Why did McDonald’s fail in Bolivia? Blame the saltena

14 Jan

It’s the entirely unscientific, anecdotal judgement that not very many Europeans or North Americans will have visited Bolivia on which I assess this article by the Andean Information Network, pondering a film that has raised debate about why McDonald’s exited that country.

A snack stand, Ivirgazama, Chapare, Bolivia. 2007.

A snack stand, Ivirgazama, Chapare, Bolivia. 2007.


A fair few articles have appeared on this topic in news outlets in both those continents following the release of the documentary Por qué quebró McDonald’s en Bolivia (Why did McDonald’s Bolivia go Bankrupt?), in which Fernando Martinez attempts to explain the reason fast-food Evil Staypuft McDonald’s pulled out of Bolivia after only a few years in operation there. The film hasn’t got a release date in the UK yet so all I’ve been able to access is the trailer on YouTube; the documentary looks really interesting (though neither the Israeli company that produced it nor possible hosts to a UK showing like Canning House reply to my requests for information), but its release has stirred some silliness. As the AIN starts to point out quite rightly in this piece, a flurry of news articles from news outlets saying that McDonald’s closed its last restaurant in Bolivia in December 2011 were not only entirely wrong – Maccy D’s closed all its stores in Bolivia by 2002 – but seemed to spring somehow from the release of the documentary. Someone, somewhere, somehow got the idea that McDonald’s was pulling its final restaurant from Bolivia in December 2011 and put this out as breaking news. And from that tiny seed came a torrent of cut and paste ‘breaking news’ stories from other platforms.

Once they reached my laptop I was mightily confused: when I was in Bolivia in 2007 I was aware that there were no MacDonald’s in Bolivia, but I had walked past the Burger King in Cochabamba to much amusement – it was empty. Obviously, those in Bolivia were more likely to be in possession of the facts, but reporters further afield would have had to make gargantuan efforts – such as Googling for MacDonald’s press office phone number, picking up the phone, ringing them and asking for corroboration of this alleged breaking news – to find out if it was true. Readers in North America and Europe, quite a few of whom probably haven’t even heard of Bolivia, can’t be expected to know. For that reason there haven’t been many reporters writing about why and how so many news outlets followed the original Pied Piper of this fake news story into the stinking river of churnalism.

Good on AIN for noting the blooper, but the piece quite mysteriously changes angle half way through to talk about the question the documentary addresses on just why McDonald’s exited Bolivia. Gleaning what little I can from words written by those who appear to have seen it, most theories centre on it simply being unprofitable – well, it’s one of the world’s poorest countries – or the more intriguing idea that Bolivians just don’t like the idea of fast food.

Again AIN does point out that Subway and Burger King continue to serve in Bolivian cities, which somewhat discredits the idea that McD’s found no money to be made there. The second theory is easily dispatched with. First of all though, it must be said that people who’ve got no concept of this place called ‘Bolivia’ except an image of poor, brown-skinned people herding llamas can be forgiven for imagining that Bolivians might well reject the notion of fast food as we Europeans know it. Based on time I have spent in Bolivia, what I can add to the debate is the idea that Bolivians are as ferociously devoted to fast food as the Yanks or the Europeans. The reason they may not have taken to McD’s could well be that they have their own pre-existing types of fast food, and that they are a damn sight tastier, more diverse, cheaper, more readily available, easier to make and better suited to Bolivian life. If someone right this second offered me the choice of a McChicken sandwich or a couple of freshly made morning saltenas with a little spoon of picante and a fistful of serviettes to wipe way the juice, my peripheral vision would close in on the saltena and simply occlude the McChicken sandwich from my view and my desires.

A saltena looks like a palm-sized, American Football-shaped calzone or Cornish pasty – actually, someone should look into why these three snacks from different corners of the Earth are so similar – consisting of a mishmash of boiled egg, perhaps some chicken, chillies, maybe an olive or two, garlic, onion, sugar and spices, and perhaps some parsley baked into a pocket of golden pastry. So perfectly conceived, these little handfuls of heaven are commonly eaten in Bolivia and Argentina (from whence they allegedly originate – specifically Salta, a city in the north; hence the name) and are commonly eaten for breakfast on the run. They’re so ubiquitous, sold in saltenaria, on the streets, in markets and from holes in the wall outlets for a couple of pesos or Bolivianos, so easy to turn out and sell, and so incredibly moreish that I can quite see the challenge posed to the Big Mac – positively flaccid looking in comparison.

