Swiss burghers in pickle over US fast-food invasion

Switzerland, land of chefs and gourmet service, is succumbing to the American hamburger. From Zurich to Geneva, Lausanne to the provincial towns of St. Gall and Lucerne, American-style fast-food palaces are shooting out of the pavement. The latest to emerge in Zurich is the glossy red and yellow plastic McDonald's at the busy Stauffacher tram stop.

Even the city's zealous, window-smashing Youth Movement could not resist the new establishment's chars; it christened Mac's opening by upturning all available garbage cans.

At last count, McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's had eight outlets among them across Switzerland -- and double that number are planned for the near future.

Along the Swiss chains like Big Bob, also bent on cashing in on the hamburger boom, the industry estimates that within the next five years some 50 outlets will be catering for the new-found, US-inspired fast-food habits of the Swiss consumer.

Not so long ago when the English chain of Wimpy tried to crack the Swiss market with 15 quick-feeders, it was met with depressing results. Outlets soon dropped to two. The saying was after that, only the bravest would try to move the Swiss away from the tradition of a nutritious, tranquil lunch. No paper cups for them, but glass and crockery.

A Swiss chain called Silberkugel made it by adapting American ways to local taste so that hamburgers accounted for a limited percent of turnover. But now the trend is American most of the way with waitresses in baseball caps, loads of fries, huge burgers, and a feeling you could easily be in Chicago.

Nutritionists are far from happy. They shudder at the 500 calories in a five-story burger and more than 200 in a small portion of fries. Prof. Meinrad Schaer of the Zurich Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine has pointed out that for those going in for hamburger nourishment, it would be a good idea to follow up with a salad, a glass of milk, and an apple.

However, unhappiest of all are the local citizens who are losing their favorite meeting spot to the onslaught of the American chains. In Bern, a regular scandal accompanied Wendy's decision to take over the historic Cafe Rudolf, haunt since the start of the century for the country's federal ministers and parliamentarians, as well as housewives and workers from the surrounding offices, shops, and newsrooms.

An outraged band of Cafe Rudolf habitues took a mere 19 days to gather 7,600 signatures, more than enough to force a referendum for the protection of the city's old cafes and restaurants against the American invasion.

The referendum strategy is to demand that not only the facades of historic restaurants but also their interiors be placed under protection. Wendy's is already obliged to keep the Cafe Rudolf art deco exterior as it is.

For weeks, law professors have been studying the legality of such a referendum. Up till now only the outward picture of such buildings has been safeguarded in Bern.

Prof. Paul Hofer, architectural expert on the early 20th century, prepared a three- page dissertation declaring that to separate the inner and outer Cafe Rudolf meant "wrecking" the city's historic character.

"Quick-eaters do not belong at the Cafe Ruldof," says Professor Hofer. Meanwhile, the "Rudi" as the locals call it, has been closed, pending a decision on the referendum.

Geneva restaurateur Jean E. Schild, who has the Wendy's Swiss franchise, is confident that he will win: "We have liberty of commerce in Switzerland. No one can interfere with how a restaurant designs its interior."

Schild explains how the Swiss "mentality has changed." Now, there is a "need" here for the hamburger chains, he explains. People no longer want to take two hours for lunch. In his opinion, Wimpy just came too soon. His Wendy's in Geneva has a lively profit.

Schild plans to expand from the present two to 16 Wendy's within four years.

Swiss chefs may moan, but it looks as if the shakes, fries, and hamburgers are here to st ay.

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