Starbucks arrives in India, gains spice, loses flavour

October 19, 2012

(Warning: there’s barely a lick of reporting in this blog post. Opinions are the author’s only, and almost certainly are wrong.)

Take a look at the items on the menu at the new Starbucks coffee shops in Mumbai, which opened this week in a joint venture with India’s Tata Global Beverages Ltd. As Megha Bahree and Margherita Stancati show you at The Wall Street Journal’s India blog, they include a series of curious “fusion” items:

  • murg tikka sandwich
  • tandoori chicken sandwich
  • tamarind peanut chicken calzone
  • the Konkani twist (it’s a long puff, Bahree and Stancati report)

I know that there are no other coffee shops or restaurants started by western companies that sell quite the same things as these, but as I discovered earlier this year while looking for lunch in Delhi’s Connaught Place, this is a representative sample of the style of food that you’ll find. That goes for Dunkin’ Donuts, Cafe Coffee Day, Barista and so on.

That’s not a problem. What I don’t understand is why people get excited about a new American chain eatery opening in India when most of what they sell tastes so Indian. I would have thought that the attraction was the opportunity to try something exotic, something that you can’t get anywhere else. I’ve always thought it would be interesting to go to another country and turn people on to bagels and cream cheese. In India, would I have to concoct mango chutney cream cheese? Special Punjabi Panchranga Mother’s Recipe pickle cream cheese in a special marketing joint venture? Melted GHEE on a bagel? Naan-style pumpernickel? Anyone who knows what a bagel tastes like will understand why this is not fusion, but the rise of mutant food.

I concede that the tamarind peanut chicken calzone probably tastes good, and if I go to Starbucks in India, I’ll order one. But the idea that you must adapt foods from the West to suit Indian tastes so you can operate on a chain store basis feels off to me in a culinary sense, even if it makes economic sense.

If you’re KFC or McDonald’s or Starbucks and want to sell your food and drinks in India, your market research apparently tells you that you need to offer Indians tastes that they’re used to. Often, according to my friends, that means more spice and more familiar favorites from samosas to puffs to this mirch or that mirch. When you do that, you’re giving people something that’s different than the food and beverage that made your brand so powerful in the first place.

There are restrictions that you can’t get around — the beef and pork that just won’t make it in India are just two examples — but I wonder what would happen if Starbucks more or less duplicated its menu and tried that in India. There are plenty of sandwiches and other items that I’ve seen in U.S. Starbucks outlets that would taste or look nothing like the kind of food you find in India.

For a non-resident Indian returning to the old country, or an Indian tourist who discovered what Starbucks is all about in the United States, it’s an exotic taste of the West. For the U.S. or European tourist, it’s a familiar taste in a new world.

Having written all this, I have heard (though not confirmed) that there are stories about potato chip companies failing to make any impact with their reliably addictive recipes in India, until they started adding masala powder. If that’s the way it works, then everything I’ve said here is proof that I’m better off as a newsman than as a marketer.

(Note: I earlier wrote in the headline that Starbucks “weighs anchor” in India. Wrong, apparently. That’s the raising of the anchor to a ship, not the dropping of it, I read. Arrr….)

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