France loves burgers (le am-ba-ga)

France loves burgers (le am-ba-ga)

This story was originally published in 2013. It has been updated.
A few days ago, an article on the French site of the Huffington Post caught my eye: “Burger King opens in Marseilles with a roar…” The fast foot power house had left France in 1997, defeated by its two main competitors, McDonald’s and Quick. According to the article, Burger King’s new restaurant, located in a food court inside the Marseilles-Marignane airport, has drawn huge crowds since its inauguration last month. Locals flock to the come back kid, driving 45 minutes out of the city, and lining up for up to two hours, to get their hamburger fix. It’s official: France loves burgers. Quoi ? Say what?
A happy French customer gets his Whopper!
I can’t say I am that surprised. Rumors have been floating for months about France’s new craze: Le ham-bur-ger, or “Am-Ba-Ga,” when pronounced by some French people (since the letter “H” is silent at the beginning of French words.)
 
According to American expat/renowned pastry chef/writer/blogger/food connaisseur extraordinaire David Leibovitz, even hard to please Parisians have caved in; dropped forks and knives; rolled up their fancy sleeves; and grabbed American-style hamburgers wherever they can find them in the French capital, thus benefiting a slew of enterprising expats who are dealing their pricey (but, oh, so tasty) wares around town out of… their food trucks! Très romantique. Read the details here.
le Am-Ba-Ga has nothing on you,
steak haché-frites of my youth!
Homesick American expats are thrilled (“Good hamburgers! In Paris! Score!”) Parisians feel as cool as… des New Yorkais. The media can’t get enough of the new fad. Vive la France, land of the Am-Ba-Ga!
 
Of course, this is hardly news to McDonald’s, unchallenged king of the Burger world.
 
McDonald’s (affectionately nicknamed “McDo” by my countrymen,) launched their most excellent French adventure some thirty years ago. There are over 1200 McDo restaurants in France today. Not only have les Français welcomed McDonald’s with open arms, they also love the McDrive concept! Quoi? The French are eating in their cars? Sacrilège! 

France is McDonald’s second most profitable market after the United States. McDo loves the French right back!

What’s next? The Moon? Mars?
You can’t go very far in l’Hexagone (France)
without bumping into a McDo!
French youth flocks to McDo. French youth have always been fond of American brands and are quick to adopt what they perceive as a token of the American lifestyle. But not all of McDo’s French customers are young. What gives?

A visit to Mc Do’s website, (and a closer look at their French products) help clarify things. McDonald’s has always succeeded where other foreign corporations have failed (you may remember the Eurodisney debacle in Paris in the early 1990s.) Their success can be summarized in a few words: In-depth knowledge of the local market’s culture, willingness to adapt their products (call it Am-Ba-Ga localization,) kick-ass marketing and lobbying teams.

McDo’s successful “Come as you are” campaign, featuring the beloved Tintin 
What Frenchman would not patronize a restaurant
where Gallic heroes Asterix and Obelix are regulars?

Things have not always been easy for McDonald’s in France. Years ago, some of the chain’s restaurants were ransacked by local activists to protest the company that came to symbolize American imperialism and – even worse – la malbouffe, (bad eating, bad food.) 

In 1993, the Paris city hall defeated McDo’s plans to open a restaurant on the banks of the Seine river, at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. McDo did not give up and later inaugurated a location inside the prestigious Carrousel du Louvre (the mall adjacent to the Louvre museum) in 2009. Cue in major uproar in the media. French intellectuals and the American expat community (for whom not all Am-Ba-Gas are created equal,) were outraged. But when the dust settled, the French public did not really seem to care that much, and shrugged.

Where are these tacky Golden Arches?
McDo at the Louvre: not as showy as one might expect!
Oh, dear!

The French are pragmatists. McDo creates jobs and mostly uses locally sourced food. French cattle is grass-fed and hormone-free. This is the meat used to prepare the famous Royal Cheese, of Pulp Fiction fame. 

Upon closer inspection, the McDo menu has been designed to appeal to French senses.

Sandwiches made with French baguette
Breakfast à la française…
 And for le goûter (late afternoon snack) or dessert…
 
Christmas 2012 selection
Some French people may enjoy the occasional drive-through service, but most of my countrymen still prefer to sit down and relax while socializing and eating. McDo gets it; offers comfortable and even plush surroundings, free WiFi, and a high-tech environment where meals can be ordered from a cell phone or purchased from a terminal to save time! 

