Driving around the Saudi capital Riyadh, you’ll occasionally see vendors selling food out of their cars. Tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, melons, and… deep-fried chicken?
It turns out there’s serious money to be made driving halfway across the country to a restaurant called AlBaik, picking up a load of fried chicken, then driving back to Riyadh and selling it lukewarm out of your car.
I first stumbled across this phenomenon driving around with a friend. He pointed out one of these entrepreneurs, and explained how although AlBaik is probably the nation's favourite food, the restaurants are only in Jeddah, Makkah, Medina and Qassim - despite the brand's popularity, there are no branches in the country's capital city.
My friend told me how these hawkers operate an unofficial taxi service so they can make a 'chicken run'. They find a group of people in Riyadh who want to travel to Qassim or Jeddah. At the other end, they get another group together––but this time their car is packed full of fried chicken, which they can sell in Riyadh at a considerable markup.
Why don’t the Saudis just go to KFC, which seemingly has a branch on every street here?
Common answers from Saudis cite the secret spice recipe, the fast and friendly service, the high quality food and the affordable price. A typical meal from AlBaik costs about 12 Saudi riyals ($3.20), roughly half of what you’ll pay for a KFC meal––and the AlBaik meal is bigger.
“AlBaik has a special taste, which you won’t find anywhere else,” one Riyadh resident told Al Arabiya English.
Apart from the secret spice recipe, another reason why AlBaik has such a distinctive taste is the cooking method––their chicken is ‘broasted’ rather than just fried, a technique which combines pressure cooking with deep frying.
When AlBaik first opened in 1974, it was the first to introduce this ‘broast’ cooking method to Saudi Arabia, according to the company’s website.
A chicken-hawker on the streets of Riyadh (Miles Lawrence/ Al Arabiya English)
A Saudi expat commented, “Gosh I miss AlBaik. Eating it always takes me to another place. The last time I ate it before I left for Japan I was seriously sad not to taste it again for a long time."
Saudis will go to any lengths to get their hands on this chicken. One former Dubai university student told Al Arabiya English about the time her Saudi flatmate was homesick––she made the three-hour flight to Jeddah to visit her family, and returned with a frozen supply of AlBaik!
Another reason people in Saudi love AlBaik is the idea and the ethos behind it. According to one Riyadh resident, people like to support local businesses more than American franchises.
Saudis were long disappointed that AlBaik only opened restaurants in the Western Hejaz region.
One group of particularly dedicated fans put their feelings into song, reminiscing about the “restaurant they have a lot of memories of,” the one they “really love and can’t forget” and pining for the “spicy or normal chicken with sauce on the side”.
“I wish I could find AlBaik in Buraidah”, the capital of Alqassim province, they croon. In June this year, their call was answered.
Other fan videos on YouTube range from the mundane to the bizarre. In this video a group of guys film their entire trip to the “best restaurant ever”, whereas here, someone has made a spoof tribute to conspiracy-theory documentary ’The Arrivals’, offering 'proof' that AlBaik is 'Illuminati confirmed'.
It can get just as crazy at opening time. Watch this stampede of customers desperate for their fried chicken, and look how fast the place fills up in this video. And that’s just inside the restaurant – have you ever seen a crowd outside KFC as big as this?
The company's representatives were unreachable for comment about its popularity and fans.
Taste of Hajj
Although the business hasn’t expanded beyond Saudi Arabia, it is known all over the world by the millions of pilgrims who have performed the Hajj or Umrah pilgrimages to the cities of Makkah and Madinah.
“Most of us Saudis love AlBaik because it’s located in the ‘holy cities’,” said a former Saudi pilgrim. “We grew up going to Umrah on vacation and get excited to eat AlBaik’s tasty fried chicken."
The not-for-profit Hajj operation has been running since 1998.
A team of more than 800 works over 18 hours a day at three outlets to serve pilgrims the signature AlBaik chicken nugget meal.
Former British pilgrim Ibrahim Khan spoke to Al Arabiya about his experience of AlBaik, saying “the Saudis are mental about it. There’s pandemonium in the shop. Kids crawling through your feet to get to the front.”
“I would say it was equally as good as KFC, and the rest of my family think it was even better. There’s a wider variety of things on offer too and a more Arab / subcontinental twist to it."
Living in Riyadh and not eager to sample five-hours-old fried chicken, I’ve yet to taste the golden goose that is AlBaik. But if I make a trip to Jeddah or Qassim, I’ll be sure to bring a few meals back and make my fortune.
This week, it was revealed that Saudis are one of world’s largest consumers of chicken, eating 47kg of chicken meat and an estimated 120 eggs a year per person on an average.
Infographic: Chick magnet?