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The year was 1996. On October 13 a newly liberalised India rolled out the red carpet for a beaming, yellow-haired man — Ronald McDonald. He entered our lives to change the very definition of an outing. The growing up years of most millennials are marked by memories of visiting the fast-food joint and collecting miniature Disney characters that would emerge from Happy Meals, while the slightly older remember it to be a restaurant that “the Archie’s generation turned to after college or work to hang out. Young and old swarmed wherever a new McDonald’s sprouted,” says columnist and food consultant Kalyan Karmakar.
Most of the food heavyweight’s restaurants in India are franchises, owned and operated by nationals of the regions in which it has a presence. Now, a cog in the giant wheel has suspended operations temporarily. The north and east India licensee of McDonald’s, Connaught Plaza Restaurant (CRPL), has decided to shut down 43 of the 55 McDonald’s in Delhi due to a lapse in the renewal of regulatory health licences.
The food chain was born in1955 in Illinois, USA, and built a reputation for itself with food that was deftly prepared, remarkably affordable and utterly uniform — making it the largest quick service restaurant (QSR) in the world. With rampant expansion, it also became an icon of globalisation. Opponents in other parts of the world — France, Russia, Latin America — have protested against the “Americanisation”, pay-parity and lack of accountability that the fast-food chain has come to be associated with. In 2004, independent filmmaker Morgan Spurlock released Super Size Me, a documentary which logged the severe effects on Spurlock’s physical and psychological well-being after eating the food from McDonald’s for 30 days. It also explored the fast food industry’s corporate influence and how it was the cause of severe obesity in the US.
In India too, it faced backlash. While some argued against the malpractices of multinational firms, right-wing outfits, on several occasions, vandalised the fast-food chain’s property, sometimes for setting up shop in India’s religious centres, at other times for the alleged use of beef flavouring in its French fries.
However, McDonald’s has made a place for itself even among its most unswerving haters. Nutritionist Ishi Khosla, admits to eating “an odd burger here and there” despite her reservations with fast food. “When they came to India, they reflected a mastery in quality and efficiency control that made it a very attractive option,” says Khosla. “While Nirulas brought burgers and pizzas to the masses, McDonald’s was able to take the common man’s love for fast food to another level because they had more muscle-power,” she adds.
While the food giant’s Big Mac had been its signature dish worldwide, its entry into the Indian market demanded that a menu be constructed keeping the accustomed Indian palate in mind. While the golden crisp fries and strawberry shake were welcomed, the beef patties had to be replaced with chicken, leading to the birth of yet another knockout from its kitchens — the Maharaja Mac. “Businesses have to adapt themselves to the land they’re in. So did McDonald’s. Serving beef and pork burgers in the country, that too in the ’90s would have only alienated customers, most of whom only stepped out of the house once a week to have a meal, if at all,” explains Karmakar.
Slowly but steadily, they courted a larger customer base with the introduction of local menu innovations like the McAloo Tikki burger, McVeggie and Pizza McPuff in 2004. “I don’t eat meat on Tuesdays and it makes for a good day to dig into the McVeggie,” says Zorawar Kalra, Founder and Managing Director, Massive Restaurants. This is also the time when McDonald’s dropped its prices and targetted families with their advertising. “They did a fine job of adapting to the Indian taste but have not been able to re-invent themselves. But, theirs is a great success story. I have read McDonald’s: Behind the Arches several times. Despite selling their burgers for Rs. 20, they remained a profitable company,” adds Kalra.
There is much to be learned from the food service company, including “how to choose the right partners,” says TV host Mayur Sharma, who maintains that he does not eat at the restaurant. “What should I go there for? The insipid McAloo Tikki burger?” he says. “There is so much food waiting to be explored in this country. Why should I turn to McDonald’s?” he asks. But he says what they did do was change “the restaurant scene with their emphasis on standardisation and hygiene. All these guys who we consider the big stars of the industry today, have emulated the company in some way. Other players too have entered the segment but none have been able to compete with them,” says Sharma.