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Wednesday, June 08, 2005


Planet Sbarro

Fears of globalisation are clearly not confined to the militant anti-capitalist protestors, who will probably be indulging in an attack on the Edinburgh branches of McDonald's and Starbucks during next month's G8 summit.

Underlying the "no" votes in last week's French and Dutch referenda was a more widespread fear about the speed and nature of globalisation. Yet it seems odd that the European Union should be the focus for fears of a loss of identity, when the overwhelming force for cultural homogenisation comes not from Eurocrats but American-owned multinationals.

A flight from Brussels to Thessaloniki (in Greece) last week illustrated these alienating effects.

I had to change planes in Budapest. With 90 minutes to spare, a cup of coffee would have been nice. And, since I'm briefly in Hungary, how about one of those nice cream cakes for which the country is famous? Sadly not.

Terminal 2A of Budapest airport has just one catering outlet: a cramped and uncongenial looking branch of
Sbarro. I decide to give it a miss.

I arrive in Thessaloniki, one hour before a colleague's plane is due to land. With time to kill, I head for the airport terminal's only catering outlet. Since we're in Greece, is it a taverna, perhaps? No, it's another branch of Sbarro.

If you are the only person in the western world not yet to have encountered a branch of Sbarro, it is a chain of pseudo-Italian fast food outlets, offering a corporate American idea of pasta and pizza.

The President of Sbarro's Quick Service Restaurant Division, Tony Missano (who probably got the job on account of his authentic-sounding Italian name) is quoted on his company's website:

We invite you to come and taste Mama's recipes.
Whose Mama? Not any self-respecting Italian mother, that's for sure.

Elsewhere, the Sbarro website promises "an authentic Italian atmosphere" and "fresh, inventive Italian Cuisine". But the atmosphere isn't Italian, authentic or otherwise. The food is mass-produced and the cuisine unoriginal.

For all its protestations of authenticity, freshness and inventiveness, Sbarro is just another standardised American fast food chain. It's the same wherever you go. There are now more than 1,000 Sbarro restaurants (or "units" as the company calls them) worldwide. And it's depressing.

It is particularly depressing that the owners and operators of European airports are incapable of showing more imagination. They could reject the global fast food chains in favour of more distinctive and local catering experiences, which would promote local culture and (if nothing else) help relieve the monotony of international air travel.

The EU, for all its faults, cannot be blamed for this homogenisation. It has been doing a great deal to help local food producers to protect and promote authentic local foods and drinks (and has done so in the face of fierce American hostility in international trade negotiations). It has also been supporting the efforts of local communities to defend minority languages.

People have every right to protect their distinct identities. But if we're going to tackle the threats to our identity, let's hit the right target. The threat of cultural homogenisation comes not from Brussels but from further away on the Planet Sbarro.

Brussels has itself to blame sometimes. The insistence of "opening up" postal services to competition was an EC initiative, allowing any Johnny-Come-Lateley outfit to cherry-pick the profitable services, ultimately condemning the Royal Mail to a loss-maling liability: Who would volunteer to deliver to expensive rural communities?

Who put these free-market nutcases in charge of the assylum?

Thank you France. Thank you Holland.
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