Smuggling that's finger licking good

4-hour odyssey gets meals to Gaza strip

The New York TimesMay 18, 2013 

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The french fries arrive soggy, and the chicken has long since lost its crunch. A 12-piece bucket goes for about $27 here — more than twice the $11.50 it costs just across the border in Egypt.

And for fast-food delivery, it is anything but fast: It took more than four hours for KFC meals to arrive here on a recent afternoon from the franchise where they were cooked in El Arish, Egypt, a journey that involved two taxis, an international border, a smuggling tunnel and a young entrepreneur coordinating it all from a small shop here called Yamama — Arabic for pigeon.

"It's our right to enjoy that taste the other people all over the world enjoy," said the entrepreneur, Khalil Efrangi, 31, who started Yamama a few years ago with a fleet of motorbikes ferrying food from Gaza restaurants, the first such delivery service here.

There are no name-brand fast-food franchises on this 140-square-mile coastal strip of 1.7 million Palestinians, where the entry and exit of goods and people remain restricted and the unemployment rate is about 32 percent. Passage into Egypt through the Rafah crossing is limited to about 800 people a day, with men 16 to 40 years old requiring special clearance. Traveling through the Erez crossing into Israel requires a permit and is generally allowed only for medical patients, businessmen and employees of international organizations.

Palestinians generally refer to Gaza as being under siege or blockade by Israel, and isolation from the world is among the most common complaints of people here. That can create an intense longing for what those outside Gaza see as mundane, or ordinary.

"The irregular circumstances in Gaza generate an irregular way of thinking," explained Fadel Abu Heen, a professor of psychology at Al Aqsa University in Gaza City. "They think of anything that is just behind the border, exactly as the prisoner is thinking of anything beyond the bars."

Formerly called Kentucky Fried Chicken, a KFC franchise opened in El Arish, just over Gaza's southern border, in 2011, and in the West Bank city of Ramallah last year. That, along with ubiquitous television advertisements for KFC, owned by Louisville-based Yum Brands, and other fast-food favorites, has given Gazans a hankering for Colonel Sanders' secret recipe.

So after Efrangi brought some KFC back from El Arish for friends last month, he was flooded with requests. A new business was born.

"I accepted this challenge to prove that Gazans can be resilient despite the restrictions," Efrangi said.

In the past few weeks, Efrangi has coordinated four deliveries totaling about 100 meals, making about $6 per meal in profit. He promotes the service on Yamama's Facebook page, and whenever there is a critical mass of orders — usually 30 — he starts a complicated process of telephone calls, wire transfers and coordination with the Hamas government to get the chicken from there to here.

The other day, after Efrangi called in 15 orders and wired the payment to the restaurant in El Arish, an Egyptian taxi driver picked up the food. On the other side of the border, Ramzi al-Nabih, a Palestinian cabdriver, arrived at the Hamas checkpoint in Rafah, where the guards recognized him as "the Kentucky guy."

From the checkpoint, Nabih, 26, called his Egyptian counterpart and told him which of the scores of tunnels the Hamas official had cleared for the food delivery. He first waited near the shaft of the tunnel, but after a while he was lowered on a lift about 30 feet underground and walked halfway down the 650-foot path to meet two Egyptian boys who were pushing the boxes and buckets of food, wrapped in plastic, on a cart.

Nabih gave the boys about $16.50 and argued with them for a few minutes over a tip. A half-hour later, the food was loaded into the trunk and onto the back seat of his Hyundai taxi, bound for Gaza City.

Back at Yamama, Efrangi sorted the meals for his motorcyclists to deliver to customers' doorsteps. He said he limited the menu to chicken pieces, fries, coleslaw and apple pie because other items could be too complicated.

"Some clients would need a sandwich without mayonnaise, or a more spicy one, or a sandwich with or without sauce," he said. "That's why we do not bring everything, to avoid delivering the wrong order."

Ibrahim el-Ajla, 29, who works for Gaza's water utility and was among those enjoying KFC here the other day, acknowledged that the food was better hot and fresh in the restaurant, but he said he would be likely to order again. "I tried it in America and in Egypt, and I miss the taste," he said. "Despite the blockade, KFC made it to my home."

Efrangi might not have the fast-food market to himself much longer. A Gaza businessman who asked to be identified only by his nickname, Abu Ali, to avoid tipping off his competitors, said he had applied for a franchise from KFC's Middle East dealer, Americana Group, two months ago. Adeeb al-Bakri, who owns four KFC and Pizza Hut franchises in the West Bank, said he had been authorized to open a restaurant in Gaza and was working out the details.

"We need to get approval to bring chicken from Gaza farms with the KFC standards. We need to make sure that frying machines would be allowed in. We need the KFC experts to be able to head for Gaza for regular monthly checkups," Bakri said. "I do not have a magic stick to open in Gaza quickly."

Bakri was unaware of Efrangi's delivery service, and when told the details, he frowned at the four-hour odyssey from oven to table.

"We dump it after half an hour," he said.

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