There’s nothing like exclusivity to make something desirable, and the legend of anything will only grow when it’s not widely available. But the fast food chicken outlet Albaik only exists in Saudi Arabia and has a reputation as the being some of the best fast food on earth.
It’s the kingdom’s own version of KFC and it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that it’s close to being the national food. Now one company say they can help have it flown to you from there.
Airbük is a peer-to-peer mobile app in which users can post requests for items to be brought to them be people who just happen to be flying that route. Users who are flying soon can choose to be a flyer, accept buyer’s request, buy some Albaik from in the origin city and deliver it to the buyer upon arrival in the destination city.
Airbük gets a 10 per cent commission, paid online in App, on the total price which is the item price + flyer’s commission. The balance amount is paid to the Flyer in cash upon delivery of the item. Al Baik is specially featured on the app because it’s exclusively available in Saudi but hugely popular worldwide.
Mohammad Aamir, the founder of Airbük, tells us, “I have personally taken Al Baik many times over the years in different airlines to India. My friends have taken it to USA, UK, Australia, Pakistan and Dubai recently.”
So, this is where we are at… people are arranging to have Albaik flown out of the country to them. You might think it may not be needed in places like Dubai, where there are currently around 100 branches of actual KFC (so why bother, right?) but there are also 184 branches of KFC in Saudi Arabia, so it’s not a case of the Kingdom just going for the next best thing in place of KFC.
So why is Albaik so popular?
Of course, this could just be overly-patriotic Saudis telling the outside world that one of their national brands is the best. But there has to be a lot more to it than that.
It started out in 1974 in a renovated warehouse on the Old Airport Road in Jeddah and was the first pressure-fried chicken restaurant in Saudi. Since then branches have spread out but it’s still limited to the western region of the country where they now have over 50 branches in five cities.
But if you look at the menu online it has an overwhelming “is that it?” feel to it and the food really doesn’t look anything special. It’s broasted chicken that combines pressure cooking with deep frying to pressure-fry chicken that has been marinated and breaded.
One Saudi resident tells us, “It tastes good, they cook it within eyesight and it only costs 5-12 SR depends on how hungry you’re. The spices they use are special because I’ve eaten in lots of other places while some of them were good but not as good as Albaik.”
While another told us, “The best thing about the chain is their quality control, they’ve kept the taste pretty consistent for decades, which is rare for an Arabic food chain.”
And that appears to be it, at least in terms of what it is. But people go crazy for it. Here’s footage of what happens when the doors open to a branch. It’s like Black Friday, but this is just a regular opening to a fact food place. And even Anthony Bourdain visited for his series No Reservations.
In the late 1990s, however, the Saudi government asked Albaik to serve the pilgrims during the Hajj season. It’s something agreed to and still do now, as a non-profit service and this has perhaps become the greatest goodwill marketing tool for the company. People visiting Saudi during the Hajj now associate that with Albaik.
The CEO Rami Abu Ghazaleh has said that the demand has not been limited to Saudi Arabia. The fact that they have a prominent presence in the holy cities of Mecca and Madinah means millions of pilgrims from around the world get exposed to their brand. “From Japan to Brazil, on a daily basis we get so many franchise requests from outside and inside Saudi Arabia,” he said, but still it only exists within the Kingdom and even then, only in certain regions.
And like anything that gets a reputation and exclusivity to one place, fakes start appearing elsewhere. There’s an Al Baik chicken restaurant in Al Quoz in Dubai but it has nothing to do with the Saudi original other than (suspiciously) having the same name. There was an Al Baik Brosted Chicken in Dubai’s International City but it had nothing to do with the actual Al Baik and has now closed down. Other fakes have appeared around the GCC and wider region.
But now, as seems to be the way, there’s an app for that and you can arrange to have someone bring the food in for you from one of the actual branches. But don’t get too excited, as with most things lower expectations help when trying famed fast food and not everyone was wowed.
“I live in Dammam so no Albaik for me, but I heard the ‘legends’ and every southerner or hijazi I met makes the food sound like it descended from heaven,” one Saudi resident old us. “When I visited Jeddah the expectation was so high but when I tried it, it was a huge disappointment… it was just fried chicken.”