Spend enough time on the Internet, and you’ll inevitably come across stories about the “bizarre,” “crazy,” or “totally real” items that American fast-food restaurants offer at their international outposts. Fancy a pork and seaweed doughnut? Head to a Chinese Dunkin’ Donuts. Bored of hash browns? Try some beans and plantains with your eggs at a Wendy’s in Honduras. Morbidly curious about Pizza Hut’s take on South Asian biryani? Behold the Birizza.
This fascination is easy enough to understand: Fast food may be mass produced and ubiquitous, but it’s not uniform, and it’s intriguing to watch something so quintessentially American reflected and refracted in various ways abroad. American fast food’s mutable, majestic kingdom now extends across six continents. And it doesn’t just cater to local cuisine—it also hews to local custom. Any Quentin Tarantino fan knows what a Quarter Pounder with cheese is called in France, but if you’re on the hunt for a Kosher counterpart, it’s waiting for you at McDonald’s restaurants in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, despite its centrality to Living Más in the United States, beef isn’t on the menu at Taco Bells in Bangalore.
Ahead of a recent trip to Haiti, I was surprised to learn that there is only one American fast-food joint in the country, which is a mere 700 miles from the coast of Florida. Turns out, it’s a Domino’s located on the outskirts of the capital, Port-au-Prince. Tim McIntyre, Domino’s vice president of communications, told me that the company expanded to Haiti in 1997 and used to have four stores there, but that three were destroyed by the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake.
In my adopted home of Brooklyn, which hosts some of the world’s best artisanal pizzas, eating at a place like Domino’s is one of the few acts that equally offends Brooklyn natives and the newcomers who have colonized the borough over the last 10 years. (The only culinary crime more grievous may be eating pizza with a knife and fork.)
In fact, Brooklyn and Domino’s have a complicated past. In 2006, the pizza chain introduced “Brooklyn-Style Pizza,” which used cornmeal in the crust, was thin and foldable, and enraged purists who bristled at the suggestion there is any one characteristically “Brooklyn” style of pizza. After an inaugural television spot for the product caricatured no less than six types of Brooklyn residents, former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz fired this salvo at Domino’s through a spokesperson: “It’s a multinational right-wing company, mass marketing the Brooklyn attitude with obsolete ethnic stereotypes, not to mention flimsy crusts. To our sophisticated palates, Domino’s is about as Brooklyn as Sara Lee Cheesecake is to Junior’s.”
Nevertheless, for the sake of comparison (and as a sort of gastrointestinal vaccine), I ordered Domino’s the night before I flew to Haiti. Using the online ordering system—and choosing from a dizzying list that included pasta, sandwiches, and chicken—I spent $5.99 on a medium sausage-and-green-pepper pizza and another $5.99 on the franchise’s new and mysterious Specialty Chicken, an offering so amorphous that many bloggers mistakenly proclaimed that Domino’s had launched a pizza with a fried-chicken crust. (In 2012, Domino’s formally dropped “Pizza” from its name to highlight its non-pizza fare.)
Shortly after I paid for the food, the Domino’s Tracker buzzed to life to let me know that, a short distance away, an employee named Chenxiao had begun preparing my order. The pizza, when it came, tasted like sustenance and nothing more—bald and bland, like I was eating the display model of a pizza. The Specialty Chicken boasted the vague pleasure-mélange of fried chicken crusted in burnt cheese and Buffalo heat. The total cost of the meal was $16.31, including taxes and an unconscionable $2 delivery fee that you’d never pay unless you just spent 12 minutes ordering a pizza on the Internet.
There is no Specialty Chicken at the Domino’s in Haiti. The menu is limited to seven fixed and unremarkable pizza options and four standard sides. Just the basics. The basics there, like at many upscale locales in Port-au-Prince, include an entrance guarded by a guy with a shotgun, who greeted me with a smile.
My fixer Alix, who had just driven me around the city and its makeshift encampments, including what had once been called “downtown” before the earthquake reduced it to unrecognizable rubble, attracted the guard’s curiosity. Alix was Haitian and had lived in Port-au-Prince for decades, but his worn-out attire and beat-up truck seemed to arouse suspicion.
The lone Haitian Domino’s sits in Pétionville, an affluent neighborhood in the hills above the city. The area is named for Alexandre Pétion, the son of a Haitian mother and French father who served as the nation’s first president until he succumbed to yellow fever. The historian Laurent Dubois, author of the exhaustive Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, described Pétionville to me as “the place of highest contrast” in Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas and one of the most economically unequal countries in the world.
“Pétionville is … where I feel the most tension in the city,” he explained. “That’s because it’s the intersection point between the wealth, which is concentrated there, and foreigners.”
The interior of the Pétionville Domino’s looked like a brick-and-mortar Domino’s anywhere else. From the plastic booths, tables, and floors to the counter, signage, and harsh florescent lighting, the restaurant smacked of rigid, pre-fab corporate sterility. I could have been in Park Slope.
Our cashier, Natasha, diffidently took our order—a medium pepperoni pizza, buffalo wings, and two sodas. The total came out to nearly 1,300 Haitian gourdes. As I fumbled through the math, Natasha made it easy for me: “Twenty-eight American dollars.” I was shocked by the massive bill.
According to Domino’s, roughly 1 million of its pizzas are delivered per day around the world. Ours was delivered too, with great ceremony, by Natasha in a standard Domino’s box with French writing. The pizza inside, frankly, was beautiful. And it tasted as good as one could expect coming from a company that not too long ago conducted a national apology campaign for the sum lousiness of its pizza. Natasha later told us that all the ingredients had been imported from the United States.
The food and floor plan echoed Domino’s establishments back home, but the clientele—and hence the prices—didn’t. We were surrounded by smartly dressed patrons, among them three white priests and a father in a green, seafoam button-down shirt with his two children, who were both decked out in school uniforms. Lunch at Domino’s, it seemed, was an upper-class luxury.
While we ate, Alix professed his love of Kentucky Fried Chicken, which had once catered to Haitians as well. “We had [KFC], maybe 30 years ago,” he recalled, noting that it had since disappeared for reasons he didn’t understand. “It was middle-class. Not poor food.” He wistfully recalled how customers at KFC had ignored the big menus and value meals and simply told the cashiers how much money they wanted to spend. The “middle-class” KFC had left Haiti in 1997, the same year that Domino’s entered the country.
“Haiti was better than now. But on account of all the politicians, Haiti became destroyed,” Alix explained, alluding to government corruption and incompetence.
Before arriving in Pétionville, I’d asked Alix if the allure of Domino’s in Haiti had anything to do with the image of America—a residual idea of its greatness, something to emulate. “No,” he’d said. “It’s a question of class. … That’s why you don’t see too many people fighting in the line. They make it for the class.” In many parts of the world, American fast food is for nearly everyone. In Haiti, it's for almost no one.