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Speed dating in India

“Did you see that guy’s watch? That thing’s worth $300,000,” Jeff Sinelli, founder of the Which Wich? sandwich chain told me after a couple of potential franchisees left his table.

I hadn’t seen the watch, but I’d noticed his stylish cufflinks made out of string.

We had both observed his and his partner’s complete lack of a sense of humor.

What do you expect from financiers whose pride and joy seemed to be a distribution network for PVC pipes?

I’m in India, covering a trade mission organized by the United States Commerce Department’s Commercial Service. This particular mission is focused on franchisors, mostly restaurant companies, looking for Indian partners.

The mission is centered around what are essentially speed dates. They’re meetings between the franchisors and potential franchisees to do a combination of pitching themselves and getting acquainted with one another — almost exactly like first dates, really.

I’ve been sitting in on some of the meetings to see what they’re like — the pictures in this blog entry show you what they look like.

What I’ve seen so far indicates that finding business partners through blind dating — even with dates who have been vetted by the Commercial Service — is about as tough and almost as grueling as finding a love match that way. I’m not sure what the equivalent of a one-night stand would be in this case, but please let me know if you can think of one.

The would-be franchisors, being Americans working in foodservice, would talk about having “passion” for the business. The potential franchisees — real estate agents, retailers, PVC pipe distributors with lots of money of unknown origin — would blink once or twice and stare back blankly.

But you never know. The McDonald’s executive in charge of western and southern India comes from the lubricant business, so maybe Mr. Fancy Watch will be the man behind Which Wich? India.

Personally, I liked the owner of The Devil’s Workshop, a bakery chain with the slogan “Food you hate to love.”

After the speed dates, we all went to the Residence of the American Consul General for a reception, and I learned that India is by far the world’s largest consumer of whisky. So after a glass of perfectly acceptable red wine I switched to nice single malts and chatted with Subway franchisees and politicians, commercial attachés and Assistant Commerce Secretary Nicole Lamb-Hale, who is on the trip with us.

Marketing consultant Jagdeep Kapoor explained to me the challenges of presenting the right message in India. He pointed out that standing in line to order food is insulting to many middle class Indians, because it seems like begging. Besides, they’re accustomed to having servants and like to be waited on.

But then for other middle class Indians, who studied in the United States, American fast food gives them a sense of nostalgia and they want to stand in line for it (“They feel like they’re in New York”) and then get exactly the same food that they would have in the U.S.

Others want food that reminds them of their mother’s home cooking, so it should taste completely Indian.

I asked Kapoor how you could do all of that with one brand while maintaining a single identity.

“Give the people what they want,” he said, which didn’t really answer the question, but it is indeed what a restaurant should do.

He also said that Indians love bossing people around, so that the model at Subway, or any chain where your food is assembled in front of you, appeals to them because they can tell the restaurant worker exactly how they want their food to be made.

Indeed, that seems to appeal to everyone.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @FoodWriterDiary

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