BANGALORE, India — Praful Desai celebrated his 65th birthday last weekend by doing something special with his family.
Desai, a retired chemical engineer and an avowed vegetarian, took his two brothers-in-law, their wives, children and grandchildren to Bangalore’s latest hotspot — the country’s first Taco Bell.
“I’m trying Mexican food for the first time in my life,” Desai said, adding, “Never too old to try something new.”
Like the Desai family who spread themselves across three tables, half of those who came into Bangalore’s only Taco Bell that evening couldn’t tell the difference between a taco and a burrito.
Nearby, groups of teenagers, middle-class families dressed in traditional Indian attire and couples clothed in their weekend best stood in snaking lines to try India’s latest fast food sensation, pronouncing each syllable, “tor-ti-lla” and “fa-ji-ta.”
“It’s kay-suh-dee-ya,” Taco Bell staffer Jagruthi, 19, explained patiently to a bespectacled, bindi-sporting woman in a sari. Then she politely asked, “Do you like cheese?” The woman shook her head and chose the potato taco instead.
Several other employees scattered across the restaurant were doing the same thing: explaining ingredients and sounding out unfamiliar words.
So far, so good. Indians haven’t shown this much enthusiasm for American fast food since McDonald’s came to New Delhi and Mumbai more than a decade ago.
“India’s growing middle-class and especially Bangalore’s young, affluent population make for a perfect market,” said Taco Bell’s general manager in India, Ashok Bajpai, who said he shook hands with at least 500 customers one afternoon. The next two Indian Taco Bell outlets will open later this year in Bangalore. The plan is to grow to a 100 by 2015, Bajpai said.
Each day, some 2,000 Indians visit the new restaurant, strategically located inside a shopping mall in Bangalore’s conservative Malleswaram neighborhood. The mall is India’s newest, biggest and shiniest, spread over a million square feet. There, Taco Bell jostles with stores that sell all types of Western goods — from Levis, to Nikes to Calvin Klein perfumes.
A Western fast food chain serving what is foreign to the Indian palate is a big draw. Customer T.S. Mahadevaiah, an assistant manager at a government-owned insurance company, said he couldn’t resist coming in after reading the sign outside, “Visit Mexico for 18 rupees” (about $.40).
The vegetarian Mahadevaiah said his only brush with U.S. fast food was a visit to a pizza parlor. Here at Taco Bell, he studied every menu item and finally picked one with the prominent green dot next to it, denoting vegetarian.
In chili pepper-loving India, you might think that spicy Mexican food would be an easy sell. But it isn’t quite that simple and Taco Bell has made big changes from its American cousin. “It took us over two years to perfect our three Vs for India — value, vegetarian and variety,” said Bajpai.
Following in the footsteps of McDonald’s, beef is off the menu in this Hindu-dominated, cow-worshipping country. Taco Bell offers chicken instead. Half the menu is vegetarian, including potato and local cheese (paneer) variations flavored with Mexican seasonings and spices. Prices start low: a taco costs 18 rupees and a cheesy tortilla 20 rupees. That is exactly the price that middle-class India would pay for a local dosa or paratha in the street-corner food outlets.
Those low prices are a draw for customers like 17-year-old Monica Simha, a college student who was on her fourth visit in as many weeks. “We have changed the premise that an exotic cuisine comes at a premium pricing,” said Vineet Sharma, a Taco Bell senior manager.
A big hit on the menu was the free fill offer of Pepsi beverages. Many middle-class customers who could not seem to wrap their minds around the borrowed Western concept thronged the counter. Sharma said that a few people noticing the crowds came up to ask him if free food was being handed out.
The food may be Mexican and the ambiance international, but some things here are decidedly middle-class India. A couple trying to jump the line to avoid the rush was roundly told off by those waiting. Customers left the tables cluttered with leftovers and wrapping, ignoring the prominent trash bins in the corners. In a corner, an elderly couple furtively filled up an empty bottle with the free refill beverage.
But Bajpai, who sees all this as par for the course, said, “It might take a little time but India will mature to the global experience.”