Here is food for thought, certainement.

I would love to know what you think about France’s love story with le Am-Ba-Ga, or her lasting affair with McDo.

When fast-food is concerned, are you Royal Cheese? fancy American Hamburger à la Parisian food truck? Jambon-Beurre, or Croque-Monsieur/salade verte?

Oh, and do check out McDo’s gutsy French commercial for the 2010 Come as you Are campaign, below. 

A bientôt.

Additional Materials:
Tutorial for the perfect [French] pronunciation of the word “hamburger:”


Pulp Fiction. The movie. The French and the Royal Cheese:

McDo’s “gay” commercial. Come as you are campaign. France, 2010

1/23/2013 update. Just found this online and had to add it:

Watch a nice American tourist trying to order food for his cranky toddler at the McDo drive-through in France… Oh, la, la… Not that easy, is it?




 
 
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85 Responses to France loves burgers (le am-ba-ga)

  1. I just love this post! When I lived in Paris in the 1970’s a lot of us homesick Americans would visit a restaurant called Mother’s Earth. It was a kick to watch the French eating le Am-ba-ga with a knife and fork!
    Connie*

    • Bonjour, Connie from San Diego (see, I remembered, this time!) 🙂
      I have never heard of Mother’s Earth… There weren’t that many hamburger restaurants in Paris when I still lived there. Apparently, things have changed a great deal. You would feel right at home in the French capital now!

    • Mother’s Earth was a crazy little spot run by a couple of Dutch hippies. I wish I could remember where it was. I actually don’t eat burgers any more but a lovely cafe au lait and a tartine!! Bravo McDo! Still laughing over the Steve Martin!

  2. Oh, for a good hamburger! I’ve not been to McDonalds in Paris. Will try one the next time I get back to Paris. 😉
    Enjoying the book! Thanks again ~ Sarah

    • Bonjour Sarah. So happy you are enjoying your book!

      I am not sure I would actually recommend visiting McDo in Paris… unless you want to experience cultural shock and practice your French. Apparently, most sandwiches have French names 🙂

  3. There’s even Starbucks in Paris now. When I was in Paris a few years ago, only Fauchon offers take out Coffee. But only foreigners and tourists order the take out coffee. There is still pleasure in hanging out in a Cafe, sitting down to drink the cafe while watching people pass by or just enjoying the view.

    • Hello Pamela. I beg to differ: Many French people (especially the younger generations) order to-go coffee. Then again, my Dad told me just the other day that he will die before he drinks his “express” in a paper cup, let alone while walking in the street. And that, Pamela, is [probably] a good thing 🙂

  4. I’m still trying to process macarons at McDo! Wow. I’m impressed by the commercial–as with most of what I saw of McDo in France, it seems like better quality than in the US. They had to raise their game a little to satisfy that market, I think.

    • Dang macarons. One can’t escape them, it seems. Paris will experience macaron overdose before a real Am-Ba-Ga revolution happens, trust. 🙂 Isn’t that commercial the best? France has always had very creative advertising, so in this case, it is a great thing McDo “raised their game.” — Everybody wins, n’est-ce-pas? — Bonne semaine.

  5. I agree with Alison. The gay commercial is very cool and probably would never air in the US. Grass fed, hormones free meat is very impressive.
    I used to be “jambon beurre” and “croque-monsieur, salade verte”, but I eat differently now. I guess “Forks over knives” hasn’t been shown in France yet? (Steve Martin is very funny).

  6. Dearest Véronique,
    This is hilarious and I love the exclamation; Sacrilège and the pronunciation I can imagine is funny. I never forget when my Québecoise friend Hélène tried to order ‘(h)alf a pound of … at the Atlanta Dekalb Farmers Market’s meatcounter. She did not speak English and I had to rescue her.
    But yes, it is bad food and they ALL are copying the USA, as much as they pretend to hate it, they ALL want to become exactly like them.
    Both of us don’t care for any fast food, never have. Maybe twenty years ago, on the road we would get a cheese burger; that’s it.
    It made me grin how McDo is playing the culture card in France for making he interior more appealing instead of a true fast food. Well, without knife and fork, you have to eat FAST… or else you cannot come home as you are!
    Hugs to you,
    Mariette

    • Great comment, Mariette, thank you. I wonder what McDo offers in Holland? I am sure their menu has been adapted to reflect local taste as well. Playing the [local] culture card has certainly worked very well in the French market! A bientôt!

