The Great Indian Melting Pot

As international fast food chains look for ways to grow in India, expect to see more fusion fare on your plastic trays than global grub on the menu by Antoine Lewis

The Pizza Hut Birizza
The Pizza Hut Birizza

It was just terrible. Everything about it was wrong. We ordered it because Pizza Hut is close to the office and would deliver the fastest. But I on’t think I’ll ever try it again,” says Aneesh Bhasin, co-founder of Hipcask.com, who ordered the Birizza recently.

Introduced in April this year, the Birizza, a combination of a biryani and a pizza, attempts to fuse two culinary traditions. Priced at just Rs 99, substantially lower than any other dish on the Pizza Hut menu, the Birizza is presented like a dum biryani. A black-olive studded pizza base covers a poor facsimile of a tawa biryani with pieces of boiled chicken or paneer. It’s served with an orange-coloured sauce that’s supposed to be thick makhani gravy, but has the consistency of a watery kadhi.

You may argue that it represents two cuisines poorly. But the Birizza is an indicator of something bigger: the next phase of international quick service restaurants (QSR) adapting their menus to the Indian context.

IT’S A WRAP

McDonald's Saucy Chipotle Chicken, Egg, and Aloo Wraps
McDonald’s Saucy Chipotle Chicken, Egg, and Aloo Wraps

QSRs have been the fastest growing restaurant category this decade, projected to expand at 25 per cent over the next five years (compared to the rest of the restaurant market, that is poised to grow at 11 per cent). More consumers are going to be drawn to this segment than any other, and many of them will have never eaten a pizza or burger before, but are just attracted to the glitz of a foreign brand. So chains are putting their efforts into making their customers feel comfortable, and Indianised menus are central to the plan.

What Indians want, says Rameet Arora, a senior director at Hardcastle Restaurants (which owns a franchise for McDonald’s in some parts of India), is, “a balance between the global and the familiar”. Customers aspire for the global “but need the comfort of the local,” he adds. McDonald’s new saucy chipotle wraps were introduced simply out of customer feedback. The brand found that young  people loved the Happy Price menu, but wanted a greater variety of flavours and formats, especially for birthdays and anniversaries. The wraps have been a big hit.

THE GRAVY TRAIN

To understand consumers’ dining habits, Yum! Restaurants India, owners of the Pizza Hut and KFC brands, conducted a nationwide study on how Indians eat. Their teams visited popular eating places across cities, travelled to the rice markets of Punjab and the spice markets of Kerala, met farmers and growers and interacted with consumers in their homes. “What we discovered was that there are three things that are relevant to the urban Indian, no matter where you go: staples, sauces and spices,” says Sanjiv Razdan, general manager of Pizza Hut India. This translates into rice, a sauce that can be poured on or dipped into the rice, and the fact that both need to be flavourful. In response, KFC introduced the Rice Bowlz last year. It came, as KFC’s marketing director Dhruv Kaul says, “at an attractive price, with a flavourful rupee-relevant gravy and topped with our globally popular popcorn chicken”. The familiarity of the rice and the gravy with the popcorn chicken has made consumers “experience KFC in the way they never did in the past,” Kaul says. The Rice Bowlz seem to be working for KFC; they recently added three more variants to their Bowlz offerings.

Razdan is not perturbed by India’s extreme reactions to the Birizza. It now accounts for 10 per cent of sales and has been so successful that Pizza Hut UK and Australia are interested in including the Birizza on their menus.

HOME COOKINGFast food menus from across Asia

But there’s another reason for a pizza chain to serve an Indian rice and curry option. It’s the same reason an Udipi restaurant sells Punjabi, Chinese and Mexican dishes, and why a Chinese joint often has a Thai section.

“Indians usually dine in a group,” explains Samir Kuckreja, president of the National Restaurant Association of India. Kuckreja has worked with Indian chain Nirula’s and American subsidiary Yum! Restaurants India. “In a group, inevitably, at least one person wants Indian food. Having a rice-n-curry option helps chains to overcome this veto vote.”

QSR chains have realised it’s not enough to offer a pan-Indian option in a country where each region has a distinct palate. After surveying more than 15,000 people in Vadodara, Pizza Hut introduced pizzas with a potato topping, sweet ’n’ sour add-ons and a significantly wider range of snacks.

Domino’s too has taken customisation to a more local level. Andhra-influenced South Veggie and Southern Chicken pizzas will be available only in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Some of the pizzas feature spicy banana toppings. And customisation has gone beyond food, explains Harneet Singh Rajpal, the company’s vice president of marketing. They created a separate local ad for it. “Everything about campaign was local; from the actors, to the script writers, to the director, to the location,” says Rajpal. “This is the first time in the food industry that a local retail level has been treated as a [separate] country, and the food and communication have been targeted to it.”

Localisation helps bridge the taste barrier when a region’s preferences are distinct from the national norm. At McDonald’s, Arora doesn’t rule out that it could be introduced in the future. This means that a decade from now, you might be able to order a McPizza with a pao bhaji topping in Mumbai. A chicken burger could have a tomato-coconut chutney topping in Chennai or a sandesh-flavoured Krusher might show up on the menu in Kolkata.

FRESH ON THE MARKET

Another area of localisation, primarily faced by newer brands like Dunkin’ Donuts, is of adapting the concept itself to Indian diners. Dunkin’ Donuts, a brand known as a grab-and-go, or drive-through format across the West, decided to position themselves differently in India. “Customers expect new brands, especially international ones, to stand for something different,” says Dev Amritesh, president and chief operating officer at Dunkin’ Donuts India. “They want an original experience.”

tough guy burger
Dunkin’ Donuts Tough Guy Burger

In addition, rich, young urban buyers are familiar enough with the QSR category in India, having lived with them over the last 10-15 years. They now seek something more sophisticated. So Dunkin’ Donuts have carved themselves a new niche – a space between kiddie fast-food outlets and grown-up coffee shops that don’t quite offer everyday food. They call their category Adult QSR, a place that’s fun to hang out at, and a menu that’s more sophisticated than what fast food places offer. No plain snacks or doughnuts; Dunkin’ Donuts has the Tough Guy Burger, made with toasted bagel buns topped with black and white sesame seeds, a chunky, spicy Mexican chorizo chicken patty, fiery mustard sauce accompanied with lettuce, onions, tomatoes and cheese.

As the market grows, expect the degree of innovation in menus to increase as well. Rice-based meals are already part of the QSR foodscape and so it’s likely that more rice dishes will be introduced, even if the logos of the brands scream red, white and blue. There will be even more regional variations as each territory will have enough outlets to justify specific products.

Indians today want a piece of the global dream; but they want it on their terms and in a way that suits their tastes.

Published HT Brunch Sept 14, 2014

See the print version here: Localisation

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