In India, Starbucks sells a tandoori paneer roll. KFC makes a “paneer zinger.” Burger King has the Whopper . . . oh, and a Paneer King burger, too. This is largely how international food brands court India’s 1.25 billion consumers: by playing to local tastes. But Domino’s is doing more. It has cleverly reimagined everything about itself, right down to its flour, to nail the balance between serving local needs and retaining a patina of Western cool. That’s what has made it India’s largest international foreign-food chain, with 806 stores across 170 cities, more than twice as many as McDonald’s—and Domino’s says it nets 20% higher revenue. The chain sells more pizza in India than anywhere outside the U.S.
“We were baffled, and gratified, that middle-class India took to the pizza like no other Western food,” says Ajay Kaul, CEO of Domino’s India. He suspects that the company is working with a built-in advantage: Pizza is a cross-cultural food. Its dough and toppings have plenty in common with the Indian roti (flat bread) and subji (vegetables). Kaul guesses that pizza also appeals to Indians because it contains two keystones of local culture—a love of shared plates, and of food that can be eaten with your hands. A hot slice, it turns out, is among the few mass culinary exports that require no utensils.
To see how Domino’s makes it work, Fast Company sent a photographer to document pizza time in Noida, a suburb of New Delhi.
To woo Indian traditionalists, as well as the budget-conscious eater, the chain spent eight months examining everything from flour to toppings, to lower prices. It then introduced what it called “Pizza Mania”—a 35-rupee (60-cent) pizza that takes exactly 2.5 minutes to make and six more to bake.
In small cities, where Indians crave Western products and eating out is a family event, Domino’s offers a large dine-in space. And its locations throughout the country are situated exactingly: The pizza chain studies each neighborhood, its streets, and traffic flow. Then each store’s area is meticulously mapped, down to every intersection and traffic light, to find the fastest delivery routes—because here, Domino’s offers its “30 minutes or it’s free” policy. (It ended the offer in America in 1993, after the hurry caused too many car accidents.)
A deliveryman and his manager plot out the route he’s about to take. Each delivery is allotted eight minutes, and there’s a seven-minute buffer for traffic jams and bad roads. More than 99% of the pizzas arrive within the promised 30-minute deadline.
The Domino’s India menu is diverse, to appeal to the country’s many tastes. For inspiration, its chefs (right) go on regular “food walks” through markets. A recent “Taco Indiana” dish was inspired by northern India’s kebabs and parathas, for example. In southern India, where pizza is not as popular, research led to a spicy raw-banana pizza.
Despite its menu’s local flavor, Domino’s is careful not to overlocalize; middle-class India places a premium on “Western.” In a recent TV ad, a young woman tells her brother that he is exactly like a Taco Indiana: Western-looking on the outside but Indian on the inside. At left, chefs develop a new Subwich—a cross between a burger and a sandwich with pizza filling, now available throughout the country.
Chefs taste-test a new pizza. It’s the locally popular “cheese burst” topped with chicken salami, classic Indian spices (chili pepper, sesame, ginger, and garlic) and some that are new to India’s middle class (chives, celery, parsley)—a Western slice that tastes just Indian enough.
[Photos: Vivek Singh]