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How Cinnabon Explains the (Arab) World

Only one year after insurgents were preparing their assault on Tripoli, life in Libya has largely changed for the better. Qaddafi is dead, the first democratic elections in the country’s history were held last month, and, perhaps most auspicious of all, Cinnabon has set up shop in the capital.

Multiple news outlets in the U.S. remarked upon the July 2 opening of Libya’s first American dining franchise, a Cinnabon-Carvel store (the two brands are sister companies) on Girgarish Road, a busy commercial street in a swanky district of Tripoli. But they haven’t talked much about how popular Cinnabon has proven among Libyans. That’s unfortunate, because it’s no coincidence that this American dessert is as successful as it is in the Libyan desert.

According to a statement by the company, the Libyan store is one of the most profitable Cinnabon branches in the world, with its first-week sales five times higher than the average American Cinnabon for the same period. (It helps that they have been open during the month of Ramadan, when customers have streamed in between dusk and 3:30 am.) “The store is very busy, and the people are very, very anxious to see the new Libya and the Western style of life,” says Arief Swadiek, who co-owns the Libyan Cinnabon-Carvel franchise with his brother Ahmed.

In some ways, the introduction of Cinnabon to Libya lends itself to anthropological interpretation. Cinnabon is an example of the decidedly Western genre of dining known as “eatertainment” in the food industry—an instance where sensations of decadence are foregrounded in the dining experience. It all starts with the sugar-and-spice Cinnabon scent, which lures customers in with the promise of an exaggeratedly indulgent encounter with food. And indulgent it is: one original Cinnabon, with its luscious dough and sickly sweet frosting, contains 880 calories and 36 grams of fat—more than half the recommended daily value. It’s like eating four of your grandma’s cinnamon buns in one sitting. Much of Cinnabon’s appeal is derived from this mix of the homey and the totally extravagant—a combination that some might say is authentically American.

But, in other ways, Cinnabon’s signature products also speak directly to the heart of Middle Eastern culture. The Libyan Cinnabon is not an anomaly: It opened following a decade of rapid growth in the Arab world. One reason for this is that, having grown up eating baklava, syrup-soaked semolina, and other nutty sweetmeats, Middle Easterners have a long-standing love of intensely sweet desserts. Mike Shattuck, the president of Cinnabon’s parent company Focus Brands Inc., says the brand has focused on the Middle East as it expands because “cinnamon and sweet baked goods are part of the culture already.” Combine that with their burgeoning oil economies and low labor costs, and you’ve got a sweet deal for Cinnabon.

Some things about Cinnabon—its original recipe and trademark smells, for instance—stay consistent across national boundaries. Almost everything else about the brand, however, can be adapted to the local environment. This means the Libyan Cinnabon is rather different from its American precursors. Whereas in the U.S. Cinnabon is marketed to middle-class consumers who want over-the-top comfort while they’re on the go, international Cinnabon stores are designed for lingering, modeled after European-style cafés. As if aware of its status as a symbol of the West, the Libyan Cinnabon has a more extensive menu offering a cosmopolitan array of chilled espresso drinks, imported Italian pastries, and sandwiches with names like “Dutch Cheese and Tomato” and “New York Mayo Tuna.” And while the cost of a Cinnabon is roughly the same in Libya as it is in the U.S.—four dinars, or about three dollars—only the upper-middle class and the wealthy can afford it. Then there’s the matter of scale: The store is over 7,500 square feet, making it the largest Cinnabon in the world. It’s got three full floors, separate dining areas for parties and business meetings, and even a play place replete with a ball pit and slides.

Can we read Libya’s fortune through Cinnabon’s successes and failures? Hardly. But to the extent that geopolitics and commerce have a push-pull relationship, Cinnabon can be used as a decent, if inexact, proxy for broader economic and political development; where Cinnabon goes, international business and capital investment tend to follow. And, in that way, it’s promising that Cinnabon hasn’t budged from the Middle East through the entirety of the Arab Spring, serving up its convection-baked confections without interruption amidst the upheaval. In Egypt, where Cinnabon has 21 locations, the brand has continued to prosper despite the revolution that displaced some of the Cinnabon-eating elite and reshuffled their assets. Cinnabon has also raked in big profits in the oil-rich UAE, which seems likely to be Libya’s model for economic growth.

The one exception is Syria’s Cinnabon. Though the Damascus location, which opened last year, has remained operational throughout much of the conflict in that country, it will likely soon be forced to close. Just two months ago, Cinnabon Syria posted on their Facebook page, “We are all about having people add a little frosting to their lives,” but Mike Shattuck tells me that the company has re-supplied the Damascus Cinnabon for the last time—“barring a breakthrough in the revolution.”

Of course, even in promising environments like Tripoli, running a business is a risky proposition. After years of economic mismanagement and ballooning inflation, it may prove difficult to increase the spending power of the population, despite the Libya’s enormous wealth. It could be a while, in other words, until most Libyans can afford a bite of that pillowy dough. “The country needs a lot of infrastructure, a lot of work from our new government,” Arief told me over a weak connection from Libya. “We are hoping that business is going to change for our side.”

Winning over Libyans’ stomachs seems less of a problem. People talk about the Cinnabon excitement over social media, he says. “They go through Facebook, they are tweeting about it. With young kids, it spreads in no time.” Much like the Arab Spring itself.