The global chain's other well-known trademark, the white-faced, ever-smiling clown with a red jacket, yellow pants and red oversize shoes, was also present on a large poster waving to lure customers. No, McDonald's has not opened in Tehran only weeks after a nuclear deal was reached that will ease international sanctions and possibly portend a change in Iranian revolutionary attitudes toward U.S. companies. This is Mash Donald's, Iran's homegrown version.
"We are trying to get as close as we can get to the McDonald's experience," said the owner, Hassan, who did not want his family name published out of fear of Iranian hard-liners and U.S. trademark lawyers. He was rearranging the red plastic chairs outside his hole-in-the-wall restaurant, placing them next to a bright yellow trash can.
Mash Donald's and other knockoffs of U.S. food culture are increasingly dominating the streets of major Iranian cities, symbols of the increasing disruption to the official revolutionary anti-American narrative that has more or less predominated since the 1979 overthrow of the shah and the siege of the U.S. Embassy.
This narrative is about to come under even more pressure if the nuclear agreement succeeds and Western companies return. Iran's leaders are hoping for major petroleum companies to invest, since the country has some of the world's largest reserves of oil. The Iranians also need hundreds of airplanes and are seeking partnerships for their technology industries.
But the arrival of foreigners with money and different ideas might also further undermine the values propagated by the state, hard-liners warn. Their message: Foreigners can come, but they cannot bring their symbols of capitalist indulgences.
So when perusers of the corporate website for the real McDonald's noticed recently that an international franchise application for Iran had been posted, it created quite a buzz here. Some politicians were quick to warn that there would be no McDonald's in Iran.
In a statement on its website, apparently meant to calm but not kill the speculation, McDonald's said, "We have not set a firm date for the development of McDonald's restaurants in Iran," while also inviting any Iranians interested in a franchise opportunity to complete the application.
Gholamali Haddad Adel, an influential lawmaker, said he was dismayed when looking at the front pages of some Iranian newspapers, seeing their giddy accounts of foreign businesses expected to come to Iran.
"Where is the news of the oppressed people of Yemen? They speak of the return of McDonald's," he said in an interview on Khabaronline, a conservative website. "Here lies a danger. They are opening their arms wide for the United States and zealously talk about its companies."
Iran is not exactly uncharted territory for McDonald's, which had outlets here before the 1979 revolution. In 1994, a brave Iranian entrepreneur sought to open an official franchise of the hamburger giant in Tehran, exciting many citizens but also drawing the attention of hard-liners. After two days, the restaurant site was burned down, and the judiciary overruled the Health Ministry decision that had allowed the restaurant to open.
"If I had called my restaurant McDonald's, I'd get a visit from the hard-liners," the Mash Donald's owner said, wearing a red cap embroidered with an M. "So my son advised me to go for Mash Donald's," he said. "It sort of sounds the same."
Government officials and vigilantes for revolutionary purity still visited to inquire about the name, saying it was too Western. "After a while, they got used to it," the owner said. No genuine U.S. food chain has an outlet in Iran, mainly because of the government's hostility and the sanctions that make such businesses impossible. Instead, U.S. fast-food replicas have proliferated, with quirky changes in the names to give the owners some plausible deniability.
Besides Mash Donald's, Tehran has a KFC (Kabooki Fried Chicken) a Pizza Hut (Pizza Hat) and a Burger King (Burger House). The official distaste for U.S.-brand products is by no means absolute. Coca-Cola and Pepsi, to take two examples, are ubiquitous here, to the surprise of many visitors. It is also no crime for an Iranian to chat on an iPhone, jog in a pair of Nikes or brush with Crest.
When President Hassan Rouhani's more conservative predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, threatened to impose a boycott of U.S. products in 2010 after the United States imposed tough new sanctions, many Iranians ridiculed the idea.
At Mash Donald's, Hassan, the owner, said he used the McDonald's logo to attract customers. "McDonald's means quality. People in Iran know this too. So they stop here when they see Ronald McDonald," he said, pointing at the clown poster.
The resemblance to the U.S. counterpart stops at the food. On a Photoshopped poster outside showing a McDonald's truck, an advertisement beckons: "Try our Mash Donald's 1.5 foot long super sandwich." Another poster reads: "Mash Donald's Falafel sandwich!" The falafel sandwich costs $2.10, the 1.5-foot-long sandwich about $3.75. Inside, Jahan and a co-worker, Karim, stood for hours amid the smell of old frying oil, making the Mash Donald's version of the Big Mac.
Instead of calling it the Big Mash, however, the owner chose "Mash Donald's baguette burger," a hefty mix of meat, cheese and turkey ham (cost: about $3). It is not the kind of meal Hassan would eat himself. "I prefer my wife's home cooking," he said. "Fast food makes you super fat." Mash Donald's customers, however, are happy with the food on offer.
"This Falafel sandwich is fantastic," said Siavash Mirteki, 29, a navy conscript from Isfahan. But, he added, "of course if McDonald's comes, I'll go there, too. When I went on pilgrimage to Mecca we would go to McDonald's every evening." One day, Hassan said, he would like to really represent McDonald's, but he doubted that would happen anytime soon."In our country, we have two governments," Hassan said. Rouhani represents the official one, he said, complimenting him for seeking to improve relations with the United States. "But there are other groups, too, that still don't like America," he said. "They can barely tolerate Mash Donald's, let alone the real thing."