    • Welcome back Elizabeth. How is your French folly coming along? I hope the year is starting off right for you. Macarons at McDo? It’s funny: French fries is what gets me to McDo here in the US. To each his own 🙂

  7. Tu oublies je crois quelque chose de tres important , qui a attiré les Français chez MacDo au depart: c’est le seul restaurant où l’on peut amener les enfants! Ici, pas de risque de casser la vaisselle, il y a des espaces jeux pour eux, des menus expres pour eux, avec des petits jouets..Ce concept de famille a tres bien correspondu a qqchose de tres français aussi.
    Une autre chose tres appreciée, quand on voyage beaucoup, MacDo est un repère: on sait ce qu’on v y trouver, quel que soit le pays. Souvent, le 1er soir, quand on n’a pas encore exploré la ville où l’on arrive, trouver un Macdo , c’est etre sur de manger pour pas cher qqchose de correct, et de pouvoir le commander , il suffit de montrer l’image au serveur.
    Enfin, ils ne font PAS QUE DES HAMBURGERS!
    la diversité de l’offre, (poulet, poisson, salades..) , est un autre atout important.
    Par ailleurs, il y a quand même beaucoup de VRAIS Français qui parlent mieux anglais que Steve Martin! :o)
    Bonne semaine! Bises!

    • Bonjour Malyss. Tu as raison, j’ai oublié de préciser que McDo jouait avec succès la carte familiale. Après tout, je n’irais jamais chez McDo, ici, aux USA, si ce n’était pas pour faire plaisir à mon fils (euh– enfin, si, de temps en temps, pour les frites. Je ne peux jamais résister aux frites, chez McDo ou ailleurs…)

      Quant au repère McDo, ça rassure peut-être nos amis américains quand ils voyagent, mais je dois dire que ça ne m’était pas venu à l’esprit. On peut éviter McDo sans mourir de faim, même dans les pays étrangers…

      Eh non, ils ne font pas que des Am-Ba-Ga, mais le sujet de l’article est l’engouement des Français pour les steak-hachés-coincés-entre-deux-tranches-de-pain, alors… 🙂

      Bonne semaine, et… Cocorico! 🙂

    • J’ai bien compris le sujet de l’article, mais je voulais dire que la diversité de l’offre aussi a servi a conquerir les Français, alors que dans les autres fast-food il n’y a QUE les hamburgers, du coup ça marche moins;
      Par ailleurs, Quand tu arrives tard le soir, en Lituanie ou en Pologne par exemple(exemples vécus), la vue d’un macdo te fait plaisir! le lendemain, tu iras chercher le petit restau local pour gouter les specialités du pays, certes , et avec plaisir.Mais là , crevé , et sans connaissance de la langue,tu es bien content (enfin , JE suis bien contente Ü)de trouver qq chose de connu pour me retaper.Mais ça n’engage que moi, of course!

    • Alors, là… j’en reste baba. Malyss en fan de McDo… en Pologne en plus! 🙂 Je n’ai pas encore eu besoin d’être “secourue” par McDo en terre étrangère, mais on ne sait jamais… Je me souviendrai du conseil! (Bon, je te taquine, là, hein!) — Au fait, McDo n’a rien inventé: Tu oublies le menu très riche du concurrent, Quick! Salades, panini, desserts et même un sandwich au foie gras! Oh, la, la. Avec toutes ces options alléchantes, on se demande si la gastronomie française va survivre aux Fast Foods! — Bisous

    • Mac do c’est vraiment le secours pour les 1ers soirs, parce que , malgré tout, tres vite, je sature..Quant à Quick, je ne sais pas si c’est de la malchance,mais chaque fois que j’y ai mangé, j’ai été malade!alors je n’y met plus les pieds.
      Dis donc, 74 coms,même avec tes reponses, le sujet est porteur, qui l’eut cru?!!
      :o)
      Allez, bon week-end!

