Kosher or not, McDonald's wants its fries from Idaho


JERUSALEM -- When it comes to spuds, Idaho has Israel beat hands down.

At least that's the opinion of McDonald's, whose plans to open a fast-food restaurant in Israel may hinge on the ability to get U.S.-grown potatoes for its french fries, rather than the variety grown in Israel.

Fries made with Israeli-grown and cut potatoes are, well, limp. And short. And not so pretty.

"We don't look at it as a problem with the local potatoes. It's just that McDonald's prefers a certain standard," said a company spokesman, diplomatically.

In fact, the Israeli potatoes are a problem even in what may be more sympathetic mouths. Burger Ranch, an Israeli chain of 50 fast-food restaurants in Israel (and one in Hungary), has been trying for six years to get permission to import better tubers.

"Our french fries are certainly not inedible. But we'd like to improve them," said Ron Lapid, president of the Burger Ranch chain. "The more times we travel to America or Europe, we see the difference."

The best potatoes for fries, renowned the world over, is the Idaho Russett-Burbank.

The Israeli government has so far blocked import of the Idaho potatoes at the behest of the kibbutz farms that don't want to lose the market for their potatoes.

Mr. Lapid went to court in 1987, 1990 and last year trying to get approval to import the potatoes, but he was told each time that the government was still considering the matter.

Mr. Lapid is a man who takes his fries seriously, a man who exercises regularly so that he can keep eating french fries without wearing them in his middle.

"The ideal way to eat fries is to hold it up in your fingers and take several bites before it's gone," he said. If the fries are too short, or too limp, one has to sort of stuff them in one's mouth, not the preferred dining experience, he said.

The Israeli "Alpha" and "Desiree" potatoes, the locally grown varieties, do not have a high solid content, and so they are "more limp," he said. Their color and consistency are not great.

And he said the kibbutzim-owned processing plant, with a virtual monopoly on making fries, would not buy new cutting machines to produce uniformly long, shoe-string fries. So Burger Ranch gets "a disproportionate number of very short fries."

His complaints were echoed when McDonald's, the very symbol of U.S. cuisine, turned its corporate eyes here. McDonald's has 4,000 outlets in 64 countries outside the United States, but it is only now planning to open its first restaurants in the Middle East: in Israel, Saudi Arabia and Oman.

When McDonald's speaks, the world listens. In what the Hebrew papers dubbed his "chips speech," Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin grumbled that McDonald's ought to be given permission to bring fries to the country.

He said it, ironically, at the end of a speech urging companies to "buy Israel," a contradiction the pundits ate up.

The solution, some suggested, is to grow Idaho potatoes here. Several farms have begun test patches, and McDonald's is proceeding on the assumption it will be given temporary approval to import potatoes until Israeli farms produce enough of the right kind.

"If there is still some internal infighting in the government, we don't know," said Brad Trask, a McDonald's official in the company's Oak Brook, Ill., headquarters. "We are planning to open in Tel Aviv in December."

But the quality of fries is not the only food complication for McDonald's. Mr. Trask said it had not been decided if the restaurant would abide by kosher rules.

Kosher laws mean the restaurant would not open Saturday and could not serve meat and dairy products together. That means a RTC McDonald's without a cheeseburger.

About half of Mr. Lapid's Burger Ranch restaurants abide by kosher rules. Most of those in the more secular Tel Aviv do not, while most in Jerusalem do, he said.

Mr. Lapid is hardly enthusiastic about McDonald's plans, nor about the rumor that Burger King wants to move into the country, too. But he figures there is room for everyone.

"The hamburger market is very undeveloped here," he said. "But more and more people are eating hamburgers."

Limp fries and all.

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