Category:

Australian culture

Australian English

Burger King vs Hungry Jacks. Is there a difference?

You've arrived in Australia. You're hungry but wanting to stick to something you're familiar with, so you go for a Whopper burger. Off you go in search for a Burger King. I mean, they seem to be everywhere in the world?

Well, I'll save you the effort because, as shocking as this might seem, out of the more than 17 000 Burger King outlets around the world, you'll find a big fat zero of them in Australia. Yes, there's no Burger King in Australia.

But... what if I tell you that the Whopper is one the biggest selling burgers in Australia.

What? That doesn't compute. Whoppers are sold at Burger King. So how does that work out?

Go around Australia and you'll see plenty of places with Burger King-style branding, just that it's called Hungry Jacks, where you can have your Whopper, sundaes, onion rings, fries... anything you usually can get at any Burger King worldwide. Essentially, Hungry Jacks is the Australian franchise of Burger King, as it states if you look at the fine writing on Hungry Jack's products and signage.

Hungry Jack's at where modern Australia all started in Circular Quay, Sydney

So why is it called Hungry Jacks in Australia? (Now this is a question every Aussie has asked when they find out it's called Burger King everywhere else)

Ask most Aussies, especially your oldies, and they'll tell you that when Burger King started out in Australia, another entity already had the trademark for "Burger King" – an American-style drive-in burger joint in Adelaide, South Australia, and they didn't want to let go of it.

This is true, but the story is a little more complicated than that.

The original Australian Burger King in Adelaide, 1960s

First of all, it wasn't Burger King in the US that embarked on operations in Australia but Jack Cowin, an ambitious Canadian entrepreneur. When he moved to Australia in 1968, he noted once the long line outside of a Chinese takeaway restaurant. He sensed a great opportunity here of filling the huge gap in the Australian market for fast food.

Until then, like in so many aspects of Australian culture, the UK was the main source for Australia's then dire and bland diet. That meant when it came to fast food, Australia was firmly 'fish and chips' territory (Fridays was 'fish and chips night' for most Aussie families in the 1950s and 1960s), with the occasional Australian-ised Chinese restaurant about. There were a few American-style burger places (such as that Burger King in Adelaide), all inspired by the glamour of US suburbia presented in TV shows and film, and very much following the footsteps of the many migrant-run, equally US-inspired milk bars that were commonly found in Australian cities and towns right into the 1960s.

In 1969, Cowin convinced 30 people to give him $10,0000 each and with the proceeds opened the first Kentucky Fried Chicken (rebranded KFC in 1991) in Perth, Western Australia. Actually, seeing that Perth is (still) the world's largest 'isolated' city (the closest city of similar size, Adelaide, is 2700 kms away), it was the perfect location to test products and services. So if this venture had failed, as there was then limited communication between Perth and the rest of Australia, let alone the world, no future reputations could be ruined.

There was nothing to fear there as Kentucky Fried Chicken was an immediate success, resulting in its rapid expansion nationwide, and to this day remains Australia's biggest fast food chain.

When Burger King was eyeing the Aussie market in 1971, Cowin saw major potential and therefore purchased the rights for the entire country. However, unable to buy the trademark, Cowin and Burger King moved ahead with the name "Hungry Jack’s".

So why this name?

Burger King had been bought by the Pillsbury company in 1967. The name “Hungry Jack’s” was a variation on “Hungry Jack” – a brand Pillsbury had registered at the time for a pancake mix.

The first Hungry Jack’s then opened in Innaloo (yes, that's the name of the suburb), Perth on 18 April 1971. The first Hungry Jack's TV commercials are doozies in that the Australian language used in its jingle was very much a product of its time, from the very TV-friendly 'cultivated' accents (Australia's now near-extinct form of UK Received Pronunciation or the US Mid-Atlantic accent) to the use of the word "chips" instead of "fries". These elements provided much laughter for the Australian public when the original ads were reprised for Hungry Jack's 20th anniversary in 1991, showing how much Australian English (at least on TV) had changed in that short period of time ("mum, did you use to call 'fries' 'chips'?" Hahaha).

Just like Kentucky Fried Chicken, Hungry Jack's took off, quickly expanding within a decade to more than 40 locations in Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland. Its main rival, McDonald's, also started in 1971, but on the other side of the country in Sydney and then in Melbourne in 1972 and Brisbane in 1974. The following year saw Hungry Jack's open in Brisbane, but Sydney wouldn't see its first Hungry Jack's until 1981 and Melbourne opened its first outlet much later in 1986, by which time McDonald's had established itself, and is still to this day, the go-to burger fast food chain in Australia's two largest cities. Likewise, McDonalds had not expanded westwards to Adelaide until 1978 and Perth in 1982, by which time brand loyalty in these cities was firmly for Hungry Jack's. This city-bound brand rivalry based on who was there first does still have some sway to date, though not to the same degree it was in the 1980s or 1990s.