  8. Jacques and I are not fast fooders at all.. we”ll pack a small homemade sandwich and take along instead of stopping a fast food resto..
    I must admit to twice a yr fries at Costco:)
    And taking my grandsons..while stealing a McNugget:)

    Love the French McDo ads..We say McDo too of course and pretty much the same way:)

    Moi aussi..I need atmosphere to want to eat with Jacques somewhere..

    • Improvised picnics with homemade sandwiches are always so much fun… and when the local boulangerie offers delicious options to go, it would be a crime to resist. Then again, the children do not get these funny little plastic toys with their meal; there is no free WiFi on a parc bench; and let’s not mention the lack of French fries… What to do, what to do? 🙂

  9. There’s nothing like going to McDo for a beer and French Fries in the late afternoon in Paris. My friend and I were surprised but delighted to find beer at McDo.

  10. Great post…last time in Paris, I walked into a McD but I just couldn’t talk myself into buying anything. (I gave up fast-food joints except in an emergency)

  11. Hi French Girl, and I got here thanks to Nadege, who kindly posted the URL to this piece on my blog. This is a sumptuously illustrated post and yes, McDonald’s has had a hard time conquering the French market, but they have finally succeeded.

    I’ve lived in France for 25 years and have followed McDonald’s marketing strategies here for many years, which is why I too wrote about it a while back. It’s here, in case you’d like to read it.

    http://undertheburningbridge.blogspot.fr/2012/04/mcdonalds-and-battle-for-france.html

    Right, I’m off to have a look around your blog. If Nadege is a fan of it that’s good enough for me! Have an excellent day,
    Frip

    • Ah, McDonald’s. What can you say. They are sort of like the food equivalent of Bill Gates’ Microsoft. People say they don’t like the ethics of either, but most of them use or consume their products with more or less pleasure.

      I go there about once a month, most particularly in the afternoons of summer days when I’m out and about on my bicycle and work up the need to eat at a moment when restaurants are shut. So I order from the takeaway window at my favourite McDonalds, which is in a pleasant street and right next to a beautiful fountain. And I sit on the edge of it and greedily absorb the carbs in my Big Mac and Small Fries.

      Macdo is like anything else in life. There’s nothing wrong with them, but at the same time il ne faut pas en abuser non plus.

      Bonne soirée a toi et a tou(te)s.

  12. Gack! Say it isn’t so! 🙂 Burger King? McDonald’s is much ‘better’. Ahem, not better for us.. but i think it tastes better. Though i always heard that Whoppers are ‘flame broiled’.. or something. I try not to eat the fast food anymore, but once in a blue moon i get a craving. I try to resist, and most often.. i do. But there IS something about a burger with cheese. I think when i finally make it to Paris, though, i’ll skip McDo’s. 🙂 And double GACK! Is that a rotund Mona Lisa holding… fries??!! Eeekkk! lol.

  13. Such a funny post Veronique, I laughed so much at Steve Martin trying to say hamburger, he is hilarious anyway but with a French accent even more so oui! It is a little disconcerting to hear that the ‘am ba ga’ is so prevalent in Paris, quelle horreur! Although I feel sure and for certain (and you’ve shown us here)that even though it is just a ‘am ba ga’ it will be a lot more chic than anywhere else haha!

  14. B’jour Mam Véronique,
    Fun post as always and straight to the point: fast food is a hit / hot topic for both American and French people.
    Opposite views at home about fast food meals / burgers: son #2 is clearly addicted to it and the rest of the family is more “boeuf bourguignon” and “salade niçoise” (as for Noisette, she is happy with either French or American food). One thing I have noticed though: fast food places in France are more attractive than in the US. Do you agree?
    Thanks for the fun video about Steve Martin. I saw the movie at the theater when it was released and, believe it or not, each time I have to pronounce “hamburger” I am in trouble and I giggle… Call it a trauma!
    Bisous,
    Anne Touraine (Playing with Scarves)

    • Bonjour Anne. I am not surprised most of your family (well, with the exception of son #2) is more “boeuf bourguignon” and “salade niçoise.” With a cook like you in the house, it would be sad if they preferred Am-Ba-Ga’s 🙂

      As for fast food places in France, I did notice *some* restaurants were nicer there than in the US, especially if located in fancy neighborhoods (the McDo near the Louvre is a good example,) but I have also seen restaurants (McDo, Quick,) that look as drab as they do here. Have you visited the McDo on the Champs-Elysées lately? Beurk.

