DELHI -- Fast food giant, McDonalds Corp., plans to open totally vegetarian outlets near two pilgrimage sites in India.
The first restaurant will open in 2013, near the Golden Temple in the northern city of Amritsar, which is sacred for Sikhs. The second one is planned for the town of Katra, which is the base for Hindus who are visiting the Vaishno Devi cave shrine.
These will be McDonald’s first vegetarian joints in the world. The fast food giant has been operating in India since 1996.
Rakesh Srivastava, 39, frequently visits Vaishno Devi with his wife, who is a strict vegetarian. “If it’s purely vegetarian food then I will definitely go to it,” said Srivastava, who describes the food available near the religious site as a bit bland. “You can’t have any onions and it isn’t spicy.”
Srivastava, who works at a non-profit organization in Delhi, finds going to McDonald’s always a bit of fun. “It’s a religious visit but it is also an outing,” he told SmartPlanet. “So why not have different kind of food there.”
Economics, no doubt, is the driving force behind the veggie decision. India with a population of 1.2 billion people presents a huge market for American fast-food chains. A sizeable middle class, which has acquired more spending muscle, has made its way to KFC, Subway, Dominoes and Pizza Hut. These chains have grown as more Indians can afford to eat out. Dunkin Donuts also opened earlier this year and Starbucks is expected to arrive soon.
But McDonald’s 270 outlets in India are a small fraction of its 33,000 outlets worldwide. With this move, the company will open itself up to millions of strictly vegetarian religious pilgrims who visit these two major sites. A smart move considering much of India’s social, cultural and tourist activity pirouettes around religious festivals and places. And nearly 40% of the country’s population is vegetarian.
Several of these American chains have gradually Indian-ized their menu by offering vegetarian items as well as making their food spicier than what is served in the West. Beverages, too, taken on a local flavor. McDonalds, for instance, already offers potato and cottage-cheese based items that are hugely popular. It also maintains separate kitchens to prepare vegetarian and non-vegetarian food.
McDonald’s non-vegetarian menu in India excludes beef and pork. Hindus, who consider the cow sacred, don’t eat beef. Muslims, who regard pigs as unclean, don’t eat pork. Fish and chicken are safe bets.
The New York Times calculates McDonald’s accounts for 3 percent of beef consumption in the United States, which works out to 1.37 million cows per year killed for McDonald’s in the United States alone.
Which is perhaps why some right-wing Hindu groups are creating a fuss about McDonald’s setting-up shop near religious sites. “It’s an attempt not only to make money but also deliberately humiliate Hindus,” S. Gurumurthy, a leader of a Hindu Nationalist Group told The Daily Telegraph.
"It is an organization associated with cow slaughter. If we make an announcement that they're slaughtering cows, people won't eat there,” he said. “We are definitely going to fight it.”
India, often described as a country of contradictions, is also set to become the world’s largest beef exporter in the world.
A report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, released in April 2012, said that this year India was tapping into Brazil’s market in the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia as all carabeef is lower priced and produced according to halal standards.
In 2012, additional export orientated slaughterhouses are expected to come on line, increasing supplies.
But there is a cow-buffalo distinction. The exported meat is water buffalo. The killing of male and female cows or even milk-giving buffaloes is prohibited by federal law.
Srivastava, however, doesn’t see how a McDonald’s opening up near Vaishno Devi “humiliates” Hindus. “It’s just a foreign company making its investments,” he said.
Gita Arora, a homemaker, sees the cow-based opposition to McDonalds as “pseudo.”
“If one is so angry about cows being slaughtered in the US then why have any McDonald places?” she asked. “So it’s okay to eat at McDonald’s in Delhi but not in Vaishno Devi…doesn’t make sense to me.”
“I don’t think most people who eat in McDonald’s are even aware about killing cows in America or wherever,” continued Arora, a vegetarian who has visited Vaishno Devi. “Anyway, I don’t think the younger generation links food with religion the way it was done in the past.”
But Arora also says that hard-core religious vegetarians may feel more strongly. “I became a vegetarian by choice,” she said. "There was no religious compulsion."
Since McDonald’s fare is widely regarded as unhealthy, critics see it as a misfit in the healthier vegetarian food club as well as a poor challenge to tradition Indian fast-food.
Kavitha Rao, a Bangalore-based journalist, describes India vegetarian fast-food as “healthier, tastier, and fresher.” “I can assure you that Indians have many more than a hundred varieties of veggie fast food, not just a plain one-size-fits-all potato patty,” she writes in The Guardian.
Andrew Tobert, an environmental activist, counter-argues that Indians won’t become obese overnight nor will its cuisine disappear. “That we live in a world where people can pick and choose the best of global culture, regardless of where they were born? McDonald's is the global emancipator. May its benevolence spread far and wide,” he writes to Rao’s argument.
Ritesh Kumar, owner of Ritesh Chat Bhandar, a shop selling Indian fast food in Delhi, doesn’t see McDonald’s as a challenge to his business. The 29-year-old businessman caters to about 100-150 customers every day. His vegetarian burger consists of a bun and a potato patty with a mix of tangy and sweet sauces available for Rs. 10 (18 cents).
Kumar, who has eaten at McDonalds, says his burgers taste different. “The burger that they serve is quite bland and many times more costly,” he said.
Kumar also boasts of a wider choice of traditional Indian snacks that are available between the price range of Rs. 10 and Rs. 20 (18 cents to 36 cents). “McDonalds caters to a select group of customers who can spend about Rs 100 ($2) and more per meal but one can get their stomachs full at less than half the price at my kiosk,” he said.
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