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And the winner is... butter chicken! 

VIDYA DESHPANDE  
It takes the established desi leader to keep on setting the trend for others to follow. Or it takes the gumption of a wannabe newcomer to "box the big boys into the corner". Indian fast food chains, Nirula's and Pizza Corner, are teaching the Big Mac fast-food brands a thing or two about the choosy Indian palate. But the big boys aren't feeling scared, in fact they are quick on the uptake and are beginning to catch on faster than they can roll out a burger.

It seems Indians have suddenly begun eating burgers and pizzas like never before, making these businessmen burp healthily when they talk of the more than Rs 150 crore business all this eating has generated. In fact, last month, Pizza Corner celebrated an important milestone for its brand: reaching a cumulative sales figure of 100 acres of pizza (or 1.5 million pizzas) in four years of its existence! And that's only one of the many pizzerias in the country.

Fast food is not an alien concept to Indians, what with roadside chaat shops offering snacks-in-a-minute. But it took the marketing savvy and dollar power of a burger vendor like McDonald's to give fast food its very Western orientation, leaving the others gasping for breath. The weekend stampedes outside any McDonald's restaurant are standing testimony to this fact.

In fact, McDonald's growing popularity is creasing the brow of the No. 1 brand in this game in Delhi, Nirula's. Though Nirula's does not admit to any drop in sales overtly, industry sources say that they have lost 18 per cent of their original market share. Though this is a considerable figure, Nirula's still reigns with 40 per cent of the Delhi market, much as the competition may balk at its kitsch menu ranging from pizzas to butter chicken. If industry sources are to be believed, Delhi, with its famed spending power, accounts for an astounding 50 per cent of the national fast food market. And Nirula's holds 40 per cent of this market. Not to be laughed at, certainly.

"We are not just a pizza or burger chain, we cater to the entire family under one roof. Though Delhiites may be experimenting with visits to other chains, they always come back to Nirula's," says Mr Tarandeep, spokesperson for Nirula's, who figures that the chain's 80-item menu card is its biggest attraction.

In fact, Nirula's has taught the competition a thing or two about Indian eating habits. No god-fearing Punjabi will like to miss out on his butter chicken. (Incidentally, butter chicken is one of Nirula's top selling items.) So, it was the first to move away from "authentic" and offer chicken tikkas on its pizzas and chana masala in its burgers. Many others copied the experiment.

But the "authentic" guys-Mr Sumir Anand, corporate vice-president of Pizza Corner, for example-have a different opinion on Indianising food. "You can no longer take a dosa to New York and serve it with cranberry sauce and pass it off as a crepe. Everybody knows that a dosa is eaten with chutney and sambhar," he says.

So, Pizza Corner is an Indian company that serves pizzas as they do in New York street corners with its Lebanese CEO Anotonie Bakhache wanting the company to be the best-managed pizza chain in the world and the largest in India (See the story below).

Continues Mr Anand: "It is a fact that Nirula's taught Delhiites what pizzas and burgers were all about. But then they had no competition. Now, there is so much competition and consumer awareness has also increased vastly."

Nirula's has been playing on the fact that it has a most extensive menu, while others are moving away from the menu, insisting that other factors such as restaurant ambience and the whole eating experience also make a big difference to the customer.

McDonald's, for instance, plays very heavily on the ambience factor, combining it with affordability. "It's the McDonald's experience that we sell," says Mr Vikram Bakshi, managing director, Connaught Plaza Restaurants Pvt. Ltd, owners and operators of the McDonald's brand in India. "The consumers want the best product at an affordable price along with the ambience," says Mr Bakshi. "The food is fresh, the restaurant clean and hygienic and the staff very friendly and courteous," he adds.

Not unnaturally, McDonald's pays a lot of attention to the people that it hires. "We look at people who have the qualities to make the customer's experience at our restaurant a memorable one," says Mr Bakshi. Every McDonald's employee has to be a representative of the brand and therefore has to experience everything that goes into making McDonald's products, he explains, "so much so that we are even bothered about how an employee behaves outside the workplace."

Places like Pizza Hut too have very strong employee training programmes, what with waiters doing a motivational Macarena jig every hour to keep then going.

The big daddies have also changed the concept of "fresh" food. While Nirula's still operates with a centralised kitchen in Okhla supplying the food to all its 20-odd restaurants, others like Domino's, Pizza Pizza Express and Pizza Corner hand-toss their pizzas after the order is placed.

McDonald's has taken freshness to another plane all together. "The lettuce that we use for our burgers is exposed less than six minutes to the open, as we have an extensive cold chain system that makes sure that the lettuce is at its freshest best," says Mr Bakshi.

All this marketing slickness has seen the fast food market expanding rapidly. McDonald's has 25 restaurants, mostly in the Delhi region, Pizza Corner has 25 outlets, concentrated in Chennai and Bangalore with just eight in Delhi, Domino's has a whopping 60 outlets in 12 cities and Pizza Hut has 15. All of them are looking at opening over 100 outlets over the next two years.

This expansion has woken up the leviathan, Nirula's. It is planning to add seven more outlets in Delhi by the end of this year. And will be making its foray outside of Delhi to Punjab in the next two years. "The thing about Nirula's is that though it is a Delhi brand, it has national brand awareness. We are being cautious about opening outlets in other cities as we want to be sure rather than regretful," says Mr Tarandeep.

National awareness is the right word, for whatever anybody may sell, who can forget Nirula's signature dessert, the HCF (Hot Chocolate Fudge) Sundae? And all those pizzas and burgers can hardly satiate the universal hunger for butter chicken.

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.

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