Fast-Food Franchises Get Creative When They Go Abroad
Burger King’s squid-ink sandwiches and Pizza Hut’s prawn pies are just some of the menu changes made to suit local tastes
By Adam Janofsky in the Wall Street Journal
The big selling point of fast-food franchises is consistency: In Alaska or Alabama, customers can expect the same hamburger and fries from McDonald’s, or the same cheese pizza and breadsticks from Pizza Hut.
But all of that changes when you cross the border.
In international markets, where chains have to adapt to local tastes, some of America’s most familiar fast-food items are hardly recognizable.
Take Pizza Hut. In Japan, one popular pie is topped with prawn, squid, tuna, mayonnaise, broccoli, onions and tomato sauce. Another mixes teriyaki chicken with corn, seaweed and mayonnaise. In South Korea, customers can get their pie crust stuffed with sweet-potato mousse; in the Middle East, customers can get a crust with cheeseburgers embedded in it.
Hold the pickles
Figuring out how to tweak traditional favorites for local palates has become a crucial part of the franchise industry. More chains are expanding overseas, and those new outlets are becoming a bigger part of their business, so franchisers have invested heavily in studying local customs and taste profiles, and sourcing new ingredients. They’ve also tackled numerous marketing and logistical challenges, such as figuring out when to adapt familiar items and when to introduce entirely new ones that better fit the market, as well as how to create affordable menus for less affluent countries.
For the most part, creating a successful international menu requires having partners who are familiar with the region and can offer constant feedback. McDonald’s, for one, has stores in 119 countries and treats each region as its own test kitchen.
“Most U.S. companies don’t go abroad by themselves—they don’t take their employees from Toledo and ship them out to Beijing,” says franchise coach and author Rick Bisio. “They’re going to have a Chinese partner if they expand into China, saying ‘Here’s what we need to do.’ ”
American fast-food franchises make tweaks to their menus in order to adapt to local tastes. In Japan, in particular, ingredients such as shrimp, teriyaki sauce and mayonnaise seem to be important to catering to the tongue of the Japanese consumers. Photo: Pizza Hut
In some regions, franchise menus are guided in large part by dietary restrictions. India’s large Hindu population, which traditionally considers cattle slaughter taboo, has given rise to some particularly creative variations. At McDonald’s, one can find a Chicken Maharaja Mac, which resembles a Big Mac but with a double layer of grilled chicken patties and a smokey sauce.
Paneer, a cheese commonly served in curry dishes, also makes for a popular substitute. McDonald’s offers the McPaneer Royale—seared with French herbs and served with jalapeño peppers on cornmeal-dusted buns—while Papa John’s serves a “Papa’s Paneer” pizza.
Nearly a third of the 180 McDonald’s locations in Israel are kosher, meaning they don’t serve milk-based products (some have separate booths for milk-based desserts) and close on Jewish holidays and Shabbat. While falafel was taken off the menu several years ago, customers can still find kebabs and Israeli salad, served with olive oil and lemon.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, most fast-food franchises serve only halal food, which can’t contain pork or blood and must pass through several Islamic customs. McDonald’s Arabia emphasizes chicken, with items like the McArabia Chicken wrap and the Chicken Mega Mac, served with four chicken patties.
“If you go to the Middle East, all the oil will be different—they use pure vegetable oil and the taste is different,” says Mr. Bisio, a former director of international development for Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, Cinnabon and others. “You can’t operate in those countries without making those adjustments.”
Have it your way
Another common tactic is to incorporate local ingredients into core items, says Chris Young, director of global menu strategy at McDonald’s. For instance, “France plays off their cheese heritage,” says Mr. Young, noting that burgers have featured selections like Chevre, Camembert and Comté. “They’ve even created a sandwich with the crusty bottom of fondue.”
Stores in neighboring Italy have their own variation, with slices of Parmesan cheese on their burgers.
Both McDonald’s and Burger King, meanwhile, have introduced black burgers in Japan. Americans may mistake then for a meal left on the grill too long—the buns, cheese and sauce are pitch black—but they’ve actually been colored by squid ink.
Even in Canada—much closer culturally to the U.S. than, say, the Middle East—food gets its own local gloss. For instance, nearly every chain has a poutine item. The dish, which originated in Quebec, consists of french fries topped with cheese curds and gravy. Pizza Hut has a cheesy poutine pizza on the menu, complete with all the toppings, including fries. Burger King and McDonald’s offer a poutine version of their fries, sometimes topped with bacon.
The local adaptations extend beyond core menu items to areas like condiment selections. In addition to ketchup and mustard, many Thai franchises keep sweet chili sauce on their shelves, while Peruvian McDonald’s stock ají, a spicy sauce made of hot peppers.
A common flavor at some Chinese locations is mala, which is made from Sichuan peppercorns and carries a “numbing heat,” Mr. Young says.
Dessert also gets the local treatment. While ice cream and cookies might satisfy American sweet tooths, international franchises tweak their dessert offerings by adding local candy or flavors. In Switzerland, for instance, you can find McFlurries made with Toblerone, the Swiss chocolate bar with nougat, almonds and honey. In Hong Kong, McDonald’s customers can order taro-root pie, which has a sweet, yamlike flavor, while in Thailand you can try a more savory corn pie.
Another item featured in Italy and many European nations is alcohol. People over 18 years old in France can pair their Royals (the metric version of the Quarter Pounder) with wine, while Germans can opt for beer.
A cook’s tour
But it’s hard to predict what will work in new markets, and occasionally items turn out to be duds—or lose out to local players. For instance, McDonald’s quickly discontinued its Israeli McFalafel after it launched in 2011, citing competition with cheap traditional falafel stalls that are ubiquitous in the country.
Sometimes, though, items not only succeed but get big enough to cross borders. For instance, the McWrap, a McDonald’s sandwich that features vegetables and chicken wrapped in a tortilla, was originally introduced in Poland in 2004, and made its way to North America later on.
“If an item does well in one spot and people really enjoy it, other countries tend to pull from it,” says Mr. Young, who personally hopes that China’s spicy items go global.
Mr. Janofsky is a staff reporter in The Wall Street Journal’s New York bureau.