Foreign gourmet chains are now serving original menus and authentic flavors to discerning Indian foodies, tired of masala French fries and paneer pizzas.
Two decades ago, when American hamburger and fast food chain, McDonald’s opened its first outlet in India, it did something drastic to its brand profile. For the first time in the world, the fast food giant did away with beef in its menu. Not only was the signature hamburger dish not available in India, but pork was also eliminated from the menu out of respect for religious sentiments. Since then, McDonald’s has tailored its menu to suit the Indian palate by introducing spicy options, such as McAloo Tikki burger and swapping chicken for bacon in Maharaja Mac. It has also opened all vegetarian branches near religious places, such as Vaishno Devi and Golden Temple in Amritsar.
Needless to say, the hamburger chain’s strategy of removing religiously taboo items and tapering its menu by adding familiar flavors, spices and ingredients became a roaring success, and also paved the way for dozens of other quick service restaurants (QSRs) from the West to set shop in India.
Since then, whether it was the return of KFY (formerly Kentucky Fried Chicken) to India in 1999 (The first two outlets that opened in mid 90s were shut following protests) with vegetarian options, such as Veg Strips or Veg Rice Bowlz, to the introduction of burgers by Dunkin Donuts in India, almost every foreign eatery has adapted its menu to local sensibilities, never mind the brand dilution.
But in what can be termed a new puritan food movement, in recent years, a number of eateries from abroad are confidently introducing their original concepts and menus and establishing a loyal customer base in India. So, have the upscale, cosmopolitan Indians evolved as serious foodies, ready to understand and appreciate a dish in its original format? Or have the fast food joints from abroad saturated the Indian market by doling out the same potato and paneer formula, which isn’t exciting anymore to the global Indian?
Chef Bakshish Dean, who brought Johnny Rockets, the famous American burger and milkshake diner to India, three years ago says, “Contrary to popular opinion when we tried to add local flavors to our American menu we fell flat on our face.”
While it’s important for gourmet restaurants not to change their original character, Chef Dean says that food connoisseurs crave originality: “Initially I introduced a burger paying homage to Dilli flavors and another one called NH8, named after Delhi-Amritsar national highway that incorporated dhaba flavors in its patty but such experiments failed as people wanted to try the American flavors. These exercises made us realize that the food appreciation has gone a notch up. The food scene in India has changed tremendously in the recent couple of years. Today in India, we confidently retain the original menu as you have in America. We have not changed the profile of the products and customers are loving the original approach.”
But in a country like India where food choices and flavor preferences are as diverse as they are rigid, isn’t it difficult for food businesses to coach and engage their consumers to a newer cuisine and its distinct profile? According to food experts, the idea works in the upper echelons of foodie circuits in India. Most of the authentic gourmet chains have opened in metro cities and are targeting upwardly mobile well-traveled Indians.
British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver opened two eateries in Delhi last year. Jamie’s Italian follows the same international menu in its Delhi restaurant too. Chef Oliver stressed that the menu be kept as close to the UK counterpart so as not to dilute the original recipes.
Saurabh Khanijo, joint CEO, Jamie’s Italian in India, points to a vital difference between a QSR and a semi casual or formal eatery. As expected, most fast food joints from abroad had to keep their prices low and attract the masses; thus the need to go local. He says: “The lower the price point, the more need to customize. High-end less need. However, competition is intense so even high-end brands may need to add more local items to give customers more reason to visit. Jamie’s pizzeria has been built for India, but with Jamie’s emphasis on freshness and responsible sourcing.”
Most eateries offering a gourmet experience now work on the philosophy of adding a dish or two as a mark of respect to local eating traditions while luring customers toward a more original approach. Khanijo says: “We are doing some special pizzas for Guru Nanak for example. But almost all ingredients are locally sourced to keep up with the brand identity.”
Also the restaurateurs maintain that the market makes a large difference in what’s being served. Not just in India, but even in China, most American chains such as KFC or McDonald’s thrived by adding local elements, such as Xinjiang Spiced Chicken sandwich or Teriyaki Chicken Chop Rice, according to Chef Dean. Khanijo says, “In big countries, such as China or India, the metro dwellers are very open to trying the original export from another country. It’s when you travel towards the rural quarters that the need to go local intensifies.”
Most fast food chains start with metros and then plan to expand their outreach to Tier 2-3 cities. Chef Dean agrees that a concept of an American diner with burger as an entrée and not a quick snack to be picked on the go works only in Indian metros.
The newer kitchens such as South Africa based Nando’s to California Pizza Kitchen had the advantage of entering Indian market at a time when the consumer was ready and eager to discover the nuances of authentic American or authentic Portuguese food. The Indian food canvas with its excessive infiltration and interference in various cuisines had resulted in a mish mash that comprised Chinjabi (Chinese Punjabi) American desi (local spices in burgers and steaks) Paneer Pizza and Masala French Fries.
While people were warming up to the idea of linguini with clam sauce and sushi was getting started in food carts in plush malls, the culture of eating desserts for breakfast or as mid-day snack remained a no-go, forcing Dunkin Donuts, which launched in 2012, to rethink its menu. The company finding no takers for its yummy looking frosted treats introduced burgers to lure customers into having a donut as a dessert post the “meal.” Two years ago the brand began doing a festive range of motichoor and milk cake donuts, further diluting the original mainstay. But since then, Mad Over Donuts and Krispy Crème have been launched in India, followed by Auntie Annie’s Pretzels opening last year hinting towards Indians embracing Western desserts as a snack.
As the newer eateries emphasize originality, analysts warn that fast food chains that are trying to Indianize too much are losing out customers. When Wendy’s, the third largest U.S. hamburger chain, opened in India it abandoned its trademark menu and introduced distinctively Indian items. The chain has faltered.
Interestingly while it’s only now that new gourmet entrants are maintaining the brand profile, one American brand, TGIF, the famous casual diner, perhaps one of the first entrants in the Indian market, always retained its brand originality. TGIF was somewhat ahead of its time when it ensured not only that its menu stayed original, but even the taste of its Jack Daniel’s barbecue sauces replicated the taste in America. The restaurant consistently remains a favorite of a niche segment and has been going strong with its latest opening in Kolkata late last year.
Although Indians are welcoming global tastes, food industry insiders say restaurants have the difficult task of familiarizing them with the concept. While Nando’s has its servers educating the customers on the level of heat in its various peri-peri sauces, at Johnny Rockets the idea of having a burger not as a quick snack, but as a wholesome meal comprising pure meat patty, good quality bun and veggies had to be introduced. Chef Dean says, “When we started operations we obviously had concerns, but we based our belief on two simple things — today pizza and pasta are as common as a chapatti in every Indian household. Every kid is aware of these Italian staples so it was time to bring in the idea of a burger as an entrée in the Indian mindset.”
As food aficionados warm to this puritan food movement, the problems of efficiently procuring the ingredients in India is acute. Chef Dean says: “In India the supply chains are yet not matured, so getting the product sometimes becomes a problem. However, we tried to solve the problem by studying carefully what they do in the U.S. and work with local vendors to produce closest to our original ingredients. However, sometimes you have to give in to topography and understand. For instance, we could not get the exact flavor of American wing sauce as Indian chilies have a different profile. In America they use 18-19 varieties of chilies to get that robustness. However, despite our version of the wing sauce, it’s heartening to know that Indians continue to flock for our all original American burgers.”