PF Chang’s, America’s iconic Asian restaurant, launches flagship outlet in India

With 140 covers, the Mumbai outlet of PF Chang’s is among its largest, but runs with one of its smallest kitchens, jokes Taylor Viersen, the director of operations, global brand development. “In the US, our kitchens can be 2,500 sq ft, larger than whole restaurants in India,” he laughs. Despite its modest size, Viersen promises, the Mumbai kitchen will be a seat of bold flavours, emanating from meticulous processes standardised across 315 outlets (215 in the US and 100 internationally) of the iconic Asian restaurant chain.
Franchised into India by Gourmet Investments Pvt Ltd (GIPL), the group that has also brought international restaurants like Pizza Express, Chilli’s and Ministry of Crab, PF Chang’s opened its flagship outlet in Mumbai’s business district of Lower Parel on January 14, and is expected to branch out to, first, Delhi, and then the top metros in the next 18-24 months. The restaurant that’s widely known for its ‘lettuce wrap’ will retain about 75-80 percent of its original menu and its signature décor, like a cherry blossom canopy, while introducing tweaks like vegetarian options—swapping the tenderloin for tofu, for instance—and smaller portion sizes to accommodate local preferences.

Why add another Asian brand to a dining landscape that already has a Chinese eatery every few metres? Ramit Mittal, executive chairman and director, Ajay Singhal, COO and director, GIPL, and Viersen sat down for a chat and a meal with Forbes India to explain PF Chang’s foray into India. Edited excerpts:

Q. Why did you bring PF Chang’s to India, a fairly crowded market when it comes to Chinese cuisine?
Ramit Mittal: The first PF Chang’s that opened in the US in 1993 started off at the core as a Chinese concept but, over the decades, turned into world Asian cuisine. Today, we have influences on the menu sitting from Korea, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines. In its journey to become world Asian, coming from America, PF Chang’s always had bolder flavours because of the technique of cooking. A lot of times, when you see Asian food being cooked here in India, they use woks. But the wok technique, being 2,000-plus-year-old, is a very specific technique. Are the Asian restaurants cooking in woks here achieving a 700°C temperature? I don’t think so. Plus, the metal of our wok is specifically designed for that technique—high fire keeps the nutritional value of the food while bringing the bolder flavours out. Moreover, our kitchens don’t add any MSG—so the bolder flavours are brought out without an additive or flavour-enhancer. This is what differentiates us from any other Asian restaurant.

Q. So, you’re saying an Asian restaurant based in America will stand out in a country like India, where every other restaurant serves Chinese?
RM: Absolutely. We were asked the same question when we brought in Pizza Express—that there were so many pizza restaurants, how do we stand out. We brought a pizza down here, not just from an American-Italian perspective or an Indian-Italian perspective; what we have brought is Britalian (British-Italian). Similarly, PF Chang’s is a process-driven kitchen. When you go to restaurants that are chef-driven, there could be inconsistencies in standard. This standardisation has resulted in a high acceptance of PF Chang’s. In fact, at PF Chang’s Dubai store, 35 percent patrons are Indians. That tells us this is a very well accepted food for Indian palate.

Q. Why come to India now?
TV: India has always been a market that we were interested in. For us, it was about finding the right partner. With GIPL, we were able to find somebody that could not only bring the brand but also scale it. Our goal is to bring PF Chang’s to India as a whole, so we have enough outlets across major cities in India.

RM: The first time I ate at PF Chang’s was in the late 90s, early-2000s. And coming from a country where we love an assault on our tongue in terms of flavours, to actually be able to appreciate the singular and the complicated flavours that PF Chang’s puts on your table, was something. I got more affirmation once we started going down the road of Pizza Express and we said okay, we’ve run it, we’ve run Ministry of Crab, we’ve also run Chilli’s, and there’s so much Asian in this country already that we don’t have to make people learn and unlearn how to eat it. We just have to give them something yummy. That’s what we believe India is ready for today.

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Q. What are the expansion plans after Mumbai?
RM: Our next jump would be Delhi. Our focus is Mumbai right now, but in the next three months we should be in Delhi.

Ajay Singhal: Indians are aspirational, well-travelled now. So, we want to be in all the key metro cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Pune or Kolkata, cities where people can spend money and look for better experience around Asian, and also people who have been to the Middle East or the US and have already experienced the brand. In the next 18-24 months, we would want to activate a few more cities among the top 10 cities in India.

RM: We’re close to signing on our second site in Mumbai as well. It’s not about trial and error—about whether a restaurant will work. We know this will work. We’ve spent the last 18 months solutioning this, sitting between here and America and doing cook-offs in kitchens hidden from outsiders. For the last 18 months, we’ve been working in the shadows literally, sourcing pricing, positioning and trying to ensure the control of our supply chain.

Q. You mentioned the dependence on processes, but India is notorious for not having consistent ingredients.
RM: Yes and no. I would say it has become better and it is only going to become better. We are sticklers about how our supply chain flows. If you’ve tasted our pizzas at Pizza Express, you’ll know we are fanatics about food because, as a group, we are not an alcohol-led, but a food-led group.

TV: During the 18-month process he’s talking about, we came to do local supply chain approval, which we do everywhere that we go. We look at local purveyors, we said yes/no, there was a lot of back and forth on some things, because we had to make sure that, one, it works for the market, but also that it stays true to the brand.

Q. What are some of the things you’ve retained from the original PF Chang’s menu, and what sort of customisations have you brought in for Indian customers?
TV: We haven’t made customisations. What we’ve done is we’ve added some different protein options, like tofu or cottage cheese, things that we wouldn’t have in the US. And then we’ve done some innovations. In the US, the vegetarian menu consists of three items. We came to this market and realised very quickly that that wasn’t going to work.

AS: In totality, 75-80 percent of the menu is same as what you will see in the US. Only 20 percent is made more relevant, like adding more protein options. Like, a Mongolian paneer and tofu options alongside Mongolian tenderloin.

Q. How do you position yourself in India in terms of price, given that India is a price-sensitive country?
TV: I would say our pricing is commensurate with our portion size. Our portion size for India, while might look big to you, is about 30 percent smaller than what we have in the US. We are a little gluttonous in the US [laughs].

RM: If you look at pricing, it’s well within reach for an experience like this. The average per cover (APC) would be between Rs1,200 and Rs1,400.

Q. What are your expectations from the Indian market?
TV: We see a big runway for India. We expect for us to have the ability to grow but grow smart. I don’t want to go from zero to 100 in two seconds; you’ve got to accelerate slowly. There’s a huge opportunity. I would never put a number on it because I’m smarter than that, but I do think there’s a large runway for us to grow in the bigger cities throughout India.

SOURCE: Forbes India

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