When I was working at Los Tiempos newspaper and in the office of a volunteering company in Cochabamba in 2007, once of the most enjoyable parts of generally very enjoyable days was the morning dash past the little bakery on Calle Sucre to grab two or three saltenas; a 1.50 Bolivianos each, I always had enough change on me to indulge (I got into the habit of always having nine Bolivianos in change on me, enough for two saltenas, the bus ride to work, back home for lunch, back to work and back home again). Although they are famed for inconveniencing their purchaser with an uncontrollable ejaculate of orange-hued juice that inevitably bursts from within their just-out-of-the-oven shells as you bite into it – splashing your nice new shirt and running down your chin if you don’t master the skill of wrapping it in a napkin and catching the drips before they embarass you -you only need one hand to eat a saltena, surely a critical design feature of any true fast food.

Compared to anything McDonald’s does, the saltena is genuinely food that is fast; I gobbled mine down single-handedly on the way to work, or at my desk while using my other hand to type or point and laugh at gap-year students. In a land where so many people live on a few Bolivianos a day – some of those in transit on long, uncomfortable bus journeys transporting goods across the country or carting bags of shopping home from market – the saltena is a prime example of design matched perfectly to the needs of its local populace. The Filet O’ Fish, meanwhile, could conceivably have taken many more megawatts to produce and carry a much larger carbon footprint (if only because of the bespoke machines needed to turn out high volumes of highly standardised products and the cost of getting them to Bolivia. I’ll take a punt and say they were not built in Bolivia).

As far as I know (and I have done some research), there is no national or even large regional company turning out saltenas to standardised form or recipe and making overnight deliveries to its own chain of restaurants. There are small businesses who supply local shops with their saltenas locally, as there are variations between cities and provinces in the taste. There is such a thing as a saltena wrapper available for purchase, basically a flap of pastry ready-made to construct saltenas.

The saltena is just one example of the rich fast food offerings Bolivians enjoy on a daily basis, and have done since long before McDonald’s turned up. Contrary to the European or North American idea of Bolivia as a country of semi-starving people – not to understate the poverty that many live in there – it’s my experience that Bolivians are passionate foodies who have fashioned a range of fresh, but fast snackfoods to be eaten on the go, and for pennies. Having not industrialised them, and with regional variations, they remain diverse and tasty enough to put any foreign comers at risk of not competing.

There is the empanada, a larger, greasier version of the saltena mostly comprising cheese and served hot to eat on the go at bus stops, on the way to work and so on; but even foods that need you to sit still at a counter to eat is conceived around getting in and getting out. Before catching a bus out of the town, I dined at a food market in Potosi among hordes of time-pressured stallholders wolfing down a steaming bowl of stew. I don’t know precisely what was in it, but it definitely contained heaps of soft pasta cuffs and quinoa, some veggies and meat that fell apart with the spicy juice it was cooked in. I was done in ten minutes and on my way to the station a few Bolivianos later, ready for my 7 hour bus ride.

If I had wanted something greasy, Bolivians have long had the art of the filthy burger down pat – no pun intended. Most bus or train stations, markets and street stalls offer the good old burger in a bun shat on by an billowing turd of mayonnaise and ketchup, and they sometimes forego the separate fries to jemmy a handful of salty mini-fries, with fried onions, in-between burger and bun. Aside from price and convenience, their burger has one other critical advantage over the McDonald’s or Burger King’s equivalent – at your request, a fried egg rammed in for good measure. 

Why did McDonald’s leave Bolivia? My guess is that it just couldn’t compete with the true fast food that already dominates Bolivian life. Hopefully this documentary will be brought to the UK and I can hear the arguments for myself.


One Response to “Why did McDonald’s fail in Bolivia? Blame the saltena”

  1. david 29 May 2013 at 2:35 pm #

    they failed be cause they imported meat from the us when the bolivians heard abut that it was over and the prices were higher than a regular full meal in other restaraunts I was there I know what im talking about

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