It is lunchtime at Ansal Plaza, Delhi’s newest shopping centre. Inside the ground-floor branch of McDonald’s, Ashish and Jasmeet are busy doling out seven-rupee (about 90c) ice-cream cones to a group of schoolboys.
The restaurant is half-empty or half-full, depending on your view of global capitalism. At first glance the branch resembles any McDonald’s restaurant across the world. We could be in French Guyana, the most recent addition to the company’s empire, or Kuwait, or Russia. Only when you spot a small sign on the wall do you realise that this is India. It reads: “No beef or beef products sold at this restaurant.”
Four years after arriving in Delhi and Bombay, McDonald’s is poised to launch a huge expansion programme in India, its last great frontier. There are plans to increase the existing 24 restaurants to 80. That McDonald’s has come here at all seems curious. The subcontinent has revered the cow for thousands of years. The creatures are everywhere in India — on traffic islands, grazing in rubbish dumps, in temples — everywhere, that is, except on your plate. To give an idea of how highly the animal is revered, nobody thought it odd when 634 cows, en route to a slaughterhouse in Muslim Banglaesh, were rescued from a train by animal rights activists last year. The sight of naked Hindu saints holding pro-cow rallies is not unusual.
McDonald’s, by contrast, is the world’s largest user of beef. Hundreds of thousands of animals have died since McDonald’s founder, Ray Kroc, first opened a modest burger parlour in Des Plaines, Illinois, in 1955. From humble beginnings, Kroc set out on an epic voyage of expansion that was to take McDonald’s into 119 countries, sweeping aside barriers of ideology, language and taste.
But in recent years there has been resistance to his global vision from concerned environmentalists around the world. As the stand-off between anti-globalists and multinationals continues, India has become the last big battleground. If McDonald’s can succeed here, without beef, it can succeed anywhere, so the reasoning goes. To woo customers, the company has devised a unique marketing strategy.
India is the only country in the world where McDonald’s does not offer beef. With 140-million Indian Muslims, pork is off the menu, too. This leaves chicken and mutton — the ingredient of its flagship “Maharaja Mac”. There are other additions to the menu specifically designed to lure India’s middle class, such as the McAloo tikki burger. All foods are strictly segregated into vegetarian and non-vegetarian lines. Even the mayonnaise has no egg in it, so as not to offend vegan sensibilities.
Vikram Bakshi, McDonald’s managing director in India, admits that beef was a “complete no-no” from the start: “We have to be sensitive to the culture here. No beef and no pork. We are absolutely politically correct. The point is to be commercially viable. Using beef would take us away from 80% of our customers.” McDonald’s was drawn to India because of its huge potential market of one billion people, says Bakshi.
He points with pride to the new McDonald’s on the road between Delhi and Agra, which allows customers to munch Maharaja Macs en route to the Taj Mahal. More branches in north India will follow, he says. Critics complain that McDonald’s food is “bad”, “expensive”, even “un-Indian”. They also claim that McDonald’s, together with other fast-food outlets that arrived in the mid-Nineties, is losing money. “India has a very ancient food culture.
We are not going to change to American patterns of consumption,” says Dr Vandana Shiva, director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology. “McDonald’s will never become part of mass culture in India, because most people can’t afford to eat there.” Indians, she says, are gradually “waking up” to the threat posed by foreign multinationals to traditional methods of farming and ecology. The fledgling fast-food industry in India has been keeping a low profile because of such opposition.
Five years ago Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) found its new restaurant in the Westernised city of Bangalore under siege from farmers and anti-globalisation protesters. Customers had been staying away too, put off by what they regarded as high prices and inedible food. The mob ended up vandalising the restaurant. KFC eventually abandoned India altogether.
“India is no Thailand, where we could create the Kentucky magic within two years of operations,” its former managing director in India, Sandeep Kohli, conceded. “We closed because the economics didn’t work out.” Many of the multinationals which came to India after economic liberalisation in the early 1990s made the same mistake as KFC. They overestimated the size of India’s middle class. It is about 100-million, though the figure of 200-million is often bandied about. And it is discerning.
Many fast-food outlets discovered to their horror that their restaurants were rarely full. They embarked on a desperate round of price cuts. A Big Mac “Lamb Wonder” today sells for the lowly sum of 19 rupees (about R3). McDonald’s has had a happier time in China, where its 260 restaurants are frequented by the better off and the urban rich. There, Ronald McDonald has been transmogrified into Uncle McDonald (and Aunt McDonald).
In Japan, which was assimilated into the Kroc empire 30 years ago, there are more than 3 000 branches. There are few countries in Asia where McDonald’s has yet to penetrate. To avoid the chain entirely you would have to go somewhere really remote: Afghanistan, perhaps, with its landmines, civil war and Islamic fundamentalism. Or there is Bhutan, a small, esoteric Himalayan kingdom of few tourists and no beefburgers, where there exists a long tradition of scepticism towards dubious Western ideas.