Food Culture, Peruvian Cuisine

Bembos in Cuzco

Huachana Sandwich with French Fries and Soda

The Haucaypata, Cuzco, the main square where idols from all over the empire would be set in a coat of sand that covered the entire square while chicha was offered and other ritual performed, now offers a range of international fast food.  But the first was Bembos with its Peruvian themed hamburgers.

Is there a relationship between Inca ritual and Bembos burgers?  Probably.  Especially if you believe the scholars who see medieval religious architecture repeated in the arches of Bembos main competitor across the Plaza or you believe that eating fast food is akin to something like a sacrament for late industrial society.

Well, all that may be, but Bembos is also a big shout out to nationalism and the power of Peruvian society and culture in an increasingly globalized world with its unequal “free” market.  With its salsa golf and its huacataysauce, as well as burgers with crispy fries on them, Bembos celebrates its country of origin and Peruvian nationalism.  It is the Peruvian alternative to the huge multinational chains that have claimed the hamburger market seemingly everywhere.

Bembos
Bembos Cuzco

If there is any food that symbolizes contemporary modernity it is the hamburger, that sandwich on which generations have now been raised.  Generally, though, that modernity comes with an address in the United States.

Bembos beat the multinational hamburger chains to the punch in Lima and continues to keep a hold in Peru’s hamburger market despite hard competition

As Peru’s civil war was reaching some of its darkest and harshest days under the Fujimori Government with its heavy hand.

Inside of the Bembos
Inside of Bembos

As dogs would be hung from lampposts and car bombs go off Peruvians like other South Americans were already eating hamburgers, but home grown ones.  Maybe because of the two guerrilla groups who wanted to see the state wither, or maybe for some other reason, the multinational burger empires had not yet set up shop in Peru.  Of course this was a time before free trade agreements when there was much concern about imperialism and in which the burger franchises would be labeled such and probably attacked.  KFC, which was already present in Peru, was attacked by the guerrillas.

While many university-aged Peruvians were asking whether their obligation was to join the “armed rebellion,” as they called the insurgents, others were wanting to join the modernity of Miami where so many of their compatriots fled.

Two young men, Carlos Camino y Mirko Cermak, decided to open an international style hamburger place in the Miraflores district of Lima.   As the Bembos’ site says, they liked hamburgers and wanted something like the international offerings.

Selling Bembos
Selling Bembos

While the center Lima became more and more a floating street market filled with crime and guerrilla action, Miraflores grew as the alternative.  While the downtown held a magisterial palace and cathedral, Miraflores’ center was a neighborhood of glass and steel highrises.   There amidst modernity, despite the chaos afflicting the country, Camino and Cermak opened the first Bembos, in June of 1988, with a style that has since become  the company’s brand.  It was bright, playful and avant garde in concept and design.

Later, the year after the “apagones”– the sudden and often extended blackouts due to guerrillas taking out the main powerlines– and the guerrilla war ended with the surprising capture of Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman, the onslaught of hamburger giants began.  Burger King entered Peru with a bang in 1993 and McDonalds in 1996.

I Like the Bembos Sandwiches
I Like Bembos’ Sandwiches

Maybe it was those years of promising modernity and consumerism while Lima suffered, or maybe it is the quality of its hamburgers and its bright, Latin design, but Bembeos still continues to lead with more than half of the fast food hamburger market in Peru.  Even the iconic Inca Cola was sold to the multinational Coca Cola, but Bembos still stands as a bastion of Peru, although in March 2011 it was bought by the Peruvian Interbank.

In July 2007 Bembos once again claimed a first.  Before then, despite rumors that McDonalds was trying to open a restaurant in Cuzco’s colonial core there was no international fast food there.  The Plaza de Armas, the main square of Cuzco was beginning transformation with capital coming in from Lima to obtain space for novo-Andean restaurants and other offerings.

Enjoying the Bembos Sandwiches
Enjoying Bembos’ Sandwiches

Bembos, which had just opened in Mumbai, India obtained and remodeled two floors of space on Cuzco’s Portal de Comercio.

The spell of the plaza as Cuzco was broken.  Local businesses began leaving as the Main Square became more and more an upscale shopping mall, even though every Sunday the Plaza is the site of a ceremony for raising the national flag and its streets continue to periodically close for processions and dance troupes.

A new symbolism of the sacred central space of the town has developed, with multinationals on three of its four sides, though they all are understated in deference to the white, blue, and orange sanctity of Cuzco’s Inca and colonial architecture.

Nevertheless, Bembos is popular.  Elsewhere fast food may be the province of the lower and middle strata, but in Peru it is the upper middle that the industry is oriented toward.  However Bembos Cuzco attracts a broad range of people from the city of Cuzco and visitors with its Peruvian flavored products and inexpensive combos.

At night it fills, with lines out the door.   Young couples come to eat in as part of their evening in town.  People stand in line to take burgers home, since there is no Bembos elsewhere in the city.  The restaurant fills with the sounds of happy conversation, almost entirely in Spanish.

With its attempt to develop a Peruvian product of high quality, Bembos stands as a bastion of contemporary Peru, malled and modern.  Fast food on the Plaza has become a ritual today and joined the Cathedral on the Plaza in Cuzco.

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