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.
While it’s important that the products add something to the dining experience, Fox said, “It’s also vital that they do it without affecting the concept’s DNA” and taking it in a direction the concept’s owners don’t want to go.
Although some chains enter a new international market armed with potential menu changes, 300-unit Johnny Rockets lets new stores settle in before localizing the menu, Devine said.
“Before we tweak the menu, we first go in and source products,” he said. “Many brands want particular products, but if we can get 100 percent of our products there, that’s great. People are used to products tasting a certain way in their own country — like ground beef. We’re an American hamburger chain, but hamburger has a different flavor wherever you go. So we want the flavor to be familiar to them.”
After establishing a dependable supply chain and then running the store for a while, the company discusses menu changes with the local franchisee or developer — which at times can provide an unexpected lesson.
“The best example of that is when we opened our first restaurant in the Philippines,” Devine said. “After three months the developer wanted to offer spaghetti. But we usually try to fit the [menu item] in to what we do, and
spaghetti just seemed to be outside of Johnny Rockets’ realm. So we put it on the back burner. But we soon learned that everybody there has spaghetti on the menu — particularly other American chains. After that it took about five minutes to make a decision, and now it’s on.
“Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know,” he said.
Religious and cultural restrictions also play key roles in tailoring a chain menu, experts said. Papa Murphy’s Harris said the 1,320-unit Portland, Ore.-based chain has had to make some ingredient alterations ahead of its opening in Dubai early next year. For example, Muslims are proscribed from eating pork, so Harris had to eliminate the pork from such key meat items as pepperoni, sausage and salami. In Dubai pork has been replaced with 100-
percent beef, while smoked turkey is used in place of Canadian bacon and ham, she said.
And because Dubai contains a large population of Indians and Pakistanis who love spicy food, Harris also decided to use a local red chile with the heat of a jalapeño to spice up certain pizzas.
While Middle Eastern countries require that menu developers at American chains make certain accommodations, India remains one of the biggest challenges for U.S. brands. Since Hindus hold cows as being sacred and Muslims view pigs as being unclean, U.S. operators in India must turn to , turkey and lamb as protein replacements. Moreover, an estimated 40 percent of the population is said to be vegetarian.
As a result, influential chains like Subway and McDonald’s are opening vegetarian-only locations in India. McDonald’s is planning to open a vegetarian restaurant in 2013, while Subway, which has been operating in India for almost a decade, already has debuted vegetarian-only outlets chiefly in nontraditional locations. To date there are three units operating, and another is expected to open this year.
The vegetarian-only menu includes such items as Aloo Patty, potato patties flavored with turmeric and other Indian spices and herbs; Paneer Tikka, slightly crisp cottage-cheese slices marinated with Indian barbecue seasoning and cooked in traditional clay ovens; Corn & Peas, made with a blend of corn, peas and carrots in a mayonnaise-based sauce; and Veg Shammi, kebabs made with soy, lentils, garlic and onions.
“Whenever we go into a country, we try to accommodate the religious and cultural nuances,” said Les Winograd, spokesman for the 37,000-unit chain. “India is one of the best examples of how our menu has changed. We already have quite a few items designed specifically for Indian consumers.”
Contact Paul Frumkin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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