Michael Winkelmann, Global Culinary Contact, Chili’s Grill & Bar, currently responsible for Europe, Middle East, North Africa and Asia markets, speaks with Nivedita Jayaram Pawar on the brand‘s performance in India
How is the Chili’s brand doing in India?
We own and operate five Chili’s outlets in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Pune. The brand has evolved tremendously since 2009. Presently, we are going through a phase of renovating and innovating the menu, and moving the bar on flavours.
For India, there are two development partners: I am responsible for the South and West regions, and the North and East are handled by the other partner. We have the option to sub franchise but have not, and are operating all our outlets.
Our same store growth is 40 percent over last year, which I think is due to the changes we have brought about in the business over the past 18 months. Improvements in food quality, raising our service level, enhancing the ambience, and creating brand awareness have been some of our initiatives. We have been awarded by seeing a lot of repeat business. We have been doing roadshows in Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, and the Middle East, and are planning in India too, probably by next year.
To what extent do you localise?
A lot of brands adopt the ‘best in market’ attitude. But we want to stay as loyal as we can to the brand so that the dining experience in India is no different from the one in Dubai or Moscow. That’s very important for our food DNA. We try to find the exact matches, but when we can’t, we bring them in.
We believe that when you can’t source certain products in India, then you need to import them, especially sauces and spices. About 60 percent of the ingredients is local produce such as poultry, fish, etc. Avocados are imported from U.S. as the quality of avocados here is inconsistent. We want to give the best Guacamole (a Mexican dip made from avocados). Nearly all the chillies at all our outlets across the world come from the U.S.
Consistency is very important for us across all our stores in all the countries. But, localised changes are necessary sometimes. For instance, we have the most extensive vegetarian menu in India than anywhere else in the world. Only in India we offer a Bombay burger or a Chicken tandoori burger. In the Middle East we don’t use pork but a lot of beef ribs. In the Philippines, people eat a lot of pork belly so we have incorporated some pork belly dishes in the menu, and in Malaysia, a lot of lamb dishes. In India we use buffalo (buff) instead of beef.
What factors do you consider on entering a new country?
We have to keep in mind food restrictions and taboos of the country. This affects the menu. But we don’t customise the food to suit local palates because we want our consumers to enjoy our south western American dining experience, which you don’t get locally. A lot of brands are guilty of adaptation and localisation, but I think that’s a sure shot way to lose definition and, certainly, direction.
We will be opening the first Chili’s in Tunisia, so a big part of my job is to go into the country and look at what we could source locally, and what we need to bring in from the United States. There are some importing laws that prohibit us from bringing certain items into a country. For example, in Russia, we were prohibited from bringing anything at all, and had to make everything from scratch. So I made four visits (even before the restaurant was built) going through the food items, and recreating them so that they tasted exactly like Chili’s. But such a situation is rare.
What is Chili’s expansion plans for India?
We plan to open 10 more outlets in the next 2-3 years, and are also keen to expand in Mumbai. With just one outlet currently, the city is very under-penetrated; we are looking at Andheri, Bandra, Parel and Colaba. The strategy is to further expand in our existing markets like Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad and then enter new territories like Chennai, Goa and Cochin.
What will be the investment?
Each store is a million dollar investment! We are looking at ~Rs 10 million for the next 2-3 years, and will open one store every quarter. We have identified some sites for which we are currently signing agreements or have started construction. These places will go live in the next few months.
We prefer ground floor locations of around 4,000 sqft space on a single level. Our selection criteria is also based on residential catchment, commercial viability, and entertainment value by way of a shopping centre or a movie theatre in the vicinity.
What is the secret of Chili’s success in 34 countries?
As a brand, we are in our 40th year and undoubtedly market leaders internationally. The secret, without a doubt, is consistency. We don’t deviate from the menu. We don’t take the ‘best in market’ approach, but we use the best ingredients that help us stay true to the original menu. There’s a lot to be learnt from the McDonald’s format.
India is really flying now. Mexico with 56 Chili’s is the biggest market for us. Egypt with 24 is growing fast. UAE, which has 29, is a big market. But the busiest Chili’s in the world is in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. We also have Chili’s in military bases in Germany, Japan and South Korea.
What’s happening on Chili’s menu front?
Lot of exciting things. We are known for our Chicken crispies and Honey Chipotle crispies. Burgers, ribs, steaks and fajitas are our core items. We are now raising the bar on them. No one does fajitas as well as we do. We will be introducing some new flavours very soon.
We are very focussed on fresh, but I don’t think we get enough credit for freshness. When people think of crispies they think frozen. But our chicken crispies are hand battered and freshly made. Nothing is pre-packaged. Our Texas cheese poppers are made in-house from scratch. We are also introducing a new category called Fresh Tex – the likes of which India hasn’t seen yet.
In fact, a phenomenal amount of work goes into creating a single new item for the menu. We have a huge test kitchen in Dallas for innovating and creating new items for the menu, which are then tested at restaurants in the Unites States. For every one that passes the test, there are 15 that don’t. We have just finalized our 2015 promotional calendar for food, and are already thinking about the 2016 calendar.
What is the biggest trend in food now?
Everyone wants to consume the super brands. There is a great amount of interest in food from Jamie Oliver’s pastas to Ramsay’s kitchen. The Cheesecake Factory opening in Dubai is a big thing; they have also opened a Pancake House. Another trend is for Craft burgers. Brands like Smash Burger and Five Guys are starting to franchise and open up internationally. It’s a tough market and ones has to be very innovative to stay on in the game.