Sixteen years ago – in May, 1996 – two of my friends and I got ticket vouchers for the advance screening of a movie called Independence Day. This was before the marketing for the movie got underway so none of us really knew what to expect, but we dutifully arrived at the theatre several hours early to check in and claim our tickets, and once that was done we had a little time to go pick up some food.
We opted for Wendy’s, which I had never tried before. My friends recommended the Spicy Chicken Sandwich, at which point I was forced to admit that I had never eaten anything spicy and didn’t know what it would be like. They assured me it would be well worth trying.
That was pretty much the high point of my high school career. Independence Day, as we now know, was amazing. Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman were both at the premiere. And, of course, the Spicy Chicken Sandwich was fantastic.
That night, I began a lifelong obsession with spicy food. Indian, Mexican, Cajun – the guy who sells me shawarma on Tsereteli told me I must have Mingrelian blood (Mingrelian cuisine is Georgia’s spiciest) because of all the bevri tsitsaka (many peppers) I ask him for when I order. And while there’s no comparison between a fine, slow-cooked, lovingly spiced Indian curry and a mass-produced, frozen, deep-fried slab of battered chicken with a “special blend” of peppers, there will always be a special place in my heart for that first, mouth-watering taste of capsaicin-induced nirvana.
That’s why I was so excited when I first found out that Wendy’s plans to open 25 restaurants in Georgia and Azerbaijan in the next decade. The first one will open next year in Tbilisi, where it will serve as, I imagine, a very excellent alternative to McDonald’s (which has three branches in Tbilisi) and Texas Chicken (which is opening its second, on Leselidze). And if I had to make a prediction, I’d guess that Wendy’s will not be the last American chain to franchise into Georgia (can we get a Five Guys?).
Wendy’s is promising to add menu items to appeal to its Georgian customers, which leads me to all sorts of amusing, fanciful places (Wendy’s khinkali, anyone?) in my mind. I’m just hoping they don’t abandon the Baconator on account of Georgians not understanding about bacon, or replace the Frosty with some tarragon-flavored monstrosity made of frozen blended matsoni.
Of course, given the tremendous success fast food has had at making Americans… well, tremendous, there are some who are concerned that traditional Georgian cuisine will be tainted or supplanted by foreign restaurants. I personally think that a little competition is good for Georgian chefs; it will encourage them to bring their A game and maybe they’ll even start taking the bones out of their meat *before* they grind it up to make kababi. But seriously, Georgian food has already shown that it can hold its own with food from across the former Soviet bloc, so I’m thinking that having an influx of American restaurants will only serve to expand, rather than replace, the Georgian palate.
And as for the health issues, from what I understand, Wendy’s is quite a bit healthier than McDonald’s, and so far McDonald’s hasn’t super-sized the Georgian public from what I’ve seen. I think part of it may be that in the U.S. McDonald’s mostly attracts people who don’t have the time/money to eat better, whereas in Georgia it is mostly a prestige destination for locals with above-average disposable income and an occasional slice-of-home luxury for tourists and expats.
So if you’re coming to Georgia next year, or if you’re renewing your contract and coming back next year, be prepared for a fast food revolution. I wish Dave Thomas were alive to see this.