Hungry Jack's was one of the most profitable Burger King franchises in the world, so when the franchise agreement came up for renewal in 1990, Cowin didn't hesitate to resign.

Just one thing though... Burger King had other plans. Claiming that it wanted to have "brand continuity worldwide", Burger King was wanting to take over the Hungry Jack's franchise for itself and have it rebranded as Burger King. But to buy out such a lucrative franchise would cost a huge amount, so Burger King started sabotaging how Hungry Jack's was being operated. This was first done by withholding operational updates, the most visible element of which was that Hungry Jack's did not have its logo and branding change in 1999 along with Burger King's rebranding (which changed in 2021 back to the previous  branding). This tactic allowed Burger King to cite the "poor operational standards" at Hungry Jack's as a breach of contract, and then by Burger King stipulating in the renewed agreement that any new Hungry Jack's restaurant was “subject to their financial and operational approval”, which put expansion plans fully in the hands of Burger King, plus the contract clause that Hungry Jack's "had to open a certain number of stores every year for the term of the contract".

In short, Burger King wanted Hungry Jack's gone.

Burger King changed its logo in 1999, but not Hungry Jack's

And so it started in 1991 when the first Burger King outlet was opened at the international departures area of the Melbourne Airport, even though Hungry Jack's was already operating there ("it's for the international tourists" was the vibe). But this was the start for setting up Burger King as a rival to Burger King's franchise Hungry Jack's (confusing, I know). All that was needed was for the "Burger King" trademark to lapse (the original Burger King in Adelaide having not operated in decades), which did in 1995.

In 1996, Burger King Corporation made a claim that Hungry Jack's had "violated the conditions of the renewed franchise agreement by failing to expand the chain at the rate defined in the contract". However, by 1995 Burger King had effectively frozen the opening of any new Hungry Jack's outlet. Burger King then offered to buy out Cowin’s locations, and with the squeezing tactics it was applying assumed he would take it, but their offer of about $18 million was far too low.

By 1997, with the breaks placed on Hungry Jack's and with trademark in tow, Burger King then hatched a deal with Shell to open outlets at its service stations, deftly starting in places where Hungry Jack's had been operating for a shorter period, i.e. with less brand loyalty (Sydney and Melbourne). Then the first stand-alone Burger King outlet opened in Hobart, Tasmania, an Australian state where there were no Hungry Jack's outlets. More Burger King-branded outlets quickly opened in the same states as the Shell outlets. The word then floating on the Australian street was this was all part of a 'rebranding' of Hungry Jack's to Burger King, with no mention that it was actually two rival companies at play here. Eventually 81 Burger King outlets would open, some directly opposite Hungry Jack's, and many of the Hungry Jack's franchisees were pressured to 'jump ship'. Very confusing.

What was Cowin to do? He could have caved in but instead he made the audacious decision to take the Burger King to court for breach of contract.

And how did it end? 

On 21 June 2001, the Supreme Court of New South Wales ruled in favour of Cowin, ordering Burger King to pay almost AU$ 47 million in damages and the handing over of the Burger King trademark to Hungry Jack's.

However, brand loyalty had proven that "Hungry Jacks" was what Australian customers massively prefer. Part of this came from the popular notion that the Hungry Jack's Whoppers were bigger than the Burger King ones (the slogan was "the burgers are bigger at Hungry Jack's), attributing greater value for money and therefore more positive connotations. There was also the local vs global (foreign) branding associations where "Hungry Jack's = purely Australian" vs "Burger King = American" so by 2002 all of the Burger King outlets had been rebranded to Hungry Jack's.

Fun fact: to show how Aussie it is, signs state that Hungry Jack's serve "Brekky" (Australian English for "breakfast") 

Brekky available at Hungry Jack's

And that's why you'll find over 400 Hungry Jack's and zilch Burger King outlets in Australia.

If you're interested in finding out more about Australia, how it ticks and how I can help you navigate its culture and language, drop me a line at info@nicknasev.com.

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Hi, zdravo, bok, zdravei, g'day! I’m Nick Nasev, an Aussie of Balkan background living in the UK. I’ve been a translator and editor for 20+ years. If you have an interest in languages and all things Balkan, Eastern European, Australian and beyond, along with a dash of corny and irony, then stick with me as I rant about my experiences and stories.

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