blogger's opinion.

Alas, New York isn't the only state to suffer from foreclosure. States such as Florida, Arizona, Nevada, and California have been struck particularly hard. It will be interesting to see if they will resort to similar auctions to decrease the backlog of unsold properties that blight their communities and budgets alike.

And it's not just the U.S. that is suffering. Skimming the Financial Times' special report on worldwide property markets in today's issue, I was struck by how thin it is this time around: just 8 pages, rather than the roughly two-dozen it was just a year or two ago. Likewise, the "House & Home" weekend sections in 2009 are some two or three times thinner than its erstwhile editions.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Combat in Korea

Another day, another step toward brinkmanship on the divided Korean peninsula.

It has been announced that North Korea may target commercial aircraft entering its airspace, thereby causing many flights of foreign carriers to be diverted for security reasons. Those most affected include Asiana and Korean Air, South Korea's main airlines. Ana and JAL, two Japanese carriers, might also be affected, since flights to Beijing from Tokyo, for example, come close to traversing the North's airspace, but those airlines have declined to heed the warnings for now, unlike Singapore Airlines. The only airlines which quite surely seem to be exempt are those which actually fly into Pyongyang, and they are not many: Koryo Air, the North's national airline, Russia' Aeroflot, and perhaps a Chinese airline or two.

In recent weeks, North Korea has implicitly stated that it may launch a satellite into space and/or test fire a missile, with some pundits construing a satellite as a euphemism for the missile itself. Indeed, in such an opaque country, no one bar the country's eccentric leader has any idea of its true intentions.

What is known without a doubt is that the North's mercurial dictator, Kim Jong-Il, has been none too pleased with South Korea for the past year, as its new President, Lee Myung-Bak, has taken a hardline approach at its communist neighbor, shunning his predecessor's "Sunshine Policy" in return for a tit-for-tat relationship with the North (money, oil, and food aid in exchange for step-by-step denuclearization).

Many believe that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as North Korea is formally known, is trying to get the West's attention, sensing that Mr. Obama's foreign policy priorities include the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Russia, and not the heretofore intractable Korean conflict.

Quite possibly.

But the fear is that if there is any regime that is unpredictable in this world, it is that of North Korea.

There is a slight chance that its latest promulgations may be more than mere words, with its irascible leader only more agitated by the news of upcoming military exercises taking place south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between Washington and Seoul.

So it's not quite combat (yet), but tensions have never been as high on the Korean Peninsula since the North tested a nuclear bomb in October 2006.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Excellent Customer Service

Kudos to the Financial Times for providing exceptional customer service.

Here's what happened:

Much to my surprise, I failed to receive today's issue. After deciding to call the circulation desk in New York, I was on hold for less than a minute before being connected to a representative. I explained my situation to him, and he asked me what my name was. I replied that I purchased the subscription through a reseller, and the subscription is probably under his name, so I opted to give my address instead.

In about a minute, the subscription was found, and I was put on hold for another minute.

Then the operator explained that the re-seller, which I had found via eBay, was actually a fraud. This is why my subscription was cancelled. But before I had a chance to ask, he told me that since it's not my fault, my subscription will be resumed the next business day.

And as for the missing issue? Well, I would be given complimentary access to the, where the whole issue is available in PDF format.

Kudos to the FT for exceeding this customer's expectations. A great business paper with great customer service, period.

The Recession Isn't All Bad News...

Forget all the negative aspects of a recession like the one we're experiencing now. We've heard enough about them.

Perhaps one of the few good things about such a tumultuous economic time is the myriad coupons being made available. When opening my mailbox daily, I am littered with coupons to convenience stores, restaurants, clothing stores, supermarkets, department stores--not to mention online coupons, special deals of the week, early bird sales, and more.

Indeed, it's so nice not having to pay full price for my food that it's become almost like an addiction: having to use the coupon before it expires, G-d forbid! I've received coupons to IHOP, Corner Bakery, a local grill house, and Burger King all within the last week. And rest assured that I'm always keen to use them on time.

In fact, I don't recall when is the last time I paid full price for something during these past few months--and that includes movie theaters, books, and even electronics. Hell, even gas is back to about $2 or so per gallon--roughly on par with its price back in 2004.

One of the best discounted items of all right now are stocks, which have hit historic lows. Now is the best time to buy them, hold them, and then, potentially, make a small (or large) fortune once the market rebounds. Quite a good investment for those who have the resources to invest in such a thing.

Alas, I'm sure I'll be missing all of these bargain prices once the crisis ends, but before there is a turnaround, I could hardly be happier. ... That is, about all of these coupons coming my way.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Israel's Motley Duo

Israel is back in the spotlight, but this time in quite an unusual way: Eurovision.

While no newcomer to the annual pan-European song contest--Israel has actually won the #1 place in 1998 after a performance by the infamous transsexual Dana International--this year it is making headlines with Noa and Mira Awad, its performers for the next (54th) Eurovision Song Contest to be held in Moscow on May 16.

The quintessence of the issue is the ethnicity of the two performers: Noa is a Jew, while Mira Awad is a Palestinian, despite the fact that many think the Jewish half of the duo (pictured right) is actually Arab, while the Arab performer (pictured left) looks Jewish. At least, according to them, that's what many viewers initially believe.

And, as can be expected, this "experiment" of sorts has been lambasted by some as a "cynical attempt" to improve Israel's international image after the recent 34-day Gaza war. In particular, this has caused a backlash in Arab media, with some Arab outlets calling Mira Awad a "traitor," while others are urging her to boycott the performance entirely.

As it stands now, it appears the duo will perform nonetheless, but things can change. Their piece will be called "Faith in the Light," which will also politicize the performance.

Ah, controversy around Israel yet again, which I can't say is exactly unexpected, although it may have been the underlying point all along: to create commotion around Israel, but this time focusing on the country's music-cum-society. A change of sorts, indeed.

However, in any case, I don't think this performance will result in a miracle overhaul of Israel's image in the Arab world, or in Europe for that matter.

But it is a quaint attempt.