Back in 1996, Vishal Jairath, a revered cousin, took me and a bunch of teenagers, to make us experience the mammoth freezer room in the newly opened McDonald’s at Priya Complex in Vasant Vihar, New Delhi. It was a chilling experience to see the pristine kitchen leading up to the cold storage and the functioning of the restaurant’s assembly line with military precision.
Vishal’s orders were clear – any burger out of the assembly line that hadn’t made it to the customer within 10 minutes was to be discarded. It was his job to forecast the potential demand and arrive at a fine balance of reducing waiting time for customers and also reducing wastage of food items, while at the same time ensuring that the global food giant’s standards of quality are never compromised.
Vishal was among the first few employees of McDonald’s in India, hired by Vikram Bakshi. He was then an assistant manager, rode a 250cc Yezdi Classic motorcycle to work and put in long hours – well after the restaurant had taken the last order. There was a quiet pride in what he and his team were delivering to an India that had just been unshackled from the licence
raj and was raring to embrace globalisation.
His teenage cousins were his real target audience, as was his septuagenarian grandmother and all cohorts in between.
This was a time when India’s fizzy aspirations were at its peak and Coca Cola and PepsiCo were battling hard for a share of the customer’s heart and wallet. Stiffened competition between the brands ensured that the customers thought they had the last laugh with the best of both worlds – choice of global brands at every
kirana store at prices they could afford. Cola companies gained by the sheer volumes they could easily push down Indian throats. Coca Cola was often bundled in the value meals that McDonald’s offered.
Unwittingly, Indians were taking to western brands and their thirst for globalisation was slowly, yet surely getting quenched.
Offering a new McCulture
The arrival of the Golden Arches gave urban Indians a new way to celebrate, to
hang out and to feel ‘ developed’ by Western standards.
In its restaurants, McDonald’s employed college students part-time and fresh graduates full-time. Young men and women beaming with the confidence of new-found financial independence, working in a multi-national corporation, professionally trained for the assembly line of the quick serving restaurant format. Hotel management graduates had an opportunity to expand their career horizons beyond what the then under-paying five star hotels offered. There was visible growth. India was arriving at the global scene.
McDonald’s was an aspiration for India – to get together for birthday parties and school reunions; to work at for college dropouts or graduates from smaller cities; there was visible dignity of labour as the same person who served your order would not hesitate to mop the floor after a cola glass slipped down… McDonald’s epitomised a cultural shift in an emerging India.
At the same time, it was an anchor brand that would lift the retail landscape of any local market it was present in. India was yet to be exposed to malls, but even when the malls came up, McDonald’s was a steady partner to go to for a quick bite.
A tale of two burgers
When the relationship between McDonald’s and master franchisee for North and East India - Connaught Plaza Restaurants Limited (CPRL), under the leadership of Vikram Bakshi – went sour in 2013, it was an unpleasant sight for customers.
The teenagers of 1996, now mostly married and some with children too, could see their youth being taken away. They would trust the fries and the ice-cream for the child to feast on or for an occasional quick bite. The cohorts of 1996 were partly working for McDonald’s, but slowly drifting away.
Over the next few years from 2013, many McDonald’s outlets in North and East had to shut down and those that survived faced major supply chain issues. While it wasn’t long before Bakshi brought in new suppliers and kept the business going, the menu got truncated, the breakfast was done away with and over time, the Happy Meal was gone too. With it went the subtle loyalty of customers.
Gradually, the CPRL-run McDonald’s restaurants continued to flaunt the Golden Arches on their exteriors, but finding the McDonald’s logo on beverage glasses, coffee cups, ketchup sachets and wrappers of burgers was almost impossible.
A niggling worry loomed – was this even a real McDonald’s you were eating at?
A recent visit to Mumbai and Goa revealed how, over the last six years, the brand had evolved in its offerings – the menu, seating layout and even the price points. Chicken Mc Grill – a college student’s staple meal was off the menu. There were newer rice-based formats to choose from – a big departure from the ‘junk food’ definition that marred the perception of all QSR chains in the 1990s and early 2000s. Of course, these restaurants are run by another master franchisee – Hardcastle Restaurants Private Limited, with Amit Jatia at its helm, catering to West and South India.
Markets in the western and southern parts of India were being served with an international upgrade, including McCafe that offered a variety of beverages and snacks like in Europe and the US, but northern and eastern parts of India were still at the mercy of litigation.
The gap between the offerings of the same brand by two master franchisees had widened enough for a novice to tell the difference.
Bring back that Lovin’ feeling
With McDonald’s India Private Limited now having taken over Bakshi’s 50 percent stake in CPRL, the decision to shut down the 160-odd restaurants temporarily is prudent. For a global brand like McDonald’s, it is imperative to fix something very difficult that the brand has been seen to so easily embody the world over – standardisation.
The second area to focus on now will be employee retention and up-skilling. Training existing employees to come at par with the first batch of Bakshi’s school of quality may be an uphill task, but it must be remembered that happy customers will be the most loyal for the brand going forward – and employees behind the counter can make that happen.Mac
As for wooing back the customer, a relook at marketing the brand to its once loyal base needs to be prioritised. McDonald’s will need to capture back the share of heart it once had when the customer felt the brand in every bite and said it within – ‘I’m Lovin’ It.’
Kartik Malhotra is Senior Executive Producer & Editor, Special Projects, at Network 18. He is an alumnus of IIM Lucknow and, when not behind the camera, indulges in armchair analysis of strategy and technology.