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At first, a social equalizer
So who came to Mr Burger? "Everyone," Raza says. In the first 15 years of business, Nawaz Sharif, the current prime minister, used to come for the chicken burgers, as did former President Zardari, who at the time was Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's fiance. During the day, queues would spill out of the restaurant and on to the street. "Everyone, no matter how important or rich they were, had to get in line," he says. Initially, the space was a great equalizer. High-ranking police officials and businessmen briefly rubbed shoulders with students and laborers at Mr Burger. But soon, there was a return to the well-worn grooves between these classes. "We had space for only four hanging tables - no chairs - inside the restaurant, so we'd clean and wash down a space outside where people could sit," Raza says. "Some movie stars, rich people and celebrities who wanted to avoid the aam aadmi [common man] began to come in after 10pm and would sit on this cleaned floor to eat their burgers." While the fast food concept was new for a majority of people, it thrilled others to finally have access to a beloved staple of life outside Pakistan. "Members of foreign consulates and diplomatic missions in Karachi were so happy they could finally have a burger here," Raza recalls. His first sweet taste of success came from these customers. "You are the McDonald's of Pakistan," they would tell him. American culture trickles out
By the mid-1980s, there were five Mr Burger outlets in Karachi. The tantalizing brush with American culture that Mr Burger offered trickled past the palate and into other parts of customers' lives in a way that Raza had not anticipated. "Customers began objecting that the teenagers who came to Mr Burger were behaving in a very 'Westernized' way - they would come there for dates," Raza says. "The kids are sitting too close together, they are holding hands," he recalls customers complaining. For Raza, this was a source of pride. "I felt very happy that this was a safe space for these teenagers," he says. "To this day I have customers coming in with their wives and they tell me, 'Our first date was at Mr Burger'. Their children call me Uncle Burger." The 'burgers'
And these "Westernized" customers were given a name: burgers. According to Raza, the phrase was coined by Pakistani comedian Umer Shareef back in the 1980s. "He saw that people of a certain class and from certain well-off neighborhoods such as Clifton and Defense would come to Mr Burger a lot and he started calling them 'burgers'," Raza claims. In an interview last year, Shareef confirmed the term was used to describe people from this "certain class", and he used the analogy of food to describe "burgers" as distinct from the aam aadmi. "[In the 1980s] I started noticing women in restaurants who were the kind of people to pick up a roti using a tissue paper," he said. "We had never done anything like that, so I asked myself, 'What class do these women belong to?'" It was a class that preferred to align itself with the West, and behaved as though it did not even know how to eat a common roti, he implied.
The rise of fast food
By 1995, the Raza brothers were flipping more than 100,000 burgers a month. A year later, they received word that they were being "watched". "Some of our customers told us that they had been employed to thoroughly research Mr Burger, to see how it had done so well in Karachi," Raza claims. McDonald's was coming to town, and Mr Burger was no longer the only option for Pakistanis in search of fast food. In 1993, Pizza Hut was the first foreign franchise to land in Pakistan, followed by KFC in 1997 and McDonald's a year later. Today, KFC reportedly has the largest share - 37 percent - of the fast-food market in the country, followed by McDonald's at 26 percent, while other foreign franchises have made inroads here too such as Hardees, with 6 percent of the market share. For consumers under the age of 19, who account for 45 percent of Pakistan's population of more than 185 million, burgers have always been a part of life, whether by way of the small roadside kiosks or international brands. In 2013, BIL Foods, the franchiser for Fatburger, predicted that demand for fast food will continue to grow and estimates a 30 percent increase in Pakistan by 2017. Local chains, American flavors
Industry sources say that it is difficult to put a number on the market share for homegrown fast-food businesses, but they agree that it is swiftly growing to cater to the demand. Shahvez Fazail, 33, for instance, founder of the online delivery service Food Genie, has signed on more than 60 burger chains in the last year, including Mr Burger, and of these, new local businesses outnumber the foreign entities. One of Fazail's clients is Ali Raza, 38, owner of Burger Inc. Raza studied and worked in the US before returning to Karachi in 2004. He, like many fast-food restaurant owners in Karachi I spoke to, spent his formative years abroad where he got his first job. He believes that the local burger chain boom has arisen partly because of the lucrative growing demand, but also from a need to cater to consumers like himself - a generation that has been exposed to international fast food trends and franchises. "Part of our personalities are very rooted in another culture," he explains. "It's not just those of us who have returned to Pakistan, though - everything is so accessible via the Internet and we travel so much now that we all want to be part of an international culture that we see so much of." While those who have returned to Pakistan relish traditional food, they also crave American burgers, he says. That's where the local chains step in. "The international brands are great, but they're all about convenience and volume," he explains. "They can nuke you a burger in three minutes, but I'll make it from scratch, with the freshest of ingredients and the best quality beef in the market." Despite the friendship between Pakistan and the US being lukewarm at best over the past few years our palate still takes its cues from the US. Local burger chains try to offer the best of both worlds, bringing fresh, homegrown produce to a menu with a decidedly American flavor. Naveed Savul, 47, the owner of Burger Lab, which he started nearly four years ago, also feels the local market is spurred on by food trends outside of Pakistan. "We were very used to overly processed, synthetic-tasting fast food, but then we saw a change in the US and Europe - a return to organic, fresh cuts and locally sourced ingredients," he says. In the years Burger Lab has been operating, Savul has noticed greater demand for "gourmet burgers" - burgers with blue or gouda cheese, for instance - which, costing more than Rs700 ($6.6 have become staples on restaurant and cafe menus, catering to customers with deep pockets. According to the consumer research firm Euromonitor International, the annual disposable income of Pakistanis increased by 23.1 percent between 2008 and 2013 and expenditure jumped by 24.5 percent. "Unlike my generation, kids today have a lot of money and there's an entrenched culture of eating out or ordering in," says Raza of Burger Inc.