What is in this article?:
- Restaurants account for local tastes when expanding overseas
- But authenticity matters
Chains employ increasing flexibility when developing menus for overseas expansion
Not long after Papa Murphy’s announced it would be opening its first international location outside of Canada, the take-and-bake pizza chain’s vice president of product development Carron Harris was on a plane headed for Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to learn firsthand about the culture and tastes of the region.
Harris spent 3 1/2 weeks in Dubai sampling the local cuisine and visiting other Western chains already there to learn how they accommodated indigenous dietary preferences.
“We learned firsthand by engaging firsthand,” she said. “Nothing beats being on the ground and being immersed in the culture.”
Papa Murphy’s International is not the only U.S. restaurant chain that takes its culinary due diligence seriously. Increasingly, American chains have jettisoned rigid, cookie-cutter-style menus in favor of culinary localization — a flexible strategy that makes room for ingredients and dishes that reflect local tastes, culture and religious requirements.
Early expansion lessons taught pioneering U.S. chains that while the world is clearly fascinated by American culture — including its cuisine — transplanted menus must maintain a careful balance between an area’s tastes and culture and a brand’s culinary DNA.
People around the world “want a piece of America, but you also have to give them what they want to eat,” said Fred LeFranc, president and chief executive of consulting firm Results Thru Strategy. “You have to start where people are at.” Americans, for example, didn’t all warm to sushi right away, he said. They eased in with less challenging variations like California rolls.
“You have to cater to the local culture,” said Steve Devine, president, international division, of The Johnny Rockets Group Inc. “You can’t force feed people.”
After a choppy expansion start overseas during which time it relied largely on its stateside menu offerings, international trailblazer McDonald’s has learned to craft selections tailored to specific markets. For example, in Belgium and France McDonald’s offers a Croque McDo filled with ham and Emmentaler cheese, which resembles the locally familiar croque monsieur, while in Cyprus local McDonald’s fans can get a Greek Mac, which is a Big Mac served in a pita drizzled with tzatziki sauce. In the Philippines, McDonald’s locations offer McSpaghetti, while Taiwan boasts a shrimp burger.
Nor is McDonald’s alone in the drive to reinvent itself for different cultures. Burger King offers poutine gravy and vinegar for its French fries in Canada and peri-peri sauce for its sandwiches in the United Kingdom. In Australia the chain features an Aussie Burger, which contains fried egg, beetroot and other local flavors.
And in India sandwich giant Subway has launched several vegetarian-only locations with a highly localized menu. It expects to open more in the future.
Not every new global marketplace demands that a brand recast its menu. Some markets welcome authenticity. Kate Taylor, associate director of Davis Coffer Lyons consulting group in London, said that city, for example, is extremely cosmopolitan and has “a real passion for food. I don’t think so much tailoring [of U.S. concepts] is needed here. There are a lot of British restaurants that draw inspiration from the States.”
At the same time, Italian food tends to be readily accepted in China because the Chinese already are familiar with the concept of noodles, she said.
But the vast majority of international markets demand at least some form of customization, experts said.
Christopher Fox, vice president of international business development for Villa Enterprises Management Ltd., said the Morristown, N.J.-based multiconcept company has a number of localized menus overseas.
“Whenever we go into a new country, we try to find out what the local market wants,” Fox said. “We look at what competitors are doing. After that we have operations people come in to see where we need to change. In the past U.S. brands had a problem. They’d come in and say, ‘We’re American, and that’s what we do’ — and they failed.”
But these days American brands are more than willing to wrap their arms around different culinary styles and habits. For example, customers in are big meat eaters, Fox said, “so Villa’s South Philly Steaks & Fries outlet in Istanbul’s Buyaka Shopping Center also features shawarma rotisserie meat.” Meanwhile, the company’s Bananas concept in Dubai also offers fresh vegetable and fruit juices in addition to its standard menu of smoothies and frozen yogurt.
The Villa Italian Kitchen location in Istanbul also offers made-to-order pasta because of its popularity there.