Why McDonald's now loves paneerEvery April McDonald's India executives hold an offsite meeting to chart the brand's future growth plans and consider modifications to its menu. At the 2009 meeting, the team felt that while McDonald's India had an excellent array of vegetarian products, there was no 'premium' - priced above Rs 50 - offering on this platter. It decided there should be one. Abhijit Upadhye, menu management and supply chain head, was given the responsibility of creating it.
That was the starting point of a two-year-long saga that culminated in the launch of 'McSpicy Paneer' in end-March this year, which has proved so popular that most McDonald's Indian outlets keep running out of stock every day.
India is the fast food chain's global vegetarian hub. It is also the only country where McDonald's does not serve its iconic Big Mac, since the burger patty contains beef. Until recently it was also the only country where McDonald's served vegetarian burgers, though lately, the United Arab Emirates has been picking up McDonald's vegetarian products too, primarily to cater to the expatriate Indian population.
Upadhye, who earlier played a key role in adapting McDonald's French fries for the Indian market and launched the breakfast menu in India, began from scratch. Early on, he and his team decided - on the basis of focus group studies - that the premium burger would be paneer based. The problem? No one had ever made a paneer burger before.
McDonald's had introduced paneer in its menu earlier - it used to have McCurry Pan, which comprised crumbled paneer nuggets - but the paneer burger was a different ball game. Consumer feedback showed they wanted a large slice of paneer filling - and easy as it sounds, that presented a host of problems.
As Sudha Shankarnaryanan, General Manager, Product Development and Quality Assurance, points out, there is very little written material on paneer. "Even Indian cookbooks have barely a page on paneer processing," she says. In a company like McDonald's which is devoted to processes, it meant Shankarnaryanan would have to delineate and standardise the process herself. The first task she embarked upon, along with McDonald's India's largest food processor Vista, was to figure out a way to massproduce a spicy paneer 'fillet', that would comprise the filling of the paneer burger.
"We ruled out crumbled filling inside the burger," says Upadhye. "Even after that, there were many options. We considered a product with two thin slices of paneer with a chutney in between. There was also the option of infusing spices into the paneer at the processing stage. But finally we figured that a spicy, breaded paneer fillet gave the right 'bite' and taste."
Shankarnaryanan and a team from Vista visited the Singapore regional headquarters of Kerry Systems, the global coating-systems supplier of McDonald's, to work out the coating for the paneer fillet. They carried the paneer with them. A coating was devised all right, but a new challenge arose. "Meats absorb flavours and any coating sticks to them very easily. Paneer is not so amenable," says Shankarnaryanan.
How to coat the paneer without compromising its softness? To get the right equipment, Shankarnaryanan along with representatives of Vista and Kerry visited the Netherlands-based CFS, a renowned food processing equipment company, to acquire the exact equipment they needed. They found it. At first, McDonald's could find no paneer supplier in India capable of delivering the 120-odd tonne required by the fast food chain every month. But Vista Managing Director Bhupinder Singh had a friend - Rajan Malik, Chairman of the Thane-based dairy-processor Good Day Foods, which had already established itself as one of the largest suppliers of curd to Mother Dairy in western India. Malik, a graduate from the National Dairy Research Institute at Karnal in Haryana, was flabbergasted by the sheer quanity of paneer Upadhye's team wanted.
"Paneer looks easy to make at home. But mass-producing it to exact standards is tough," says Malik. He and Shankarnaryanan tried several hundred formulations together for making paneer using different kinds of milk and creating different levels of moisture in the finished cheese. "We needed a paneer that was neither so soft that it crumbled easily during processing nor so firm that it became rubbery on frying. We had to walk a fine line," says Shankarnaryanan.
Malik decided to use buffalo milk from the Kolhapur belt, whose quality, he says, is among the best in the country. Quite a compliment from a Punjabi who studied in Haryana. Milk from northern India was rejected for several reasons, including major production problems during the summer months. "We needed assured supplies and quality," says Malik, highlighting the fact that he travels to the dairy villages once a month. The McDonald's name helped too, as the fast food giant is known to clear dues with vendors quickly.
"We work on a 10-day cycle, and everything is computerised. Farmers get paid for their milk two days after the cycle closes," says Malik. "Indian companies have a horrible reputation when it comes to paying their vendors. We did not want that." Mailk has devised another way of keeping his farmers on board. "We hold back 25 paise a litre from their income, and every Diwali double that sum and give it to them as bonus," he says.
Back to the preparation table. Now that the paneer was ready, the team switched its attention to the sauce. "The sauce is vital for paneer," Upadhye explains. He spent a few days with sauce technicians from Mrs Bector's, a food specialities firm at Phillaur in Punjab. At one such meeting, a technician recalled a particular tandoori sauce he had once made. One taste of it, and Upadhye knew he had found what he was looking for.
Early in March 2011, the McSpicy Paneer line fired up at Vista's processing unit at Taloja, Navi Mumbai. The first few days were crazy: several hundred paneer fillets were thrown away as trials were held to calibrate the machine. Rough edges were smoothened out and Upadhye was able to meet his announced launch date of March 28.
Upadhye is basking in the success as he heads to Hong Kong as Head of Menu Management, McDonald's Asia-Pacific. What surprises will he cook up there?