McDonald's Corp., the U.S.-based hamburger chain, is to open its first ever vegetarian-only outlets in two Indian pilgrimage centres as it seeks to expand in a market where cows are sacred and beef-eating taboo.
The two vegetarian McDonald's are due to open next year in the city of Amritsar, home to the Golden Temple, the holiest site of India's Sikh faith, and the small town of Katra, the jump-off point for Hindus visiting the mountain shrine of Vaishno Devi, the second busiest pilgrimage site in India.
McDonald's decision to open vegetarian-only outlets in the two holy places reflects the concessions that foreign fast-food chains are making to local Indian tastes, as they seek to cater to a huge and fast-growing market for affordable restaurant meals by young people, and families on limited budgets.
"A vegetarian store makes absolute sense in the places which are famous as pilgrimage sites," said Rajesh Kumar Maini, a spokesman for McDonald's India.
McDonald's, whose signature item globally is a beef hamburger, has struggled to gain traction in India, where many Hindus revere cows as deities and do not eat beef, even if they are not strict vegetarians. Its first Indian store, opened in 1996, served up lamb burgers but those were deemed too rubbery and, eventually, abandoned.
Today, its meat burger offerings are all chicken patties, but McDonald's also offers a repertoire of vegetarian meals: the McVeggie (a patty of carrots, peas with potato) a McAloo Tikki, (a patty of spicy mashed potatoes, deep fried) and McSpicy Paneer (a patty of traditional Indian cheese).
In spite of spending more than a decade and a half in India, McDonald's currently has just 271 stores. But Mr Maini said the chain expects to double that over the next three years.
The new all-vegetarian stores in Amritsar and Katra will start by offering the existing vegetarian items now being sold across the country. However, he said the chain would probably develop new items to expand the selection.
"Since this is going to be an exclusive vegetarian restaurant, we will have to look at opening more products," Mr. Maini said.
McDonald's will not be the first multinational food chain to strike meat off the menu at some of its Indian stores. U.S.-based sandwich chain Subway, which has 280 outlets across India, on Tuesday opened its first entirely vegetarian restaurant in the affluent state of Punjab on a private university campus, whose owners are strict vegetarians.
Domino's Pizza, the biggest foreign fast-food chain in India, has several vegetarian outlets in a few neighbourhoods of Mumbai and Gujarat populated mainly by members of the Jain faith, whose followers are strict vegetarians.
Across India, Domino's has also heavily indigenised its menus, offering customers spiced-up fare as pizza keema do piazza (topped with spicy minced lamb), and five-pepper pizza, innovations that have helped turn the country into the chain's third biggest overseas market, after the UK and Mexico.