NEW DELHI—Diksha Sharma visits her neighborhood Dunkin’ Donuts three times a week but has yet to buy its doughnuts or coffee. The 23-year-old publicist goes there for the burgers.
“I don’t think anyone would come just for a doughnut,” Ms. Sharma said, tucking into a Dunkin’ Donuts Original Tough Guy Chicken Burger. “My grandmother only recently found out what a doughnut is.”
It is a harsh truth America’s doughnut chain has had to embrace in Asia’s third-largest economy: Many Indians just don’t like doughnuts, and even the ones that like them are unlikely to buy them by the dozen.
The Massachusetts-based chain has had to radically rework its menu in India and rebrand itself through an advertising campaign to let consumers know it offers more than a Bavarian Cream and coffee. In India it now has almost as many burgers on the menu as McDonald’s . All its burgers in India, like McDonald’s, are beef-free.
Dunkin’s decision to put burgers on the menu for the first time anywhere underscores challenges international chains can face adapting to cultural differences.
With a growing middle class that is just discovering the joys of eating out, India has been touted as one of the last frontiers for global restaurant chains. McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, Subway, Taco Bell, Cinnabon, Starbucks and most recently Burger King are among the many that have landed in the subcontinent with mixed success.
Some inventions for India become best sellers, like McDonald’s Chicken Maharaja Mac, a beef-free take on the Big Mac, while others disappear, like Cinnabon’s attempt to make a savory cinnamon roll with spicy ground mutton.
McDonald’s and Burger King offer chicken and vegetarian burgers, because most Indians won’t eat beef. Starbucks launched in India with potato sandwiches and continues to serve eggless cookies for people with dietary restrictions. Fried-chicken chain KFC offers a Veg Rockin’ Burger for vegetarians.
Dunkin’ Donuts’ franchise owner in India— Jubilant FoodWorks Ltd. —was one of the pioneers of the Western fast-food business in the country. Eighteen years ago, the company brought Domino’s to India, which has grown into the country’s largest foreign food chain thanks to a menu that appealed to local tastes.
Its 700 outlets sell more local favorites like Tandoori Chicken and Peppy Paneer than pepperoni pizzas. Earlier this year, it rolled out a spicy banana pizza, which it hoped would be popular with consumers in Southern India.
Its pizza success, however, didn’t prepare Jubilant for its dive into doughnuts. When Dunkin’ first opened in 2012, its outlets were surprisingly empty in the mornings, which is when it gets most of its sales in the U.S., said Dev Amritesh, president of Dunkin’ Donuts India.
“A few people would come every day. But that’s not enough to build a business,” he said. “They were mostly expats trying to replicate their life here.”
Dunkin’ had made a big mistake, analysts say. Indians don’t start their days with frosted sweets, and they don’t pick up breakfast on the way to the office.
“The whole idea of Dunkin’ abroad is breakfast on-the-go,” said Saloni Nangia, the president of market-research firm Technopak Advisors. “In India, that concept doesn’t exist. People usually eat breakfast at home with their families.”
Jubilant said it had always expected a slow start and had planned to add more savory items to its menu. Adapting to Indian tastes for Dunkin’ Donuts has meant turning the menu and the timetable of its outlets upside-down.