McCurry: the Indian Eatery That Beat McDonald's

  • Share
  • Read Later
Bazuki Muhammad / Reuters

Customers arrive at the McCurry restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Sept. 4, 2009

"Look for yourself. Do you see any burger, fries or bread here?" asks a beaming Kanageswari Suppiah, 50, co-owner of Kuala Lumpur's McCurry, a typical Indian restaurant in the bustling center of the Malaysian capital. Suppiah points to an array of authentic Indian dishes under the restaurant's glass counter — curried chicken, goat's intestine in chili paste, fish head in hot spicy curry, and mee goring, a fried noodle dish beloved by locals. Just hours earlier on Sept. 8, 2009, she had won a landmark court case against American fast-food giant McDonald's, earning the right to keep the Mc prefix in her restaurant's name.

Kanageswari spreads her arms over the trays of food. "Can you see anything McDonald's here?" About a dozen friends and loyal patrons who had turned up to celebrate her hard-won victory applaud in agreement. Her husband P. Suppiah, 55, a local businessman dressed in a coat and tie, stands by her, nodding in agreement. "They thought we would cut our losses and run ... but we fought back and have toppled a giant," he says.

Suppiah was referring to the eight-year-long court battle waged against his family's restaurant by McDonald's — a classic David-and-Goliath scenario that ended this week in defeat for the U.S. corporation. Malaysia's highest court ruled on Tuesday that McDonald's proprietary claim over the prefix Mc did not apply to McCurry because it sells only Indian food that has no connection with the American-style fast food that McDonald's sells in its 137 outlets throughout the country. For the past eight years, the Suppiahs have maintained that their restaurant's Mc prefix is an abbreviation for "Malaysian Chicken Curry" — a typical Malaysian dish that has been on the menu since the eatery opened.

The case, initiated in 2002, a year after McCurry opened for business, was first won by McDonald's in Malaysia's High Court but was subsequently overturned by the Court of Appeal in McCurry's favor. On Sept. 8, Chief Judge Arifin Zakaria, speaking for a three-member panel of judges in Malaysia's Federal Court, said the court's decision to refuse leave to appeal against the Court of Appeal's decision was unanimous. "We found no merit in the McDonald's appeal to continue with the suit," Arifin said. Counsel S.F. Wong for McDonald's, which has been operating in Malaysia since 1982, said the company would comply with the decision. McDonald Malaysia, contacted by TIME after the verdict, said only that it respected the court's judgment and that it would comply.

McCurry, sandwiched between a beauty salon and a car-parts shop at the edge of the city center in Jalan Ipoh, is fairly ordinary-looking, considering its worldwide fame. The McCurry yellow logo may have a whiff of the Golden Arches, but it doesn't bear any other real resemblance to the U.S. chain. The Suppiahs had invested their life savings of $85,000 in the venture in 2001, hoping to strike it big as a franchise. "At that time, there was no Indian food franchise in the country. We hoped to be the first," says Kanageswari Suppiah. "We were doing fairly O.K. until the first legal letter arrived from McDonald's. We almost had a heart attack," she adds. "They wanted us to take off the Mc or face a lawsuit."

After they refused, McDonald's took the Suppiahs to court, winning the first legal battle, in which the court ordered them to take down the Mc prefix from their signboard. The couple complied, but urged by friends and patrons, they appealed to the Court of Appeal, which decided in their favor in April this year. That court ruled that McDonald's claim on the Mc prefix had no merit and that since McCurry exclusively sells Indian food, the corporation did not suffer any loss of business from the smaller eatery. McDonald's then applied for leave to appeal to the Federal Court, Malaysia's highest court, but after the application for leave was refused on Tuesday, the company was ordered to pay $2,857 in legal fees to McCurry. "It is expensive business to go all the way to the highest court," says Mr. Suppiah, who will not disclose how much he and his family have spent on the case. "Now that we have won, we want to put the nightmare behind us and focus on developing a McCurry franchise."

The restaurant has gradually gained a loyal clientele even as the suit weaved its way through the slow-moving judiciary. The publicity brought them additional patrons, including curious American tourists, Bollywood film crews and plenty of locals. "[Customers] usually attacked McDonald's as they tucked into our Indian dishes," says Mr. Suppiah. "We did gain from the publicity, but because of the lawsuit, we could not franchise our outlet." Adissayam Xavier, a regular customer at McCurry, agrees with its owners that the McDonald's suit has been unfair. "It is cold-hearted to try to put someone out of business simply because there is a resemblance in the name," Adissayam says. "I love this place ... it is clean, the tea is great, and I love the tosai [a pancake-like dish of ground rice] too."

Other entrepreneurs around the world have also won against McDonald's claim to its famous prefix in recent years. In 2001 McDonald's lost a nine-year legal battle against McChina Wok Away, a Chinese takeaway in London, and in 2004, McDonald's lost a trademark-infringement suit against a Singaporean firm that had used names like MacNoodles, MacTea and MacChocolate. "It opens the way for them and other [Malaysians] to use the Mc prefix without fear," says Sri Dev Nair, the Suppiahs' lawyer.

Perhaps. But McDonald's has also had some big victories in its war against perceived interlopers. And in 2007, the U.S. fast-food giant won a battle against a local fast-food chain in the Philippines for borrowing from Ronald's good vibes: MacJoy was ordered to find a new name.