    • Next time son #2 is in France, I will ask him to make a review of the place for me – while I will wait for him outside. McDo is not really my “tasse de thé”…
      Bon weekend ma chère Véronique 🙂 Hugs to you and to the yellow dog too of course!

  15. Bonjour Veronique. J’espere que ca va bien. Hard to believe that people are making such a fuss over the Burger King at the Marseille airport. I will be curious to see what it’s like when we fly into that airport the next time. I have only been “inside” one McDonald’s in France and that was at a rest stop off the autoroute between Aix and Nice. I definitely noticed that the seating and ambiance was much nicer than the McDonald’s I have seen in the US.

    • Merci Michel. Ca va bien, et toi? Please do report back next time you fly into or out of Marignane airport. I still can’t believe people would wait that long (let alone drive to an airport) to enjoy greasy burgers! Have the French lost it???

  16. This is a really funny post. I love Steve Martin trying to say hamburger. Oh it is cruel and we would only way burger now.
    There is a lot of patriotism when it comes to burgers in France the D’où vient ton McDo? campaign really helped I think showing that it was all French produced.
    I am not a big fan of MacDo as when I eat out I prefer to go to a restaurant that cooks something I couldn’t do at home, or couldn’t be bothered to do. My daughter and husband like it. My husband works away a lot and if he is working late he knows he can get a MacDo anywhere. He (along with many other French people) will have a three course meal starting with a salad or nuggets entrée then a sandwich and then desert and coffee. He misses the bear now you can’t get one any more in MacDo.
    When I talk to my students about it they don’t like the Mac Baguette as they find the bread too hard for a burger meal. I find this surprising. I have never tried one but I had assumed it would be like French baguette.
    I am not sure if the French have ‘lost it’ but MacDonalds hasn’t they make a fortune here. My local is next to LeClerc and is always packed to the gills when I go to shop.
    Nice post – great fun

    • Bonjour Kerry. Love that you mentioned that French McDo customer habit: Going to the fast food place BUT still eating a three-course meal, sitting down at the table! 🙂 Ah, the French…

      I had heard about the “D’où tu viens?” campaign… I need to look it up online and see what commercials or ads Mc Do came up with.

      A bientôt!

  17. This reminded me of a visit to a McDo several years ago in France when I was amazed to see salads. It was some time later before they finally arrived in the UK branches! I see they continue to adapt to the host country – le petit déjeuner looks rather nice and ….macarons!!!! I wonder if they will ever reach our shores….maybe I need to visit McDonald’s and see….now that would be a surprise and worth a special visit. Steve Martin is so funny in the clip. I must watch that film again sometime. A fun post! Lovely to see you visiting my blog today – the food at the tea salon really was delicious!
    http://missbbobochic.blogspot.co.uk/

    • Bienvenue, miss b. Le petit déjeuner – and some of the desserts – are the only things I would get there if I set a foot inside a McDo in France 🙂 I have tried their sandwiches before and have not found them that stellar to be honest, baguette or not. Then again, I only have the grilled chicken sandwich here in the US and without mayo, so…

  18. Ummm if the French version of McD’s came to the US, I would eat there EVERY DAY. How come we don’t have macarons??! The only places I can find those here (in KC) are at fancy bakeries where each one cost like $4! Grrr!

    Oh, and I think it’s amusing that people who live in a country that is known for having the best cuisine in the world are excited about eating McDonalds. I guess the grass is always greener on the other side? Lol. You know what I would love to see here? A french bakery/cafe on every corner instead of McD’s.

    • Ha! Ha! No you would not eat there every day or you would DIE, Jenny. As for your real estate plans for America’s street corners, I approve: Let’s get them French bakeries everywhere! Enough of that vile sandwich bread, for crying out loud! 🙂

  19. “Let’s get them French bakeries everywhere!”

    Hi French Girl, and I find myself obliged to say that I am pas d’accord moi! 🙂

    It’s an unfortunate fact that boulangeries in France are not what they used to be. Far from it. Only 25% of them are authentic these days. The rest? They are ‘points chauds’ (where they reheat or bake baguettes etc which have been prepared in factories and delivered to them), big-money flour producers’ mandated recipe outlets, and other ersatz establishments.

