The “fast-foodization” of Poland

By Robert Strybel, Warsaw Correspondent

Popular across the U.S. since the mid-20th century, the pizza first made its appearance on the Polish scene in the early 1990s soon after the country dumped communist rule. Once the floodgates of a market economy had been thrown open, Spanish-owned Telepizza made its Polish début in 1992 and US-based Pizza Hut appeared a year later. Then came Domino’s Pizza and others. But my favorite pizza does not come from any of the big chain operations, but from the neighborhood Potocka Street Pizzeria in Warsaw’s Żoliborz district. My wife and I usually split one, and her half is a Capricciosa (cheese, ham & mushrooms), while I get the meatless Vegeteriana (cheese, mushrooms, olives, onions, peppers and capers).

Polish pizzas are identified mostly by their Italian names. Quattro Formaggi (four different cheeses), Pescatore (tuna, capers and onion), Sorento (chicken. broccoli and onion), Hawajska (ham and pineapple), Pepperoni (Italian sausage), Mięsna (pork, beef and pepperoni) and so on.

Among Poland’s middle classes, pizza now plays a role similar to what it has for many decades in the U.S. As in America, pizza is a teen favorite in Poland, whereas many younger kids prefer burgers and fries and all the Ronald McDonald and Happy Meal gimmicks that go with them. Pizza is served when friends gather to play cards or when spending a quiet evening with a loved one watching a DVD. It is also a stop-gap meal on days when there isn’t time to cook dinner. As in America, Polish pizzerias offer on-site dining, carry outs and home delivery.

But years before the collapse of communism in 1989, a kind of Polish pseudo-pizza or pre-pizza known as a “zapiekanka,” had functioned on the country’s snack-bar market. This was nothing more than half a baguette-type bread roll with cheese and mushrooms and a splotch of ketchup cooked in a toaster-oven. They were sold out of sidewalk stands and small trailers wherever heavy pedestrian traffic occurred.

But it is the American hamburger that has become synonymous with the fast-food revolution. In a symbolic sense, capitalism came to Poland not in 1989, when Marxist-style central planning officially ended, but in 1992 when the first McDonald’s opened. On opening day, a world record was set by the some 45,000 Poles who flocked to the two-floor restaurant in downtown Warsaw to sample their first Big Mac and fries. The fast-food chain now has several hundred restaurants across the country, including a growing number of McDrives, and provides jobs for some 20,000 Poles.

McDonald’s proved to have by far a better contingency business plan than their main competitor, Burger King. When the mad-cow scare temporarily turned millions of people across Europe away from beef, Burger King was caught unprepared and actually had to pull out of Poland. But McDonald’s weathered the storm by quickly introducing pork and chicken substitutes including “El Kurczako,” a zingy pseudo-Mexican breaded-chicken-breast sandwich.

The Mexican oregano and cumin flavor did not have mass appeal in Poland, and Taco Bell after a few years had to pull out. Typically American-flavored Kentucky Fried Chicken is doing extremely well in Poland. Burger King eventually returned to Poland under new management but is still trailing behind the Golden Arches.

Poland’s fast-food scene reflects an American flavor, style and overall atmosphere. That’s probably why the term “fast food” is used instead of some Polish translations like “szybkie jadło” or “szybkie jedzenie.” The success of the fast-food market has attracted Polish imitators. One is Mister Hamburger, a fast-food chain with some a few dozen outlets mainly in the southern industrial province of Śląsk (Silesia). Besides burgers and hotdogs they also offers Poland’s favorite dish, “kotlet schabowy” (breaded pork cutlet) in a bun as well as “golonka” (pork hocks).

A clearly American, decidedly Big Apple ambiance, is conveyed by another Polish-owned firm, New York Hot Dog. It offers a single product – a chicken wiener with all the trimmings, plus soda to wash it down. And it sells its treats at shopping malls out of specially designed street carts similar to those seen in NYC.

Despite its native-sounding name, southern Poland’s Szybki Kęs (Quick Bite) chain also specializes in American-style fast-food fare — burgers, fries, hotdogs and the like. But to make a go of it in tradition-minded Kraków and vicinity, it has expanded its menu to include domestic favorites such as pierogi, flaczki (tripe soup) and bigos. “When a family visits our restaurant, we want to serve not only what the kids will enjoy, but also something dad and granny will feel comfortable with,” Szybki Kęs founder Dariusz Winiarski explained.