Mongolia, a land once synonymous with isolation and rural hardship, is at the beginning of a transformation. Newly tapped mines beneath the Gobi desert and elsewhere, rich in copper, coal and gold, have resulted in a surge of wealth that has brought electricity, cars and now, the nation's first Western fast food chain: KFC.
The outpost, located in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, opened Wednesday with fanfare that attracted the U.S. ambassador to Mongolia and the country's trade minister. Muktesh "Mickey" Pant, CEO of KFC's parent company, Yum! Restaurants International, estimated that the eatery served up to 3,000 people between Wednesday's grand opening and a soft opening the day before.
"I think for Mongolia, [KFC] is like a sign of arrival in a sense," Pant told The Huffintgon Post, adding that he had also met with the country's prime minister, Norovyn Altankhuyag. "It's unusual for a fast food concept to attract that kind of interest," he mused.
Pant sees "tremendous potential" for KFC in Mongolia -- he said that the chain plans to open 15 more locations over the next five years, with the second coming in June. The third, which will likely open in a few months, will feature the nation's first drive-thru -- a trickier notion than it sounds. Half of all cars in Mongolia feature a right-side steering wheel, the remainder a mirror opposite. "We don’t know where to put the window," Pant said of the drive-thru, with a laugh.
Such issues seem infinitesimal compared to the difficulty of establishing reliable supply lines in the landlocked nation, although Pant was adamant that this challenge has been met. "It took a lot of work," he admitted, but stressed that the restaurant will be able to regularly handle the high volume it enjoyed during the opening, thanks in part to "a very good frozen facility." In all, it took 18 months for the restaurant to materialize from conception to opening.
Chicken, for now, will be imported -- for the launch, it came from Japan and the U.S. -- which is perhaps because the Mongolian diet traditionally consists of red meats like beef and lamb. Pant said that it would take a while before local suppliers are up to snuff.
The chicken-heavy menu looks similar to those at KFC locations elsewhere in the world, with offerings like KFC's Original Recipe chicken, Hot and Spicy chicken, popcorn chicken, the Zinger chicken burger, salads, mashed potatoes and coleslaw. Pant hopes the fact that KFC's signature ingredient is a small part of most Mongolians' diet will boost the chain's appeal. That said, KFC will likely soon introduce items that cater specifically to the local population. Among them, more spicy foods, soup, fried dough for breakfast and even beef products.
In the longterm, Pant envisions bringing between 50 and 100 KFC locations to Mongolia, including rural regions. Once KFC gains a foothold, he said, "We’re thinking of bringing in Pizza Hut."
Whether or not more chains will follow KFC's lead remains to be seen, but Pant is hopeful they will. "Outer Mongolia was always considered far away," he said, but that's changing. "All that’s missing is quality Western brands. I think that others will follow."
Take a look at Mongolia's first KFC location in the gallery below.