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19.07.2018

The McSpicy Chicken is my favourite McDonald's burger, but I always feel mildly disgusted by its appearance—probably because the texture and colour of its sauce reminds me of Pond's cold cream. Those thoughts fall away with my first bite of the deep-fried chicken patty, its greasiness cut by the crunch of lettuce. When I visited the McDonald’s in Connaught Place’s inner circle on a sunny June evening, I inhaled the burger in two minutes. My fries—whose quality, I find, falters more often than the McSpicy Chicken’s—were crisp and perfectly salted.

If I hadn't been there to write about it, I may not even have noticed that none of my food's packaging bore the official McDonald's logo. The Coke came in a white cup decorated with purple spirals; the burger’s box was plain white with a red stripe bleeding across it; and the fries’ red-and-yellow carton, though most likely of the three to pass for the real deal, was unmistakably, not.

Some people would say that the establishment I was eating at was not even a McDonald's, although the name was on the signboard. And if you think you’ve eaten at the Golden Arches  in north or east India sometime over the last year, chances are that you've also been to a restaurant in a state of McDonalds-purgatory.

Last August, McDonald's India—the India branch of the fast-food multinational—terminated its franchise agreements for the 169 restaurants operated by Connaught Plaza Restaurants Limited, which had been its business partner in a joint venture since 1995. CPRL was one of McDonalds' two franchisees in India; it managed operations in north and east India, while another company, Westlife, managed, and still manages, those in west and south India. McDonald's claimed it issued the terminations because CPRL had failed to pay its royalties for two years; CPRL, on the other hand, claimed that McDonalds' officials had known that the royalty money was paying off bank loans.

This fast-food drama had been on a slow burn for a decade, starting in 2008, when McDonald's attempted to to buy Vikram Bakshi, CPRL’s managing director, out of the arrangement. They reportedly offered him $5 million—the amount that Bakshi had put into the joint venture at its inception. "After 13 years and 70 restaurants, they wanted to buy me out at my initial investment," Bakshi told Mint last December. "I was shocked."

In 2013, McDonalds' nominee directors on CPRL’s board voted against Bakshi's reelection as managing director of his own company, fraying his patience even further. He challenged this in the National Company Law Tribunal, which sided with him, reinstating him as managing director in July 2017. The following month, McDonald's India terminated CPRL’s franchise contracts.

Bakshi has kept many of his restaurants running despite the notices of termination, and McDonald's has repeatedly tried to have them shut, including by telling suppliers to no longer work with CPRL. Late last year, after CPRL's logistics partner stopped working with the firm, over 80 restaurants shut down. Plot twist: by early January this year, reports declared that Bakshi had secured a new vendor, and almost all the restaurants had been reopened. Now, at the Connaught Place McDonald's, the generic packaging was the only sign I could see of the food fight; similar packaging can be found in McDonald’s outlets across the city.

CPRL and Westlife have done much more than execute McDonalds’ India operations—they’ve created major infrastructure for the Indian food industry. In 2014, Amit Jatia, who runs Westlife, told the BBC that there used to be very few suppliers of lettuce when McDonald's started in the country, since most places serving burgers used cabbage instead. That supply chain, along with many others, had to be created. No wonder the breakup with CPRL was so hard: given how much power their association with McDonald’s had given local partners, these companies may, conceivably, have started to see themselves as the stars of the operation.

Partners like CPRL also helped McDonald’s project an identity carefully tailored for Indians. When India’s first McDonald's opened in 1996 in Basant Lok, it became the first in the world to not serve beef or pork. The McAloo Tikki was created as a McDonald's spin on bun tikki; and at just Rs 20, it was an affordable luxury. It’s hard to recall now that items considered McDonald’s staples around the world entered India very late - our chicken McNuggets, for instance, only arrived in 2008.

The fast-food feud hasn't made headlines since April, when CPRL announced that its sales were up 6 percent in March 2018 as compared to March 2017. In the interim, CPRL seems to have been doing well. The employee who served me my food told me that the Connaught Place restaurant itself had been closed for just a little while; it had reopened just a few weeks earlier.

If memes are to be trusted, then the Connaught Place restaurant was not a true McDonald’s in a key way: it had a functioning soft-serve machine. Slurping down a cup of vanilla with chocolate sauce on my way out the door, It seemed inevitable, really, that this ice-cream, by any other name, would taste as sweet.

Aria Thaker is a journalist and writer based in Delhi.

Photo Credit: Love Tram

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