Chinese chain Restaurants

By David R. Chan, Chinese Food Expert for the Menuism Chinese Food Blog
Photo by King Kong 911

In her book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, Jennifer 8 Lee highlights the fact that there are more Chinese restaurants in the United States than McDonalds, Burger Kings, Wendy's, Domino's, and Pizza Huts put together. With 41, 000 Chinese restaurants, one would assume that there would be a good number of national sit-down chains included in that number. But there aren't.

There's P.F. Chang's with its 200 locations, but its menu doesn't exactly qualify as Chinese food. While the food there is good enough, it doesn't taste Chinese, was probably not prepared by Chinese cooks, and the chain doesn't have Chinese origins. An extensive wine list (do you pair tofu with white wine?), a wide selection of Western desserts, and numerous Southeast Asian and other Pan-Asian menu items (tuna at a Chinese restaurant?) further dilute the Chinese ambiance. Indeed, such factors are probably part of P.F. Chang's appeal to diners who might otherwise find Chinese food intimidating.

In any event, we can safely say there are hardly any national Chinese sit-down chains. It's not that the concept hasn't been tried. The Darden chain, parent company to Olive Garden and Red Lobster, opened its China Coast Chinese restaurants in the 1990s, but it failed miserably. While Panda Express has succeeded in establishing an impressive chain of 1, 500 Chinese fast-food restaurants across the country, the number of its sit-down Panda Inn branded restaurants (which were actually launched before the Panda Express chain rolled out) has dwindled to about five locations, all in Southern California. And any number of other local Chinese restaurant chains have tried expanding outside their home area, but without success.

So why aren't there national chains dishing out sit-down Chinese food in the United States? While the lack of Chinese restaurant chains is likely a complicated situation, here are some factors that I suggest may explain the void.

Variety. Chinese restaurants are legendary for their lengthy menus. People expect Chinese restaurants to have multiple selections in soup, noodles, rice, poultry, beef, pork, seafood, vegetables etc. The typical Chinese menu dwarfs the typical chain restaurant menu. Since the hallmark of a chain restaurant is consistency and quality control, it is a daunting, if not impossible task to maintain the necessary consistency over such a broad menu. A chain could open with a more limited menu, but would be greatly restricting its audience.

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Q&A

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Why is it so difficult to establish a nationwide chain of Chinese restaurants? - Quora

The folks behind the wildly-successful Chipotle are right now working on a Chinese food concept that they hope will give Panda Express a run for their money. If they can give a superior consumer experience, delicious and consistent product, and deliver it at lightning speeds - like they do at Chipotle - I think they will change the game: