The ‘90s Latin American Food Trend Nobody Wants to Talk About

How American chains swept the region’s food scene and turned potato skins and burgers into the ultimate status symbol.

By Inés Bellina

Published on December 1, 2022

Saturday night in Lima, 1999. I’m 17, wearing baggy pants, a crop top, and butterfly clips in my hair. My friends and I carry a lone cell phone among us. In our purses: lip gloss and our meager allowances. We’re out for a wild night—at TGI Friday’s. 

Suburban American franchises were the crème de la crème of Latin American nightlife in the ‘90s. McDonald’s golden arches and Chili’s backlit red pepper splashed into major cities faster than you could learn the Macarena. In Bogotá, Buenos Aires, São Paulo, and beyond, these multimillion-dollar brands set up shop—and lured the masses. Each opening was an event. You didn’t simply drop by when a hankering for nuggets hit; you made a point to see and be seen. 

North of the Río Grande, places like Friday’s were anything but swanky. So, why the craze in Latin America? And how have tastes in the region evolved since? 

Amalia Blondet, a former server at Friday’s Lima, gives us a window into what it was like back in the day. “People waited in line to get in. For hours,” she said. “The first week was nuts. It was packed and super stressful, but I loved it.”

Part of the draw was the sheer novelty. After years of hearing names like KFC and Burger King in Hollywood films, dubbed sitcoms, and tales from those who could afford a trip to the States, many Latin Americans finally had a portal to the U.S. in their home cities. My friends and I were eager to see Chili’s bright red booths and Colonel Sanders smiling at us from a bucket. We read menus like foodie tourists and ordered items that struck us as deeply American. Hamburgers and fries. Chicken wings and potato skins. 

But food was an afterthought. We were there for the party. 

Chili’s filled up with multigenerational families celebrating birthdays. Friday’s blasted curated playlists that kept monstrously sized Mai Tais flowing at happy hour, a foreign concept. Hard Rock Cafe was the clubbiest of all, with its flexible policy towards dancing on tables. Servers stopped in their tracks to lead full-blown choreography of “YMCA,” every hour on the hour. It’s an image worth a thousand cringes in hindsight, but we partook with glee.

Peru’s enthusiasm for franchises wasn’t unique. In Brazil, Pizza Hut had fashionistas lining up in upscale areas. Jason Wilson, who writes the Everyday Drinking newsletter, remembers the buzz surrounding Friday’s in Managua. “Everyone is hanging out there, they would say.” 

While smart, well-funded advertising and propaganda were partly responsible for the embrace of American franchises in the region, the root cause was sociocultural change. After the 1980s, a period so tumultuous Latin Americans coined it the “Lost Decade,” the ‘90s ushered in hope.

Violence was giving way to democracy. Economies that were mismanaged if not depleted through corruption were being transformed by another hot trend: free-market neoliberal policies. This coincided neatly with the franchises’ need to expand abroad, having plateaued at home. To them, Latin America was a promising market, no longer a high-risk endeavor. 

Further, Latin Americans were yearning for safe, reliable meeting places, as violence and instability had worn down social infrastructure. “We couldn’t go to bars, we couldn’t go to the movies, we couldn’t go to parks,” said Rocío de la Puente, a former McDonald’s employee in Peru. “We went to places like Friday’s because we wanted to feel like we had gone out. We could order french fries and stay there for five hours.”

In other words, Tony Roma’s and the like did more than introduce baby back ribs: They turned restaurants into sought-after destinations.

“We didn’t really have a habit of going out to eat,” explained Oscar Lorenzzi, the Peruvian executive chef at Contento in New York City. “If it was your aunt’s birthday, you didn’t take her to a restaurant. You celebrated at home. I think the impact these franchises had was that people got used to the idea of eating out.”

Moreover, franchises meant new work opportunities for Lima’s youth. While part-time jobs in Peruvian restaurants were considered “beneath” the urban elite and the burgeoning middle class, cooking and waiting tables at American franchises were seen as a great way to gain experience and climb the socioeconomic ladder. Friday’s was a good place to work, explained Sabrina Pastor, a former Friday’s Lima server. It had “certain criteria and labor laws,” such as minimum wage and a generous tipping culture, which was not the norm at most independently owned establishments. One could say that restaurants like Friday’s had an equalizing effect. For the first time, many staffers mingled with customers outside of their social milieu. Parents who would’ve previously been horrified at the prospect of their children waiting tables came around to the idea. 

But it wasn’t all positive. At least in my home country, the franchises perpetuated many of the same old divisions. To the extent that dining out at Friday’s was a phenomenon, it remained exclusive to residents of the capital, Lima, and its residents who could afford it. Peru’s poorer rural populations on the other hand, particularly those in the Andes and the Amazon, had no such access.

The restaurant workers didn’t have it easy, either. The employees I spoke with for this piece complained about bad bosses, disrespectful clients, impossible schedules, and wages that didn’t justify their long hours and commutes. Many were left with the question: Why did we think that foreign was inherently better? After all, we would all ask for ají to liven up our turkey club sandwiches. 

“Many Peruvians have a “colonialist attitude,” said Lorenzzi. “Unfortunately, we have a tendency to set our sight on what is foreign instead of looking within.” If we had looked within, we might have noticed the first inklings of another boom—that of Peruvian cuisine as a source of pride and international recognition. As the ‘90s gave way to the new century, Lima’s attention turned away from the big-box American chains and toward chef-centric restaurants like Astrid & Gaston, Central, and Maido. Cafés, “restobars,” and buzzy brunch spots popped up, offering new choices to diners. 

As for the guilty pleasures American franchises served up? Peruvians realized they could beat them at their own game. Homegrown fast-food burger and sandwich joints thrived in the early aughts and remain popular today. These days, the norm is for aspiring chefs and restaurateurs to apply to jobs in Peruvian restaurants, as they carry more prestige. That’s probably good, given the worsening—and sometimes lethal—working conditions at American franchise restaurants. 

But franchises left their mark on Peru’s current culinary landscape. “They contributed to the formation of local industry leaders,” said Rodrigo Urbina, an employee at Central, arguably one of the world’s leading restaurants. Urbina didn’t learn his trade at white-tablecloth restaurants—he began his career at McDonald’s and Friday’s. “It was like a university for learning about brand creation, standardization, and processes. It taught us the value of service. That is their legacy.”

It’s a legacy many Latin Americans who came of age in the ‘90s are still grappling with. After years of living in the States, the last thing I want to ingest during visits home is more Americana. Nobody suggests eating out at Chili’s or Friday’s anymore—our past infatuation with them feels like a dirty little secret. 

But cravings are cravings, and traces of those nights remain. Case in point: When Urbina decided to start his own restaurant concept, he chose to focus on chicken wings. The aptly named Wing Factory is now a thriving, popular chain in Lima. When I asked him how the idea came about, he chuckled: Wings were “the most ordered item at Friday’s when I worked there.” 

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