Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Long Live Mr. Burger

Published in Nov-Dec 2021

Anusha Zahid profiles a uniquely Pakistani brand that has survived the onslaught of major international competition.

Once upon a time – long before the entry of international fast food chains in Pakistan and the majority of Pakistanis had any idea of what a real burger looked and tasted like – a family in Karachi decided to venture into the fast food business by launching a burger brand. This was in 1980, and although there was every possibility that the initiative would fail (people were not used to fast food), it proved to be an immense success – and since the day of its launch, the brand remains a go-to fast food chain for children and adults alike. Today, Mr. Burger is undoubtedly one of Pakistan’s best-loved legacy brands.

Mr. Burger’s resilience is demonstrated by the fact that despite the subsequent proliferation of international fast food chains in Pakistan, the product still enjoys the loyalty of customers who have known it since its heyday. Part of this success has been the brand’s ability to keep up with international fast food trends, thereby developing an enthusiastic customer base among the younger generation.

To learn about Mr. Burger’s brand odyssey, Aurora spoke to Ashfaq Raza, Managing Director, Fast Food Private Industries (the parent company of Mr. Burger). The journey began when, in 1978, Moosa Raza – a civil engineer by profession who had worked in Iraq and Iran all his life – asked his eldest son Iqbal Raza to start a business in Karachi. The elder Raza’s eight other sons were studying in the US and he wanted them to return to Pakistan and contribute to the business.

Iqbal Raza, who was then working as a PIA flight engineer, held a fascination for the long queues he saw outside McDonald’s restaurants in the US. He decided to apply for a franchise and bring McDonald’s to Pakistan. He wrote to them expressing his interest, but a month later he received a letter stating: “We have been researching the South Asian market and we think the region is not ready for fast food.” Next, he tried to acquire a Burger King franchise, but he received the same response. He then conferred with his brothers and the decision was made to launch a burger chain in Pakistan under their own brand name. The first step in this challenging undertaking was to learn about what better way to do this than to work part-time at McDonald’s for a year – which the brothers did. As they were entering an altogether new category, the brothers were the first to bring fast food equipment to Pakistan.

“We imported material for six outlets, as we planned to open multiple branches at the same time – a new concept in Pakistan,” says Ashfaq Raza.

As for the name, it was inspired by a restaurant called Mr. Steak, which was located behind a 7-Eleven store owned by the Raza family in Connecticut, US. The brothers thought it was easy to recall. Iqbal then requested a friend – a street artist living in Paris – to design the orange and white logo.

The family set up the production facility in North Nazimabad – from where the burgers were dispatched to the different outlets in order to ensure the same quality. The first outlet opened in 1980 in a portion of the family’s former residence, a two-storey house in Rizvia, near Nazimabad. “We wanted to launch in Tariq Road, which at that time was Karachi’s best locality, but we decided it was best to open in Rizvia and gain some experience before venturing there,” recalls Ashfaq Raza.

He remembers the first day of the launch at Rizvia. The brothers made 100 patties, although they were unsure whether they would be able to sell them. With no staff, they cooked, packed, took orders and, to their surprise, within two hours they ran out of supplies. The next day, they made 200 patties and the burgers sold out within three hours and within a week, Mr. Burger had sold over 1,000 burgers. In the face of this response, the brothers were ready to launch Mr. Burger’s Tariq Road outlet, which opened for business in 1981. Although by that time staff was on hand, the brothers were always in the kitchen to guide and supervise. The Tariq Road outlet sold 3,000 to 4,000 burgers daily, starting at 10 am and closing at 4 pm – or whenever they ran out of burgers. The menu at that point included Mr. Burger (seven rupees), Small Cheese Burger and Small Beef Burger (five rupees each). Regular fries cost two rupees and slush ice was available in four flavours (lemon, orange, Pakola and raspberry), also for rupees two. “Mr Asif Ali Zardari was a regular customer at Tariq Road; he came every day between three and half-past three in the afternoon. He loved chicken burgers,” remembers Ashfaq Raza.

Mr. Burger’s successful trajectory continued and by 1998, the brand had a total of 12 branches in Karachi, with those in Tariq Road and Boat Basin generating the major chunk of profits. “We never felt the need to advertise; word of mouth was enough to make people gather at any Mr. Burger outlet,” says Ashfaq Raza. He adds that despite the entry of international fast food chains, such as Pizza Hut and McDonald’s (in 1993 and 1998) their business remained unaffected. According to Ashfaq Raza, although the family did plan to expand outside Karachi, the political situation in the late nineties prevented this, as increased threats from extortionists led the brothers to move to the US in the early 2000s. Left in the hands of their managers, the business began to decline and the brothers contemplated closing down all 12 outlets, but a consensus could not be reached among all nine of them.

Then in 2005, Ashfaq Raza and his brother Haider came back to Pakistan and took over the running of Mr. Burger, revamping the brand and its image and adding more items to the menu. “We started with the Tariq Road branch then moved the outlets in Boat Basin, I.I. Chundrigar Road, Hyderi and Gulshan. As soon as we revamped, sales doubled, because people remembered the taste and the quality,” says Asfaq Raza. However, while some of the branches registered high sales, others still incurred losses and were closed down. In 2016, Ashfaq Raza, despite opposition from his brothers, gave the franchising rights to Syed Abbas Mohsin and Zubair Mansha to open three branches in Karachi. Both Mohsin and Mansha were Mr. Burger fans since they were children and took up the franchise with the objective of passing on the same taste to the next generation and bringing back those customers who had stopped patronising the brand due to bad service.

“Mr. Burger had been run as a family business, but we wanted to turn it into a corporate venture in order to compete will the major burger joints in Pakistan,” says Mohsin, who with Mansha, redesigned the interiors, changed the menu and most importantly, established a digital presence for Mr. Burger on social media platforms, including Foodpanda, “due to which sales increased by 30%.”

The partners have also signed an agreement with the family to set up 100 branches of Mr. Burger across Pakistan, as well as launch a Mr. Burger app and website so that customers can order directly from them; Mohsin says Foodpanda is an expensive proposition and eats into a major chunk of the profitability.

Ashfaq Raza is planning to offer more franchises in Pakistan. Unfortunately, because no one from the family’s second generation is interested in returning to Pakistan, Ashfaq Raza believes this is the only way to expand outside Karachi. He also has plans to launch Mr. Burger in the US. Going forward, Ashfaq Raza believes brand loyalty will keep Mr. Burger going, as it evokes good memories. “I have been in the business for 42 years and I know that despite the competition, a Mr. Burger customer will always come to Mr. Burger, no matter what.”

Mohsin is equally confident of the brand’s “happily hereafter”; he believes Mr. Burger can compete with any burger brand in the world. “Although I cannot give you a definite timeline, we are determined to restore Mr. Burger’s former glory and turn into the brand of Pakistan.”