Burger brands debate offering beef in India

Wendy’s, Carl’s Jr. and Johnny Rockets on how they may adjust menu to expand in the country

EDITOR’S NOTE: Nation’s Restaurant News reporter Bret Thorn traveled this week in India on a trip organized by the U.S. Commercial Service for American franchisors, including restaurant chains, that are seeking franchisees in the country. Catch up on Thorn’s reports and observations on NRN.com [3], as well as on his blog, Food Writer’s Diary [4], and Twitter (hashtag #nrninIndia).

Where’s the beef? Not at Wendy’s in India, said Larry Kruguer, vice president of development for the international division of parent company Wendy’s/Arby’s Group Inc.

In a nation where the vast majority of the population is Hindu and considers cattle to be sacred, serving hamburgers is not an option that Kruguer is interested in exploring for Wendy’s.

Kruguer was one of the participants in a trade mission this week of American franchisors, which traveled to India in search of potential franchisees.

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While Wendy’s likely will avoid offering beef in India, CKE’s representative on the trip said his company may take a different approach.

Ian Letele, vice president for franchise development and operations for Carl’s Jr., CKE’s international brand, said he would consider beef as well as bacon — which is shunned by India’s  Muslim population — in regions where those meats are eaten.

Steven Devine, representing the third burger concept on the trade mission, Johnny Rockets, said he expected that franchisees of his chain in India would focus on chicken, fries and shakes as well as vegetarian patties, which all are available in American units, too.

“One of the beautiful things about Johnny Rockets is the experience,” he said. “Our currency of trade is Americana,” he noted, not necessarily burgers.

Johnny Rockets franchisees in India would offer that Americana through the restaurants’ décor, the music and the “interactive” service that includes servers singing and dancing to American classics. If it included veggie burgers and chicken sandwiches instead of beef, so be it, Devine said.

“You can’t force feed the menu to a society, but you can offer them the [Johnny Rockets] experience,” he said, adding that one of the crucial points about India that he learned on the trade mission was the necessity to adjust the concept so it would fit the market.

That fact was underscored on the first day of the trip by McDonald’s India managing director Amit Jatia, who detailed for mission delegates the steps that the Oak Brook, Ill.-based quick-service giant took to appeal to Indian guests, including replacing the Big Mac with a chicken-based Maharaja Mac and introducing vegetarian burgers made of potatoes and a hard type of cottage cheese called paneer.

Letele of CKE said he thought the world’s largest burger chain went too far to appeal to Indian consumers.

“McDonald’s has bastardized the menu to the extent that they’ve lost their DNA,” he said.

He said McDonald’s, which offers sandwiches for as few as 20 rupees, or around 45 cents, had “sort of become a commodity brand,” in India.

Carl’s Jr. would look to occupy the same QSR premium burger niche in India that it occupies in the United States, he said.

The success of Carl’s Jr. is based on the quality of its beef, bacon and chicken, Letele added, and that quality had to be kept in mind when developing menu items that would be acceptable to most Indians. One of those items would likely be a vegetable patty that could be deep-fried or broiled, he said.

Kruguer said he also expected Wendy’s to occupy a more premium niche than McDonald’s, noting that his brand’s approach worldwide was to offer better quality and variety than the other QSR burger chains do. As Indian consumers get more sophisticated in terms of “quality and variety issues” rather than merely price, Wendy’s would likely thrive, he said.

Wendy’s already has operations in Indonesia and the Philippines, which Kruguer said “provides us with a jump-start” when it comes to adjusting the menu to Indian tastes.

For example, Wendy’s offers spicy bone-in chicken and white rice in Indonesia, he said. And since that country is largely Muslim, the chain already knows how to operate without pork.

In India, Wendy’s also would cut out beef and would work with their franchise partner — for which they searched during the trade mission — and their own product development team, vendors and suppliers to create new offerings.

Kruguer said he anticipated some regional variation on the menu within India, perhaps accomplished through varying breading or different sauces, which would be easier to implement than larger-scale product changes.

He said Wendy’s also was developing new breakfast items, beverages, desserts and snacks, which he said “are typically pretty key,” in Asia.

Kruguer said Wendy’s in the Philippines has had great success with its calamansi tea, which is now ranked as one of the most popular beverages in the country.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]