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The 'Indian' Challenge For Foreign Food Brands


Indian market is highly complex, varied, yet enticing. Nurturing food brands here is even more taxing than rearing a cranky baby
TSI | Issue Dated: February 16, 2014, New Delhi
Tags : The 'Indian' challenge for foreign food brands | UK based pizzeria Metro Pizza |

Not long ago, UK based pizzeria Metro Pizza landed in Mumbai with its trademark meter-long pizza. The menu retains similarities to that of its principal counterparts, yet some items have been added on to suit the Indian palate and product mix. When Lavazza entered India in 2007 it decided to reflect its Italian origin by drawing inspiration from all things Italian, including art, culture, fashion, etc. To establish a unique identity it decided to go beyond merely retailing food and coffee. But, at Starbucks in India each store takes inspiration from local culture. The chain has retained certain Starbucks iconic offerings like chocolate muffins and cakes, but has introduced other food items that would please the local palate. Since the brand counts India among the top five global markets, it is willing to make locally relevant innovations in product and processes. In fact, the latest store at Delhi showcases examples of Indian craft of weaving and sports handicrafts made by local artistes.

So there are no universal guideposts for food chains. But are there any rules to break? What follows now is a ‘A morons’s guide to hospitality marketing’.

The first poser, should you, a foreign brand, enter India? This is a clear no brainer. India is the biggest consumption market in the world. Urban Indians spend 11% of their income on eating out. Nuclear households, rising affluence, more and more working women, food shows on TV and social media, increasing international travel, a very large young population – all these factors have ensured that by 2015 the Indian restaurant industry is likely to become Rs.62,500 crore plus, up from Rs.43,000 crore currently. If Indian restaurants industry hits the same percentage of GDP as in US, then this figure would be a stupendous Rs.1,80,000 crore. The untapped potential is really mouth-watering. One dampener, however: High rentals.

Second, have you studied your market in terms of its occupants and their profile? It must be realised that nearly 45-48% of Indian population is vegetarian. More importantly, the remaining population too is non-vegetarian only occasionally. Hardcore carnivores are very few in India. Prudently, therefore, Yauatcha, a London based Cantonese cuisine chain included vegetarian dishes in its menu at Bandra-Kurla complex, Mumbai, since the area is a hub of the business community, dominated by Jains and Marwaris. Hakkasan did the same, using not even onion, garlic, or root vegetables. In Gujarat, which has majority population being vegetarian, KFC, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, McDonald’s, and Subway have some pure vegetarian outlets with special Jain counters. Not only this, regional variations in taste abound. While Starbucks offers ‘Mutton Seekh in Roomali Roti’ in Delhi, it sells ‘Elaichi Mawa Croissant’ in Mumbai. Even celebrity fine dining spaces succumb to the dictates of local taste buds. Le Cirque at Leela Delhi, bowing to Indian predilection, offers both French and Italian dishes. Starbucks also hawks tea at its outlets. Due to dominance of youngsters all the coffee chains are positioning themselves as a ‘fun place to be at’, a hangout spot. And since most Indians like to munch with their beverages, Dunkin’ Donuts has positioned itself as a food café, the sweet spot between routine cafes and QSRs. Besides, it offers salty donuts in India. Costa Coffee too uses brighter colours and lights, tailoring to Indian preferences in its properties, along with a lot many ‘coolers’ on its menu due to tropical Indian climes. All Domino’s outlets have ‘dine in’ facility now.

Third, so should you be stubbornly authentic, adapt, or Indianise completely? The simple answer would be: While you stick to your expertise, you also need to strike a fine balance adapting to local taste and flavour. Rara Avis, a single cuisine restaurant, offers authentic home-cooked rustic French food having (like original) even rabbit and escargot on the menu. So does Chez Mariannick at Banglore. But Rara Avis offers 18 vegetarian options too, absent in the original menu. Sufi serves authentic Persian cuisine but with some north Indian dishes to appeal to a larger customer base. When Bagels Café opened its doors in 2008 it decided to serve bagels in authentic European style, but was soon forced to include options like ‘paneer tikka’ and ‘masala omlette’ variants. Remember, food consumption is dictated by cultural norms too which are rather inflexible.

Fourth, what should you adopt – hands off approach or personalisation? Now, since the chefs themselves are redefining the concepts and restaurants, many of them are hired not merely for their cuisine based skills but also for their marketing acumen. They are expected to design and innovate menus, come out of the kitchen and sell their food to the customer, explaining their signature dishes. At Kunafa, Delhi, Naseer Barakat, the proprietor, personally acquaints customers with the many varieties of confections available.

Fifth, local sourcing, or global? Worldwide all luxury hotels are following the localisation mantra. At Intercontinental, a brand manager brings in local culture by hiring 10-15 designers who prepare alternatives. Feedbacks then are taken from local partners, and then only the final nod. Not so necessarily when it comes to sourcing talent, or ingredients, though. Quality issue then is the guidepost. So Kunafa imports ‘halwais,’ celebrity chefs are hired from abroad on fancy salaries, and ingredients may be partly/fully imported if not available locally or do not meet quality standards.

In short, Indian market is exceedingly complex, varied, yet enticing. Nurturing the food brands here is even more taxing than rearing a cranky baby. Neither initial setbacks nor early endorsements of a brand should be read as a thumbs up sign from the market. Most importantly, constant innovation and adapting to local needs sure will help. For instance, Pullman, a luxury hotel in Gurgaon from Accor Group, gets its crockery from Auroville in South India just to cement French connections. Even Hyatt at Delhi has a full floor for Japanese where electric controls are at relatively lower heights keeping in mind the shorter heights of the Japanese.

There are some cardinal rules that must be followed, but others can be reinterpreted.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017