In a globalized world, many quick-serve restaurants look to emerging markets in the Middle East, Asia, and other regions for new growth ventures. While these retailers strive to maintain the cornerstones of their brand, international menus can’t be carbon copies of the American originals. Regional flavors, religious dietary restrictions, and different suppliers all play a part in shaping unique dishes for consumers abroad.
“There’s a lot of research you have to do to really understand the market, the customs, the type of food people eat there,” says Danny Bendas, managing partner at Synergy Restaurant Consultants.
Steven Goldstein, partner at consulting group The Culinary Edge, says brands should consider criteria such as the host country’s lifestyle trends and the company’s global vision. “If we’re a brand and we’re going to go somewhere and we need to act a certain way, the first thing we need to do is we need to understand who our client is,” Goldstein says. “What is their brand? What cannot ever change about the brand?”
Some brands, like Atlanta-based Wing Zone, strive to keep the food and flavors as consistent as possible across the various locations.
“As much as we can, we want to have our main menu the same way that we have it here in the States,” says Hair Parra, vice president of international development at Wing Zone. “The main reason we do that is because when people buy a franchise from the United States, they want to see the same thing they see in the States.”
The franchise has 17 different sauce flavors, but will only take 12 at most to an international location. To determine which are best suited for a new market, Wing Zone conducts blind taste tests. Preliminary results gleaned from taste tests, market analyses, and consultations are then funneled into a menu strategy.
“What might be a great flavor in Panama might not be a great flavor in Russia or Malaysia,” Parra says. “We want to turn that data into something that’s actionable so it guides the menu decision-making for that brand in that location.”
Beverly Hills, California–based Fatburger often turns to focus groups to home in on palate subtleties before opening a new location and is receptive to suggestions for improvement once the store is up and running.
“Generally, we figure it out before we open, but we’re not too proud to adapt if customers are telling us something we haven’t thought of beforehand,” says chief executive officer Andy Wiederhorn.
Striking the right balance between novelty and familiarity can also be key to a successful international menu. “There are times when people are looking to be adventurous and times when people are looking to be a little safer,” Goldstein says. “From a flavor perspective, there are accepted levels of authenticity for the things that people eat within their own culture.” He says there are similar levels for introducing foreign fare.
Brands like Wing Zone and Fatburger have added rice to their menus in Asia, and Wiederhorn says sauces and spices are more popular in Middle Eastern cuisine. However, he says there is no one blueprint for understanding the world’s flavor preferences. “In all of these markets, it’s different,” Wiederhorn says. “I can’t generalize.”
Goldstein came to the same conclusion when he worked with hot sauce retailer Frank’s RedHot. When it was looking to expand to Spain, Goldstein says, he was surprised to find that the Spanish palate has a very low tolerance for heat and spice.
“We think of everything as a generalization. Anything south of the border means hot. Anything around the equator means hot. It’s not true,” Goldstein says. “The terms that we throw around in describing food are so subjective, and they don’t necessarily translate.”
Chef and Slapfish co-owner Andrew Gruel recently learned about the preferred flavor profile in the United Arab Emirates when his California-based concept partnered with an international franchisee. Dubai is ethnically diverse, with a large immigrant population, including residents of Indian, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, he says. At the recommendation of his partners in Dubai, Gruel expanded the Southern California–style menu to include regional flavors.
“They were adamant about having more options that otherwise would really put a cap on the potential customer base,” he says. “Our whole thing is fast-casual seafood. They want the dinners, the plates like paella, and these Indian dishes like biryani.”
Wing Zone has also supplemented its menu with local staples. Rice has been added to the menu in Malaysia and Singapore. The menu at a soon-to-open location in Russia will include borscht, a traditional beetroot soup. In Columbia, fried plantain slices called tostones are a popular addition, while the Panama menu includes croquetas, bite-size rolls of fried corn.
“The people in Panama, they love to eat corn, and we made that specifically for Panama,” Parra says. “When I go there, I eat them myself almost every day.”
The menu at Quiznos is based around toasted sandwiches and subs, which affords a great deal of customization in international locations. The Quiznos units in South Korea serve an authentic Korean barbecue sandwich, while the Philippines locations recently featured a sandwich filled with pork sisig, a Filipino dish in which the meat is marinated in vinegar and seasoned with spices.
Last October, the company tried an unconventional approach to localization by opening a new grab-and-go concept, Q Café. “We feel these extra local touches provide a better experience for our customer,” says Ken Cutshaw, president of Quiznos International, in an email. “Coffee is a mainstay on [quick-serve] menus in Southeast Asia, and we saw an opportunity to align Quiznos with the café and coffee culture of Singapore.”
Alternatively, frozen-yogurt brand Pinkberry aims to keep the taste experience consistent in all of its 240-plus locations across 19 countries.
“We want the same customer experience that you’d have in Dubai that you’d have in L.A.,” says Ryan Patel, director of global real estate and business development. However, adding a one-of-a-kind local flavor to the core menu can strengthen ties with the community, he says.
In India, the company is experimenting with savory flavors, while green apple has become a mainstay.
In Peru, a native fruit called lúcuma, which tastes like maple and sweet potato, is a local hit. “That’s a must for the Peruvians. Our partners down there said we’ve got to create this,” Patel says. “It’s something that’s a big deal.”
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.”