Interview: Nish Kankiwala, Burger King International

Nish Kankiwala, president of Burger King International

"I'll have a burger and grapes, please. No fries, thanks, but I'll have some baby carrots. And a glass of milk instead of the Coke." This may not sound like typical conversation in Burger King, but soon, it seems, it will be possible up and down the land. Welcome to the new era of Burger King, a company that sees itself "proactively as part of the solution" to the western world's obesity epidemic.

It is not a joke. Nish Kankiwala, Burger King's newly crowned king for all its operations outside North America, delivers the message in the strange, convoluted language in which fast food companies have always communicated. Paying customers are "guests", the kitchens have "fries stations" and the restaurants are sited in "access points". Now comes the Take 2 menu.

A second take may well be a common reaction among the diners. It was odd when McDonald's started to boast about the organic milk it offers as part of its kids' meals; now we must get used to the carrots-and-grapes retaliation. Take 2 has been tested extensively in Scotland and will be introduced soon to children's menus at Burger Kings across Britain.

Most of us, of course, will detect a generous helping of self-interest in all of this. It is not as if Burger King is about to stop selling Double Whoppers with Cheese (calorie count: a thumping 1,060); nor can it have failed to notice that governments, nutritionists and - most important - parents are increasingly alarmed by the amount of junk in the average modern diet. In the United States, Burger King's corporate home, there have even been attempts to mount tobacco-style litigation against the industry.

Less gimmicky

Mr Kankiwala argues that Take 2 is part of an evolutionary process. "Yes, we are in the burger business, but we are also in the business of providing a whole meal. Burger King is now 50 years old. If 30 years ago you had said that today we would be selling veggie burgers, bean burgers and teriyaki burgers, I think people would have said 'no way, it'll be milkshakes, fries and a burger'.

"But the industry has moved on. We are a dynamic business. We will offer great tasting burgers but we will offer other foods as well. I don't see this as a threat. In fact it's the opposite.

"Our job is to make sure we listen to our consumers and provide what they are asking for in a high-quality, innovative way and in a convenient and value-for-money way."

For those who are still cynical, there is also a less gimmicky aspect to Burger King's health drive - a reduction in the salt and fat content of the staple fare, the burgers and fries. The beef patties already meet Food Standards Agency salt targets and from Monday, staff in Burger King branches in the north of England will be told to stop sprinkling salt on the fries; customers can have salt sachets instead if they wish. The business is also debating internally whether to make low-fat mayonnaise its standard mayonnaise.

Do not mistake such improvements for a corporate confession. He is only three months into the job, but Mr Kankiwala has learned to make the argument that the fast food industry cannot be blamed for all the nation's dietary ills.

"As I have been learning about this industry, I have been fascinated by the fact that over the last 30 or 40 years, statistics show that calorie intake in a lot of western countries - certainly in the UK - has been flat or slightly increasing, but the amount of exercise that people are taking, from children to adults, has decreased by 30%," he says.

So Burger King, however odd it sounds, says it wants to educate its customers about health. "People are not stupid," he says. "People want to have more understanding of what they are eating, quite rightly. For our industry and our business, we are making sure that via websites and other avenues people are making informed choices."

He is talking about data on the calories, fat and sodium content of Burger King's food, and also about recommended daily allowances, exercise and so on.

"Other avenues" may mean those paper sheets that appear on top of the trays, tray-liners, in the lingo. So can we expect illustrations of how much exercise one must take to work off a Whopper? "We are still working through the language," he replies diplomatically.

It is hard to resist the suspicion that the real motive for these changes is the commercial reality that it is tougher these days to sell burgers and fries. McDonald's suffered two years of decline in the US, and when British drinks group Diageo sold Burger King two years ago it accepted a last-minute reduction in the price of a third.

Now that Burger King is owned by American private equity firms the company is not obliged to publish full accounts, so it is harder to assess its performance. But we know that sales in the US were down 8% to $7.9bn (£4.3bn) last year to the lowest level for five years; Mr Kankiwala's international division, where sales improved 18% to $3.2bn, may have to do the hard work.

He certainly talks an expansionist game. "Overall this year, we are intending to open a restaurant every working day," he says. "We think we can do even better as we go forward. There are a lot of opportunities for our brand. We are not in a lot of countries and in a lot of the others we are sub-scale."

Spain and Germany - each with roughly half the number of branches of the UK - are the prime European targets for expansion. Mexico, Puerto Rico and parts of Asia are other priorities.

Even the UK, with almost 700 Burger King branches, is not regarded as saturated territory. About 90% of the restaurants are owned and managed by franchisees, mostly small business people who control just one or two branches. Mr Kankiwala sees scope for more deals with corporate partners.

"The UK is not a mature market," he argues, "although we are thinking in terms of different access points. So not just on the high street or in shopping malls, but more orientated towards leisure, perhaps cinemas or gas stations."

The use of word "gas" hints at Mr Kankiwala's international background. Born in Mumbai, he moved with his parents to London at the age of six and is a British national.

In his time, he has also worked and lived with his family in the Netherlands, France, Ireland and the US. He describes himself as that much-heralded but ultimately rare beast, "a global citizen".

Perfect ambassador

Despite a first-class degree in chemical engineering, his entire working life has been spent in international fast-moving consumer goods. He sold soap suds for Unilever and helped to build its supply chain across Europe and scrutinise its packaging operations. He was recruited by Burger King at the end of last year from Pepsico, where he headed the European division.

One can see why: at Pepsi, he says, he gained market share every quarter for a couple of years and improved operating profits, in part by launching fizzy drinks such as Mountain Dew and Pepsi Twist.

The appeal of the Burger King group, he argues, is the chance to work for a fully independent business that will stand or fall - or even come back to stock market - by virtue of its own efforts. There is no Diageo-style corporate parent in the background.

At 46, he looks healthy and has a willingness to overuse the phrase "flamegrilled advantage"; Mr Kankiwala also looks like perfect ambassadorial material for Burger King.

That, one suspects, may well become the most important part of the job.

The CV

Born: Mumbai, India

Education: Sir George Monoux School, Walthamstow, London; University College, London BSc (Hons) chemical engineering

Career: 1979-95: Unilever, various operational and general management roles; 1995-2003: Pepsico Beverages International, general manager Ireland, vice-president of operations, sales and franchising, then president of European Business Unit; 2003: president, Burger King International

Family: Married to Wendy with two children, Amelie and Aran

Leisure: Football, tennis, golf and go-kart racing


Nils Pratley

The GuardianTramp

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