Crowds eagerly queuing up to dig into broasted chicken outside the UAE’s first Al Baik store reflect the brand’s popularity that caused stampedes in Saudi Arabia years ago. It explains why hawkers used to drive from Jeddah to fetch truckloads of Al Baik chicken, to be sold at a premium in Riyadh which didn’t have an outlet until 2017.

Fast-food chains can serve anything from sub sandwiches and salads to greasy cheeseburgers. But a distinct back story that makes a brand relatable, helps it reach out to consumers.

From the tale of a janitor inventing the iconic Flamin Hot Cheetos to the inspiring success of Filipino burger chain Jollibee, modern folklore is the secret sauce captivating the taste buds and curiosity of patrons across the globe. You probably identify fast food as an American legacy of burgers, donuts and fried chicken, but now, Al Baik should ring a bell.

Now that Mcdonalds’ “founder” has been featured on the big screen and the guy behind the flaming hot trend is getting his movie, the Arab world’s fast food phenomenon deserves more attention. The 50-year-old chain was the first to introduce broasted chicken to Saudi Arabia and has now expanded into the UAE after serving halal fast food at 99 branches in the kingdom.

NOPE, Al BAIK ISNT THE SAME AS KFC; IT HAS A WHOLE DIFFERENT CULINARY  EXPERIENCE

 Well, the two may sound like the same thing. Still, broasted is different and, according to many accounts, more flavorful than the greasier fried chicken dished out by the American chain and its clones spread across continents. For starters, broasted chicken isn’t simply submerged into the oil. Instead, the marinated pieces are fried in a pressure cooker, sealed off to retain the flavor and juices while the meat remains tender.

We are from a generation that craves indulgence but is equally concerned about staying in shape, and that is where broasted chicken scores since it has fewer calories and up to 70% less fat than the deep-fried version. What sets Al Baik apart, though, is the crispy skin that keeps juices intact and a signature ‘toum’ garlic sauce, which you probably won’t taste at copycat outlets in Egypt or South Africa.

You’ve only heard of Al Baik in the past decade. But, it first set shop behind a warehouse in Jeddah as Broast Restaurant in 1974, around the same time as KFC’s arrival in Saudi Arabia (1973) and decades before McDonald’s arrived in the gulf.

It achieved popularity to the extent that cops had to be called in for crowd control outside its branch.

A PIONEER OF GLOBALIZATION?

Yes, Al Baik is Saudi Arabia’s answer to global fast-food chains, but it’s truly global considering its Palestinian founder based in the kingdom started as the agent for a foreign broast chicken firm. The meat, still sourced from Brazil, satisfies the cravings of global pilgrims at a branch in Makkah, where the staff works 18 hours a day during Hajj.

Long before food delivery apps were developed, cab drivers from Riyadh made ‘chicken runs’ to Jeddah before selling Al Baik chicken in the back of their cars in the capital. This trend evolved into travelers carrying packaged Al Baik chicken to Pakistan, the UK, and Indonesia, thanks to word of mouth publicity by pilgrims who tasted it in Makkah and Mina.

Before e-commerce supply chains, a network of pilgrims and relatives working in Saudi Arabia was already stuffing luggage and overhead compartments on flights with Al Baik chicken. Even frying the chicken in cookers to preserve the juices is similar to Pakistan’s popular chargha chicken, which is steamed before being fried.

The way the reputation of this brand traveled across borders faster than it set up stores abroad shows how Al Baik naturally took shape as a global brand, both in origin and appeal.

LEGENDARY SUCCESS ROOTED IN SIMPLICITY

Now, we don’t have the rags to riches legend behind Al Baik to dish out. Still, this story is all about Shakour Abu Ghazala’s vision to provide affordable and high-quality meals. He invested in a spice blend and equipment supplied by an overseas firm. After signing the pact, he was off to a quiet start with Broast Restaurant and opened another restaurant in 1976, but unfortunately died of cancer just five months later.

Here’s where the real struggle begins. Since Abu Ghazala’s sons Ihsan and Rami lost exclusive rights to the brand after his death and had 400 ripoffs selling broast chicken in Jeddah alone to compete with, Rami dug his heels behind the counter. At the same time, Ihsan learned food tech in Paris to increase efficiency, and after three years of innovation, the duo mastered a secret 18 spice blend that makes their eatery stand out.

You’d only know the true allure of the kingdom’s leading brand after witnessing crowds fighting it out for a bite during stampede openings of Al Baik’s branches in Saudi Arabia, even as it operated only in the country’s western part for 38 years. After going beyond chicken to add fish and shrimp on the menu, Broast Restaurant rebranded to Al Baik in 1986, and by the 90s, it had an outlet in the holy city of Makkah and served Hajj pilgrims from a non-profit store in Mina.

But even as Arabs living across oceans asked friends and relatives returning from the region to bring back the meaty treat, Al Baik hadn’t opened a branch in Saudi Arabia’s capital city Riyadh until 2017. After the sought-after brand’s name was used by countless vendors in different parts of the world, it finally ventured out of the kingdom to reach Bahrain before opening its first-ever store in Dubai last year.

SO, HOW BIG IS IT?

Al Baik is probably one of the region’s most well-known culinary exports with shawarmas, falafel and the Halal Guys. We knew that the brand had made it when ace chef Anthony Bourdain sunk his teeth into Al Baik’s broast chicken when visiting Jeddah as part of the show No Reservations.

 We don’t like ripoffs more than any of you, but the amount of Al Baik copycats does show how the brand’s fandom has outpaced the firm’s actual expansion beyond borders.

When the kingdom is supporting local talent, this homegrown business stands out as one of the top three names in brand loyalty in the country.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aiyub Dawood is a Senior Correspondent at Fast Company Middle East, who looks for practical application of technology. He explores the use of AI, innovation and data to solve everyday problems. More

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