KFC is ditching Indian vegetarians to do what it does best: sell fried chicken

“We stand for chicken.”
“We stand for chicken.”
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
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Two years after Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) announced that it will sell more vegetarian burgers in India, it is looking back at chicken in a big way.

As competition in India’s burger market heats up, fast-food chains are returning to what they know best—in KFC’s case, tubs of fried chicken—leaving the vegetarian menu as it is, for now.

“The food scenario in India has evolved really quickly since then. Consumers are well-travelled, exposed to global trends, willing to try new food, and seek food that is authentic,” Lluis Ruiz Ribot, chief marketing officer, KFC India, said in an interview.

In the last six months, the fast-food chain has already rolled out three big marketing campaigns for its new chicken launches, including the Chizza which is fried chicken slathered with cheese.

In the same period, the company did not launch any new ads for its vegetarian meals. This does not mean that the chain, with around 300 outlets in India, will stop selling vegetarian meals or launch vegetarian variants that account for 30% of its menu in the country. However, it will not invest significantly on it either.

“While chicken has always been a large part of our menu, 2016 is the year that we have refocused on our core, as a result all the big ticket launches so far have been driven by chicken,” added Ribot, who took over as head of marketing nine months ago.

Vegetarian calling

It was in 2014, a decade after re-entering India, that KFC gave the country a dedicated vegetarian menu.

Over the years, most large fast-food chains have “Indianized” their menus for religious and cultural reasons. Beef and pork were shunned as they are not widely consumed in urban India. Besides, nearly 30% of Indians do not consume meat at all.

So, the logic was simple: sell more to vegetarians.

McDonald’s, for instance, has been selling aloo tikki (or potato patty) burgers in India since 2004. In 2012, it opened its first vegetarian restaurant in Vaishno Devi, a pilgrimage centre in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. Pizza chain Domino’s has, on Hindu festivals such as Navratri, restricted its menu to veg pizzas in Gujarat and Maharashtra—states that have a higher proportion of vegetarians.

In 2014, KFC inducted the Paneer Zinger and Veg Rockin’ Burger to its menu, backed by major ad campaigns.

But market dynamics have since then changed.

In recent times, more fast-food chains such as Burger King and Carl’s Jr have joined the fray, pushing existing players to distinguish themselves.

Moreover, the Indian fast-food sector faces tepid demand. KFC’s parent company Yum! Brands itself has been struggling with low same-store sales growth for over 10 quarters now. For the April-June quarter of the calendar year 2016, KFC reported a 1% drop in sales on a yearly basis.

So, the chain is now putting extra marketing muscle to revive footfalls, besides reverting to its core strength.

“We feel that it is just the right juncture to reiterate what we stand for—chicken,” said Ribot.

Hopefully, these tubs of chicken will come to the rescue.