In case you haven’t noticed, there is a burger explosion in India. McDonald’s has been part of our life for decades. But its global competitors are here: Burger King and Wendy's, among them. Plus there are the slightly more upmarket chains too: Carl Jr's has just opened; Johnny Rockets flourishes; Fat Burger does its fatty stuff; and more. And Indian chains are churning out burger after burger. From Café Delhi Heights to Smokehouse Deli, burgers are on the menu everywhere. Barcelos which is a Nando’s-style Peri-Peri Chicken South African chain is best known in India for its Black Burger. And even Dunkin Donuts has recast itself as a hamburger chain.
As we all know, you can’t make a real burger here. Beef is a no-no, and mutton burgers such as McDonald's, Maharaja Mac have failed. And most Indian burgers are chicken sandwiches masquerading as hamburgers.
So why are the burger guys racing into a country where they can’t serve real burgers?
There are many answers to these questions. These are some of them.
1. Once upon a time, the hamburger chain was an embodiment of the spirit of Americana. No longer. McDonald’s is in deep trouble. Year on year sales keep declining in America. Burger King is not even American any longer. It was sold to international private equity.
As the traditional markets (i.e. North America) for the big burger chains dwindle, the companies look desperately for newer markets. India is the obvious target. So, even if they have to sell channa patties and junk much of their traditional menu, they are so desperate that they will do it.
2. In the West, people love burgers. They just don’t like the fast food versions. So relatively upmarket burger chains like Shake Shack, Five Guys, Byron (in the UK), Five Napkin Burger and the like are thriving.
It is natural for these chains to target foreign markets as well. Shake Shack is wildly successful in Dubai and it is only a matter of time before it hits India. The other chains have either already set up shop or are on their way.
3. There is no money in patisserie or baking, Krispy Kreme arrived in India to much anticipation and excitement but it has hardly made a fortune here. Dunkin Donuts, a chain so old that it could be the grandfather of Krispy Kreme, has worked out that it needs to defy its own name and change its menu. Hamburgers, which are cheap to make and can be sold at relatively high prices are the easiest way to turn a profit.
4. In the West, most consumers know what a hamburger tastes like. In India, the younger demographic that is the target of most foreign companies, has no experience of a proper beef hamburger. These kids are only familiar with the concept of a hamburger. So it is an easy market to enter: consumers have no experience and can’t tell good from bad or real from bogus.
Vir Sanghvi is India's best-known food writer and TV host. His book, Rude Food won the Cointreau Award for Best Food Literature book in the world and his food and travel shows on channels such as TLC and NDTV Good Times have won numerous awards and continue to be watched by millions.
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