Maharaja Mac, Veggie Nuggets: McDonald's a hard sell in India

It seems the McDonald’s juggernaut – the very word derives from the Hindi term Jagganath, referring to the local deity Krishna – has met its match in India.

The Toronto Star
November 6, 2000

Maharaja Mac, Veggie Nuggets: McDonald’s a hard sell in India
Fast food giant brought to its ‘culinary knees’
Martin Regg Cohn

MUMBAI – Where’s the beef?

Under the Golden Arches of India, there isn’t any.

McDonald’s can boast of selling billions of hamburgers worldwide, but none to the 1 billion people of India. Here, in deference to local religious sensibilities – and finicky palates – the burger giant has radically revised its fast food lineup.

Beef is eschewed by Hindus, and practising Muslims won’t eat pork. Only mutton satisfies religious restrictions and makes it into the chain’s flagship product: Maharaja Mac.

But the modified McDonald’s formula is still too bland to titillate taste buds in the land of hot curry and spicy cardamon. It seems the McDonald’s juggernaut – the very word derives from the Hindi term Jagganath, referring to the local deity Krishna – has met its match in India.

An analysis in the prestigious Economic Times of India addressed the issue of succulence succinctly: “Big Mac bows to Indian taste,” it proclaimed, adding that the country had brought a foreign invader “to its culinary knees.”

McDonald’s is not the only fast food giant to falter in India.

Unable to sell its fried chicken at a profit, KFC closed its doors across the country earlier this year. Domino’s Pizza has also discounted its menu drastically.

Now, after disappointing initial sales, McDonald’s has also slashed prices to the bone – to roughly half of North American levels, far lower than any other country. And the company has hired a full-time “menu vision” team. Its mission: to reinvent the patty, and appeal to the huge vegetarian market

“What we learned was that mutton was not as popular as we anticipated,” admits the humbled managing director of the chain’s Mumbai operations, Amit Jatia. “Our vegetarian menu has to be enhanced considerably.”

The latest taste twist is the Vegetarian Pizza McPuff, which resembles a fried Indian samosa and is made of five vegetables with cheese and tomato sauce. An “entry level” product, the McPuff is a loss-leader selling for a rock-bottom 16 rupees, or about 50 cents.

In September, the restaurant added a Chicken McGrill sandwich, made with mint mayonnaise and extra tangy Indian spices, for 80 cents. In fact, the McDonald’s menu is India is about 75 per cent different from the standard fare in its 27,000 restaurants, located in 119 other countries, says Jatia.

As a vegetarian, he knows how easy it is for Indians to resist the temptation of a Big Mac. Earning his degree in “Hamburgerology” at the chain’s Hamburger University in Illinois, he spent his student days cooking beef without ever tasting it.

Vegetarians who make up half of all customers, don’t just avoid beef, but mutton burgers, chicken nuggets, even Egg McMuffins. Jatia’s team toiled for years to concoct an Indian version of the company’s “special sauce” – a key component of Big Macs elsewhere – and cape up with an egg-less mayonnaise, laced with mint, for its vegetarian products.

Now, there’s also a McAloo Tikki burger, based on a potato patty with green peas, carrots, coriander, cumin and a “tomayo” sauce. Plus a vegetable burger made of peas, carrots, green beans, potatoes and rice. Every summer, when India’s legendary Alfonso mangoes are in season, there’s a mango topping for their 6-rupee (20-cent) ice cream cones.

But the company has been forced to admit defeat on other fronts: its Vegetable Nuggets didn’t quite cut it, and were dropped from the menu recently; the Chili Cheese sandwich also flopped.

“They’ve spiced up their products,” says Ireena Vittal, a consultant at McKinsey & Co. “They’re learning from the KFC experience, and moving at a very, very slow pace…it’s amazingly slow.”

A business development team from McDonald’s started work more than a decade ago, but the first outlets didn’t open until late 1996. Now, there are 24 restaurants in a country of 1 billion people – far fewer than envisioned in original expansion plans, and a departure from the usual corporate formula of rapid fire expansion, Vittal says.

Wages are low in the Indian branches – 15 rupees an hour, or about 50 cents – but with prices at rock bottom, the company has suffered through four years of steady losses, Jatia says. McDonald’s also faces relatively high costs to maintain quality control among its Indian suppliers to ensure customers don’t get “Delhi belly” in its New Delhi outlets.

“It’s going to take a lot more outlets before we break even,” admits Jatia.

Still the burger chain has survived while others drowned in the competition. KFC, which has done well in other Asian markets that favour fried chicken, “had a huge taste problem because the Indian (competition) was more spicy and juicy,” adds Vittal.

On visits to neighbouring Pakistan, she observed that McDonald’s outlets offered none of the innovations on sale in India. Indeed, the two-year-old McDonald’s restaurants in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city in the heart of the Punjab, are failing to catch on because their beef burgers aren’t spiced up for local tastes.

Gave Desai, an executive chef for the Sheraton hotel chain in New Delhi, gives McDonald’s high marks for the Maharaja Mac, which tastes similar to a hamburger except that lamb doesn’t produce the juicy taste of beef fat.

“Most Indians have never tasted beef, so they don’t know the difference,” he explains. “They don’t benchmark it to beef at all.”

But taste is not what draws most people to McDonald’s. There is the snob appeal of foreign food, which confers status on middle-class Indians flush with cash. And there is the irresistible attraction of junk food for children the world over, who are drawn to the high-octane marketing pitch of the fabled Ronald McDonald.

“I find it all a little plastic-tasting,” says lawyer Malvi Patel, 42, as she sits down to a meal in a Mumbai outlet. “None of my friends enjoy it. It’s just because of the children that we all come here.”

Watching her twin 5-year-olds munch on McDonald’s fare, Patel, a vegetarian, frets that they’ll become “hooked on junk food” and lose their taste for “our typical Indian food, like rotis and rice.”

Corporate executive Vivek Sharma, 42, who comes regularly to McDonald’s for lunch, says the food is bland, but he does like the bread. “It’s really good quality.”

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