Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

NEW DELHI — McDonald’s Corp has a baffling problem in India. It can’t get restaurants there to stop selling its food.

In August, after a lengthy dispute, the fast-food giant ordered its partner of 22 years in northern and eastern India to stop using the McDonald’s brand and system. But Connaught Plaza Restaurants Pvt Ltd, which operated 40% of McDonald’s Indian outlets, about 150 restaurants, went rogue.

It has continued to sell Maharaja Macs, McAloo Tikki and McSpicy Paneer burgers under the golden arches — using the McDonald’s name and recipes.

“I cannot allow a large organisation, this [multinational] monster, whatever you want to call it, to truly belittle our contributions,” says Connaught Plaza’s defiant managing director, Vikram Bakshi.

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McDonald’s has accused Connaught Plaza, a joint venture between Bakshi and McDonald’s India Pvt Ltd, of breaking agreements on financial management, internal controls and paying royalties, among other things.

“We’ll continue to take steps to exercise our legal and contractual rights and enforce the termination,” says a McDonald’s spokesman in Hong Kong, Ron Christianson. “It will take time to bring the current situation to a final resolution.”

Bakshi denies most accusations. He vows to continue to fight the company in court and serve its trademark grub for as long as he can.

The standoff has produced a tit-for-tat battle that may be unique in the annals of fast-food wars. McDonald’s notified suppliers that Connaught Plaza’s outlets were no longer allowed to use the McDonald’s brand or trademark menu, and some have stopped supplying to them. Bakshi has labored to keep his suppliers on board.

Menu items have started disappearing. First to go were the McFlurry desserts and other items that use soft serve.

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Last Friday, the popular Maharaja Mac—an Indian version of the Big Mac in which the beef has been replaced by either chicken or cheese-and-corn patties—and McSpicy chicken dropped off the menu at a restaurant in New Delhi’s popular shopping district Connaught Place. “Sold out” signs were pasted across menu boards.

The sandwiches were back on Saturday, but restaurants in New Delhi said they were still missing jalapeños, tomatoes, milk and Pizza McPuffs. Meanwhile, some outlets seemed to have run out of some sizes of McDonald’s cups.

Bakshi says he has been trying to calm his fearful suppliers. He says the Maharaja Mac was off the menu because one had stopped sending jalapeños, which he is trying to buy elsewhere. He says a tomato shortage was a quality issue.

Amitabha Ray, managing director at Schreiber Dynamix Dairies Ltd, says his company stopped selling dairy products to the rebel outlets after being contacted by McDonald’s. Other suppliers declined to comment or didn’t respond to requests for comment.

McDonald’s fans in Delhi are taking the tussle seriously and chowing down while they can. The branch in Connaught Place was buzzing with customers over the weekend.

Rajini Saraf squeezed into a booth and complained about the loss of the McFlurry. “Our taste buds are settled on that flavor. We require it” or we will go elsewhere, she said. “We have more options that are easily available and are more classy than this.”

Menu items have started disappearing. First to go were the McFlurry desserts and other items that use soft serve.

McDonald’s needs to find a way to reintegrate or close the rebel outlets. At risk is a market many consider one of the last great untapped opportunities. India currently accounts for a tiny slice of McDonald’s nearly $25bn in revenues—there are only 427 McDonald’s in the entire country—and yet fast-food companies are hoping to find growth there.

Bakshi opened McDonald’s first outlet in India in 1996 as the company’s first beefless restaurant. In the Hindu-majority nation, eating beef is frowned upon and many people are vegetarian, so McDonald’s built a menu around chicken and vegetarian patties. The top-selling McAloo Tikki burger has a spicy potato and pea patty. The McSpicy Paneer uses tandoori mayonnaise slathered on a crispy slab of paneer, a fresh cheese.

Bakshi’s northern franchise grew to nearly 170 restaurants, while its southern and western counterpart, Hardcastle Restaurants Pvt Ltd, a subsidiary of Westlife Development Ltd, has 258 outlets.

In a recent interview, Bakshi pointed to his many diplomas from McDonald’s Hamburger University and the list of McDonald’s values on the walls of a meeting room. He was a proud member of the fast food giant’s family until around 2008, when it first wanted to buy him out, he says.

He contends McDonald’s has been increasingly tough in an effort to force him out and take what he has built without paying much for it. McDonald’s, in written statements to The Wall Street Journal, has said it has been cutting ties to Bakshi because of breaches in his agreements with the chain.

While Bakshi denies most of McDonald’s accusations, he admits Connaught Plaza has missed royalty payments. He says the company was only occasionally in violation of its contract—and that it had McDonald’s tacit approval. A McDonald’s spokesman in Hong Kong, Barry Sum, said McDonald’s India didn’t allow Connaught Plaza to avoid fulfilling “essential obligations”.

McDonald’s wouldn’t discuss details of the feud, citing continuing court cases. Sum said McDonald’s is looking for a new partner for the region.

Bakshi says he has asked India’s courts to stay McDonald’s cancellation of the company’s franchise agreement, and that he has property he can sell to finance the legal battle.

Nevertheless, he is willing to leave, he says, if he is paid a fair price for his half of the joint venture, which he contends could be worth more than $100m. McDonald’s has offered him as much as $7m, he says, which he considers an insult. McDonald’s declined to comment on any offers.

Bakshi says since the termination of the franchise agreement, some banks have called in loans to Connaught Plaza of more than $20m.

Dedicated customers are acting as if the end is near. Delhi University physics student Mayank Pant traveled 30 minutes from campus with two friends to the McDonald’s in Connaught Place. He said the outlet next to the campus, now closed, was a popular hangout for students.

The trio couldn’t get seats, so they were waiting outside for a table. “We have a kind of nostalgia for McDonald’s,” he said. “We are saying goodbye.”

—Julie Jargon in Los Angeles and Vibhuti Agarwal in New Delhi contributed to this article.

Appeared in the October 10, 2017, print edition as 'McDonald’s McSpicy Problem: An Indian Partner Gone Rogue.'

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