Although culinary traditions and palate preferences may spark creativity in localizing menus, dietary restrictions present challenges to food retailers looking overseas.
In much of the Middle East and parts of Asia and Africa, the food must be halāl, an Islamic dietary law that prohibits the consumption of pork and mandates specific butchering practices.
“One of the big challenges was to make sure we passed [halāl certification] even before we went there to taste the flavors,” says Wing Zone’s Parra, adding that if the brand’s partners in the Middle East pull one sample that is not halāl, the entire container is trashed.
In India, 80 percent of the population is Hindu and therefore does not consume beef. This dietary omission forced Fatburger to revamp its offerings. “We’re evaluating bringing a buffalo burger into the market,” Wiederhorn says. “Besides chicken products, we’re not going to start with a traditional beef burger.”
Similarly, the Quiznos menu in India focuses on an extensive vegetarian selection with local flavors like mango jalapeño tofu and paneer tikka, a dish of spice-marinated cheese curds, taking center stage.
How food retailers choose to source their ingredients overseas can also influence the menu. Pinkberry, for example, tries to locally source ingredients where it can. “It saves them cost and then the community appreciates it because it’s their own product,” Patel says, adding that the approach can affect the flavor selection. “Sometimes blueberries aren’t always available in every country.”
For other companies, it can be easier to export ingredients to overseas locations. Because Slapfish uses frozen-at-sea technology, the company can ship large quantities of fish every few months, and dishes served in Dubai are as fresh as their California counterparts. “We had the supply lines, so the logistics of getting seafood around the world gave us an advantage with the franchisee,” Gruel says.
Import laws and government restrictions can also force retailers to tweak the menus at international locations. Wiederhorn says that’s been a difficult challenge for Fatburger. Some countries like Turkey do not allow any foreign beef into the country in an effort to better support their own suppliers. However, other governments prohibit the import of U.S. Department of Agriculture–grade beef specifically because of a past incidence of Mad Cow Disease in 2012.
“It doesn’t mean that you can’t get good beef in China. It just doesn’t make sense when a country is going to allow some imported beef but not all,” Wiederhorn says. “In China, we added more chicken to our menu because the Chinese like chicken. That was just a necessary adaptation.”
Even with secured sources for ingredients and a prototype menu ready to go, retailers can benefit from the counsel of international partners who have a deep understanding of the local culture and cuisine.
Gruel says his partners have played an integral part in developing the menu: Whenever Gruel would post a weekly special on the Slapfish Facebook page in the U.S., the partners would send an email requesting the dish be included as a permanent offering on the Dubai menu.
“Knowing that they can run a restaurant operation—that’s essential,” Gruel says. “You want to partner with someone who’s passionate about the brand and who wants to build it.”