    Hope you’re well and happy, have an excellent evening, and hey, do you have a contact email address?

    • Dear Fripouille. It is easy for you to say, from your corner of France… I think 25% of “authentic” French bakeries is better than no French bakery at all, and since I have spent the last 17 years buying average bread in my corner of American suburbia, I will reserve the right to say – and say loudly – “Heck, yeah! Bring them French bakeries, authentic or otherwise, over here pronto!” After all, driving 45 mn one way into Seattle to buy decent bread is no civilized way to live – PS: Email address is listed on the blog’s main page, under “Questions? Contact Moi.” — Bonne soirée. Hope you find a decent baguette for breakfast in Lyon tomorrow morning, poor you! 🙂

    • “I think 25% of “authentic” French bakeries is better than no French bakery at all…”

      Okay okay, your’e right. Agreed. after all, as a boy my mother would often (and quite rightly) counter my demands for more candy with the wise words “50 percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing.”

      Jesus. No wonder I rarely won arguments against her.
      🙂

  20. I never eat at McDo in the US, and have never considered doing so in France, although my cousin, Gérard, in the Vendée, used to take his grandchildren there for a “special” treat when they were small.

    I do admire McDo’s tenacity and its marketing expertise and the way it always seem to adapt so beautifully to its customers’ expectations, which is really the secret to a thriving business.

    What a great post, and the videos were just so spot on.

    Gros bisous, M-T

    • Bonsoir M-T. Little kids love McDo around the world, I think 🙂 I, too, respect McDo’s marketing and business moves in foreign markets (well, the ones that show a willingness to adapt to local taste and culture, at least…) — Back in the 1990’s it was fascinating to watch Disney’s numerous faux-pas/mistakes when they opened the Paris park. I guess McDo was observing too, as their business started to grow quickly right about then…

  21. Just found your blog which is wonderful! It always amazes me how McDonald’s in other countries is so different from the USA. I went there every Saturday as a child, it was a treat for me, but now I mostly get an iced coffee. I look forward to more of your posts in 2013.

    Rosemary
    NYC Style and a little Cannoli

  22. Hello Veronique

    I am not a customer of McDonalds and find it interesting to see their success in France. Their marketing is clever and the baquette looks delicious.
    An informative post, thank you

    Helenx

  23. Wow Veronique!
    I wish we had McDos French style in our corner of the world. With interior design like that and ingredients and menu like this it would be considered an upscale French cuisine and I’m afraid priced accordingly.
    But obviously the success of McDos happened for a reason, clever and a delicious one.
    Thank you.

  24. Love this post! And I love going to a French McDonald’s when I’m in France – at least once! It’s a different experience than the American version and a better spin off I think. My favorite part is I that I can order a beer at McDonald’s…nobody ever believes me! xx

  25. It is true that McDonald is good at adapting to each country’s taste. In England we had hot tea and crumpets at McDonald and in Indonesia we had special sweet corn pies. I also read that their recipes change according to the countries. For example they use a lot less salt in France and England than in the US, and their meat is also different, as well as their cheese. So, even though people think all hamburgers are created the same – well, they are not.

  26. Okay I will admit it. I like McDO! I never took my kids there much, but since we have retired we stop a lot there when on the road. Love their Southwest Chicken Salad. And their chicken snack warps are just the right amount of food. There I said it!
    That Steve Martin video cracked me up…and Mona Lisa needs to lay off the ha ba gas and fires and order a salad !

  27. I loved this post. I was smiling the entire time I was reading. We didn’t make it to a McDo when we were in France last fall and it is definitely on my “to-do” list when we return this year. I’m dying to try the French version. My husband claims he had the best hamburger he has ever had at a French bistro in Paris!!!

  28. The first time I saw a MacDo in France I was floored. I giggled until I walked inside. The one in Nice has a chandelier!! Proper knives and forks are served with the burgers, and the burger costs 7euro. Truth be told, I think that the MacDo’s in France are much better quality than the ones in it’s originating country!

  29. McD was a life saver for us in Cognac when France Telecom would leave us without broadband for no reason for days on end. I used to go there twice a day to use the wifi and have an excellent coffee and pastry in the morning and a McFlurry as a treat in the afternoon!
    The restaurants are much, much classier (and cleaner) in France than in the USA.
    Oh and I love the “Come as you are” ad!!

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