HARRIED waiters, a cola-spill, a minor traffic jam, half-a-dozen policemen on guard andhordes of yuppies waiting to get in. It was as if Bill Clinton had come to dine when a few hundred Bangaloreans turned up to grab a bite on the first day of the city's newest eat-out and takeaway joint. Where waiters promise to serve orders in 'eight minutes or 14 to 17 minutes (depending on the order)' and write a thank you note at the back of the bill. All for Pizza Hut, which entered the country this fortnight through the prime minister's home city and received a reception that overwhelmed its ovens.
"A pizza is a pizza is a pizza. And then there is the Pizza Hut pizza," states the snazzy menu card. And the citizens of Bangalore seemed to agree with the world's largest pizza restaurant chain despite threats from Karnataka State Farmers' Association (KSFA) resisting the entry of the transnational (TNC). January 30, 1996, seemed a distant memory, the day when farmers had raised a question mark over the security of TNCs in India's Silicon Valley by destroying the outlet of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC)—Pizza Hut's sister concern—because it allegedly threatened the country's food security by exporting large quantities of meat.
"The consumers of Bangalore, who responded so positively to KFC can now expect from us the same top class quality pizzas enjoyed by nearly two million people daily in over 11,500 restaurants around the world," says Sandeep Kohli, MD, Pepsico Restaurants International, India (PRII), the holding concern of KFC and Pizza Hut. PRII made sure that all steps were taken to launch the much-hyped pizza with as little noise as possible: no media publicity, no launch party, and no glittering neon signs announcing the restaurant, the interiors and infrastructure of which cost Rs 1.5 crore. The launch, PRII'S second in Bangalore, reflects the company's wiser approach after its encounter with Prof M.D. Nanjundaswamy of KSFA earlier this year.
A dine-in outlet as opposed to KFC's fast food joint, Pizza Hut in Bangalore is one of the first attempts to Indianise international recipes by a TNC. Listed to tickle Indian palates are mulligatawny soup, chicken tikka pizza, tandoori chicken and lamb korma toppings, in contrast to the bland burgers that stick to 'international standards' at KFC. "The basics of a Pizza Hut pizza are the same all over the world. The base, the tomato sauce and cheese are standardised. It is the toppings that are adapted to suit local tastes," explains Kohli. He points out that Pizza Hut pizzas in Hong Kong, for instance, have a lot of seafood innovations while similar changes have been made in China and South Korea.
Pizza Hut prides itself on its freshly-baked pizza base unlike most restaurants in India which use pre-baked bases. Besides, the tomato sauce flavoured with oregano and mozarella cheese are touted as the best available in the country, with the two basic ingredients being produced in collaboration with PRII's R&D wing. Says Haroon Sulaiman Sait, proprietor of Bangalore's most well-known continental restaurant The Only Place, which introduced pizzas and garlic bread in Indian restaurants in 1965: "The pizza base at Pizza Hut is sprayed with salt before being baked, giving it the traditional taste and fresh feel unlike pre-baked pizzas. But it's not the food that attracts people. It's the hospitality, the ambience and the decor that brings in most of the crowds." Sait, however, points out that Pizza Hut pizzas offer too much crust at the edges with as much as an inch all around coming without the topping. "So it is less value for money spent." With prices ranging from Rs 50 for a small size plain cheese flavour to Rs 350 for a big size supreme pizza, he couldn't be faulted.
PRII, however, has other things to worry about. Two weeks before the opening of Pizza Hut, Nanjundaswamy announced that KSFA, and a group of Kannada organisations, would launch agitations to oust TNC food chains. Says he: "We have not yet decided on the mode of protest and will wait for the right moment." PRII, on its part, has requested Bangalore police to provide protection and policemen have been posted outside the restaurant. At the same time, the company is denying its involvement in meat export. Says Kohli: "We have committed to the Indian Government that we shall not use beef nor shall we export any meat." S.C. Burman, Bangalore's new police commissioner, promises that Pizza Hut has little to worry about: "I asked them to go ahead and set up shop. There will be no trouble for the restaurant." But with Nanjundaswamy's ability to spring a surprise when least expected—as he did with KFC—for Pizza Hut to keep from worrying is easier said than done.