All-veg McDonald’s eyes India’s holy sites

Fast-food giant is opening its first-ever, all-vegetarian restaurants in India, but could stoke a religious backlash.

McDonald's is going all-vegetarian in India, and already keeps beef and pork products off its menu [EPA]
McDonald's is going all-vegetarian in India, and already keeps beef and pork products off its menu [EPA]

Move over greasy burgers, the world’s most recognisable fast food chain is about to go vegetarian.

McDonald’s has announced plans to open its first-ever, all-vegetarian restaurants in India – a country of 1.2 billion people – where cows are sacred to majority Hindus, and swine are considered unclean by minority Muslims.

The mega-chain – known for its “100 per cent pure beef” – has faced significant culinary obstacles in India, as 80 per cent of the population does not consume the restaurant’s main staple.

India also boasts a Muslim population of about 150 million, meaning pork is culled from the menu.

Hence the focus on all-vegetarian outlets. McDonald’s menu is already 50 per cent vegetarian in India, and the chain has made a significant effort to adapt to local tastes. On offer are items such as the McAloo Tikki burger, Pizza McPuff and Maharaja Mac – made with a chicken fillet.

“We have always been cognizant of the religion-based and other sensitivities of our customers,” company spokesman Rajesh Kumar Maini told Al Jazeera. “We believe this endeavour of ours will also be well accepted.” 

“McDonald’s was nearly tossed out of India a decade ago after it was reported that beef flavouring
was put into oil used to cook French fries.”

As India develops economically and more people jump into the middle class, Western-styled eating habits – for better or worse – are expected to proliferate.

Other major American franchises have also eyed India’s burgeoning fast-food market with mouths watering.

Expansion by global players such as Domino’s, McDonald’s and Yum Brands (KFC and Pizza Hut) is heating up. India’s fast-food market is growing at an annual rate of 25-30 per cent, and sales are expected to surge from $12.6bn in 2011 to $14.9bn in 2016, according to Euromonitor International. 

As tempting as the large and growing market may be, McDonald’s has had problems in the past since entering India in 1996. And it faces more issues with its all-vegetarian experiment.

Fries with that?

McDonald’s was nearly tossed out of India a decade ago after it was reported that beef flavouring was put into oil used to cook French fries. Right-wing Hindu activists vociferously protested outside outlets and some were ransacked.

As part of an agreement, donated $10 million to Hindu and other groups in the US to settle lawsuits accusing it of mislabelling French fries and hash browns as vegetarian. 

Ram Madhav, spokesman of Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), said the US multinational threatens India’s food industry, as well as its culture.

“These companies are also seen as symbols of American economic imperialism,” Madhav told Al Jazeera. “On those grounds we continue to oppose the entry … into Indian retail.”

But for some, the McDonald’s move is welcome.

Ten-year-old girl S Kanchan was born into a strictly vegetarian family in Amritsar. Her parents forbade her ever to enter a McDonald’s, wary of meat and non-meat products being prepared in the same kitchen.

Sadly, she was left out outside as her friends scoffed down Happy Meals. Now that an all-vegetarian restaurant is coming to her city, Kanchan is thrilled. “I will ask my parents to take me to the new outlet.”

Yummy Facts

• Subway opened its first veg-only outlet at Amity University in Noida in 2011, followed by another at Ghatkopar in Mumbai two-months ago. 

• Domino’s has 8 restaurants serving only veg pizzas in Haridwar, Shirdi and Ahmedabad.

• Yum! Restaurants, which operates chains such as KFC and Pizza Hut, has rolled out 2 fully-veg Pizza Hut outlets in Gujarat.

• Dunkin’ Donuts has options ranging from mango doughnuts to lychee-based drinks, besides a range of eggless doughnuts.

Golden Temple meet Golden Arches

Others are not so happy.

The restaurants will be built near religious sites, and some say McDonald’s corporate brand, a symbol of American capitalism, will tarnish the sanctity of the holy places.

One store will open its doors in northwestern Amritsar city in mid-2013 near the Golden Temple, the spiritual centre of the Sikh religion.

McDonald’s veggie items will face stiff competition against traditional dishes and eating practices at langar.

Langar refers to the common kitchen where food is served to visitors from all religions – for free. The communal eating process is meant to impart that everyone is equal before God.

“As a devotee, I would go to langar at the Golden Temple, rather than going to McDonald’s,” Amarinder Singh, a Vodafone employee from Cochin, told Al Jazeera.

The other vegetarian restaurant will be near the Vaishno Devi cave shrine in Katra, Jammu and Kashmir state, where 10 million Hindus come each year to pay homage to the diety. Its presence is likely to raise the ire of hardline Hindu groups, who wield significant power in India. 
“This is nothing but teasing vegetarians and humiliating Hindus,” S Gurumurthy of the Hindu nationalist group Swadeshi Jagran Manch told Al Jazeera. “It’s not in the interest of anyone, but it is just business.”

Bandi Tharaka, a senior manager with Oracle Corporation in Hyderabad, accused the company of opening in proximity to the religious sites in order to win over the large numbers of followers who travel there.

“McDonald’s is opening up the outlets … to target and overcome the resistance the company had from political parties,” Tharaka said.

But Maini defended the decision to operate near the holiest of India’s religious places.

“In markets across the world, McDonald’s has always respected local cultures and has adopted to local preferences and sensitivities,” said Maini. “Going to these cities, which are known as pilgrimage centres in India, is an affirmation of the way we do our business.”

Source : Al Jazeera

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