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Food & Drinks

Will P.F. Chang’s ‘Chinese food for Americans’ be a big bang hit in China?

Fans of The Big Bang Theory in China have long wanted to try out the Asian-themed US casual dining restaurant chain that features in the American sitcom

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 May, 2018, 10:58am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 May, 2018, 9:42pm

In the hit US sitcom The Big Bang Theory, one Chinese restaurant is a popular place for a romantic date.

When some of the socially inept lead characters want to make an impression, they book a table at P.F. Chang’s, an Asian-themed American casual restaurant chain that started in Arizona 25 years ago and has grown to more than 300 outlets in 22 countries and territories.

In the show, the relationships play out over meals of Chinese-American staples such as egg rolls and orange chicken, dishes that are not part of the traditional menu in China.

Now fans of the show – which debuted in the US in 2007 and first appeared in China on video site Sohu TV in 2009 – can get a taste of what the excitement is about with the opening of a branch in the heart of Shanghai, the chain’s first restaurant in China, late last month.

But has the chain bitten off more than it can chew by selling the American version of Chinese food to China?

The company doesn’t think so.

“I’m a big believer that we can be hugely successful in China because in China we’re not Chinese food, we’re a restaurant and we’re an American-inspired restaurant,” CEO Michael Osanloo was quoted by US advertising and marketing magazine Ad Age as saying.

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Restaurant manager Shen Zhuhui said the company sent a team of more than 30 Americans to train local employees and to give the establishment an American character. 

“So far the customers have been mainly Chinese, but I started receiving inquiries [about the restaurant’s location and prices] from expats,” he said.

“You know, dining at Chang’s in the States means a good treat. It’s high-end Chinese food, if you have heard about it from The Big Bang Theory.”

Shen said the outlet on Nanjing East Road saw brisk business on the weekend it opened on April 28 and the subsequent May Day public holiday, with customers lured by prices and menu offerings similar to those at the chain’s US outlets.

But post-holiday traffic at the 200-seat restaurant in the No 1 Shopping Mall seemed to have slowed significantly, with just a few tables occupied when the South China Morning Post visited it about 1pm on Thursday.

Shanghai resident Wen Yue was one of the Big Bang fans tempted to try the restaurant soon after it opened on April 28.

Wen gave its service and appearance – including its scarlet walls and blue velvet chairs – a thumbs-up; but she said she did not like the food.

She panned the effort to streamline China’s “complex food system” and multiple cooking styles through a radical simplification of ingredients.

For example, Suzhou cuisine was sweet and Sichuan cuisine was spicy, Wen said.

“But here it has somehow simplified the Chinese cuisine, making everything sweet and sour,” she said.

“I’d advise my friends to come when there’s still a discount ... Otherwise it’s not worth the price.”

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To encourage people to give the new restaurant a try, P.F. Chang’s ran a special promotion that let customers buy 100 yuan (US$15.71) coupons at half the price on China’s largest restaurant review platform, Dianping.com.

On the platform, where the top rating is a 10, the restaurant received a rating of about eight for taste, and more than eight for environment and service.

The average price per person was given as 112 yuan on Dianping, comparable to that at the chain’s US locations, according to Yelp.com.

The discount was a deciding factor in twenty-something lunchtime diner Adam Wang’s trip to the restaurant.

“I learned about it from The Big Bang Theory and after reading a post about the new location I decided to have a try,” Wang said.

“Because we used coupons, the price is quite reasonable,” he said. “But if not, it’s a little expensive. 

“Me and my friend ordered four dishes and two drinks – we didn’t order major courses like seafood, or beef – and it was over 270 yuan, before using coupons.”

Their meal included spring rolls, an item that is especially popular in the Yangtze River Delta, which traditionally contains vegetable, pork or both, and sour and spicy soup, a traditional Sichuan-style dish. 

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But the Chang’s spring rolls had a duck and cheese filling and the soup tasted neither sour nor spicy, according to Wang. “Instead, it was all soybean sauce.”

Wen, the female patron, said she did not think the restaurant would do well with Chinese diners.

“But it may find success among foreigners, especially those who make brief stays here and miss what they think Chinese food should be at home,” she said.

“This is like Pizza Hut in China – when I was travelling in Europe and had a chance to have an authentic Italian pizza, I actually couldn’t appreciate it. I missed Pizza Hut!”