We’ve all been there, traveling can be exhausting. Hours on end of getting up, sitting down, walking here, sitting uncomfortably somewhere over there. It’s even more unpleasant when you start to get that empty, starving feeling in your belly. I, being a self-certified junk-food connoisseur with a bottomless pit of an appetite and a love of travel, have found myself in this very predicament more times than I would like to admit … and it’s at times like these that I look for something quick and familiar. Imagine my relief when, in Florence, waiting for a train back to Rome, I happened upon (in my modest opinion), the eighth wonder of the world, a McDonald’s.
While I try to limit the amount of fast food I eat to a “healthy” amount, I’m a sucker for the quick eats. So what better opportunity to pop into a McDonald’s for a quick bite …? especially since this was my first chance to try the chain outside of the states.
At first glance, it wasn’t much different than what I was used to: I was greeted by golden arches and the delicious aroma of their signature fries. But then, I took a look at the menu. Replacing most of the menu items I have come to almost memorize on the bright LED screens were items that were a bit more unusual for my typical fast-food appetite:a chicken sandwich topped with smoked Italian ham, Fontina cheese, and garnished with porcini mushrooms; a cheeseburger made with beef from the nearby countryside, topped with smoked scamorza cheese; a dozen different types of coffee and sweets from cheesecake to tiramisu to croissants.
Unexpectedly overjoyed and fascinated that my go-to fast-food place offered so many locally-inspired items, I got to thinking: Do big-chain restaurants do this everywhere?
Hungry for More
Research revealed that other companies in the fast-food industry do similar things to pander to customers all around the world. In Japan, a place where seafood is deeply embedded in their traditional cuisine, you can find lobster-and-caviar burgers at Wendy’s. While at Taco Bell, customers can enjoy tortillas stuffed with shrimp and guacamole. Meanwhile, over in India where a large population of people don’t eat beef, Taco Bell has stayed successful by swapping out their classic ground beef with potatoes and rice.
Think Globally, Act Locally
Why do these companies go to such great lengths to localize their food rather than serve up what’s been successful in the states?
“You’re dealing with a much more sophisticated clientele than ever before in the world,” said Johnson & Wales’s Academic Director of Online Hospitality Programs Michael O’Malley. Before coming to Johnson & Wales, O’Malley worked as an international franchise consultant for brands in the Middle East and India. There, he worked to help chains adapt their menus to meet the needs of the local communities. “More people are traveling, so companies need to have a particular level of responsibility that you don’t sully,” he says.
In short terms, O’Malley means that companies have become more cognizant of the fact that their customers may visit locations all around the globe. However, in order to be profitable in a foreign market, brands rely on the customers’ overall brand experience, while altering the menu to cater to the local community.
“Think about a brand like a McDonald’s or Burger King. Essentially you’re thinking about burgers” said O’Malley. “So how does that translate to India where a lot of people religiously cannot eat beef? Right away, as a company they need to think about how they translate into those marketplaces.”
O’Malley said that in the food industry, companies have moved away from the traditional, and oftentimes failing, method of only offering core menu items like the Whopper or Big Mac. Instead, they’ve shifted their focus from these core items and have become “caretakers of the brand.”
“Today food organizations are really moving away from these particular items being essential and really focusing on to several pillars of what makes the business, the business,” he said. “What they’re hanging their hat on, especially in the fast-casual business, they’re thinking about convenience, value, and quality.”
He argues that as long as companies looking for international success are applying those principals, it doesn’t matter if they alter the menu to fit a local palate. “You can engineer any menu item to fit into that construct, and that’s what companies are doing.”
So what does that mean for a frequent traveler like me? It means that if I happen to duck into a McDonald’s while in another country, I’ll think twice about ordering a double cheeseburger. After all, when in Rome . . .
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