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How To Get Fat, Quick: The Finest of American Dining

A dozen attempts at selling China on the American Diet.
Last updated: 2020-04-21
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America is number one. Number ONE. We are number one on the list of countries by food energy intake. We are number one on how many calories we take in from sugar and fat on a daily basis (37% of our daily calories). We are number one in the total consumption of Sweet & Sour sauce, I'm sure. We have more than 250,000 fast food restaurants in 50 states.

But that's not enough. Never enough! In the past three decades, we have been bringing that saturated, glossy, live-for-today diet to China, where the average person only gets 11% of their daily calories from sugar and fat. Come on, guys! Room for improvement! Room for expansion! Room for 1,200 calories in one slice of cheesecake!

Below, then, twelve of the artisanal restaurants bringing that authentic American experience to China, for those times (before a marathon, after a hunger strike, in the middle of a shame storm) when you need four-figures of calories and a Diet Coke. In alphabetical order. Minus some repetitive if delicious burger places (The Habit Burger, Shake Shack) and some others (Subway, Dairy Queen, Papa John's).


Shops in Shanghai: About 130

The Story: Born in America, grew up in the airport terminals and train stations of China. Interestingly, almost all of the Burger Kings in China are controlled by a Turkish family. Same business as Tim Horton's and Popeye's Chicken, which is why we've seen them start to spread here too.

The Order: Whopper and a 4pm flight out of PVG T2.


Shops in Shanghai: 14

The Story: Started by a dude (Carl) AND his wife (Margaret) in 1941 in Los Angeles. Started off selling the lord's fingers — hot dogs — and eventually added hamburgers. By the 1980s, sales were above 100 million dollars. Closely related to Hardee's, the East Coast version of Carl's Jr. Very Californian. The one in this Raffles City now has more than 10,000 reviews on Dianping.

The Order: Western Bacon Cheeseburger. Charbroiled All-Beef Patty, Two Strips of Bacon, Melted American Cheese, Two Crispy Onion Rings and Tangy BBQ Sauce on a seeded bun.


Shops in Shanghai: Just this one, with a killer view of the Bund from Luijiazui

The Story: Started by a dude in Dallas who was inspired by the chili cook-off in Terlingua, Texas. Sold to another dude who blew it up like a balloon and made himself (Norman Brinker) a fast food industry magnate in the process. When one of the singers of the famous Baby Back Ribs jingle passed away in 2013, his pallbearers were dressed as chefs and sang the jingle as they carried the casket; the casket itself was designed to look like a smoker; fake baby back ribs were carried in by dancers; a barbecue sauce fountain was installed; and live pigs were present.

The Order: Baby back ribs and a cheap-cheap margarita


Shops in Shanghai: Dianping says 100+ but I've only ever seen two. I guess they are growing?

The Story: The Noid lost China. That's the story. Pizza Hut won. Also, will you just read this story please:

"On January 30, 1989, Kenneth Lamar Noid, a mentally ill man who thought the ad campaign was a personal attack on himself, entered a Domino's restaurant in Chamblee, Georgia armed with a .357 Magnum and held two employees hostage for over five hours. After telling the employees that Domino's owner Tom Monaghan had stolen his name, he forced them to call Domino's headquarters and demand 100,000 dollars and a white limousine as getaway transportation.

"After offering to exchange one hostage for a copy of The Widow's Son, Noid reneged on his offer after a police officer brought him the book. Noid eventually became hungry and forced the employees to make him two special pizzas. While Noid ate the pizzas with his gun in his lap, the hostages escaped. Noid surrendered to the police shortly after. After the incident, Police Chief Reed Miller told reporters, "He's paranoid.""

The Order: I don't know. I don't want to make fun of Asian pizza toppings. I mean, look what America did to Chinese food. Seems fair that if China wants fish and pineapple on its pizza, then they should get fish and pineapple, and I should shut up.


Shops in Shanghai: 8

The Story: The chain was started in 1948 just outside Boston, when a young dude with a food truck realized half his sales were coming from coffee and donuts. So he parked the truck and opened a shop called Open Kettle that sold coffee and donuts. After noticing his customers were dunking their donuts in the coffee, he renamed it Dunkin' Donuts two years later. In 1955 he franchised, and now there are 12,000 locations in 46 countries.

There was a time when Dunkin' was ascendant in Shanghai, with a shop right across from Jing'an Temple and many more locations. That was back when the donut's future looked real bright. Hell, there was even a Krispy Kreme on Wujiang Lu with the neon sign for hot donuts. But that's all over now, with Dunkin' down to less than 10 shops in the whole of Shanghai and Krispy Kreme nothing but a hot-glazed memory. Looks like this plan to open 1,400 Dunkin' Donuts in China didn't work.

The Order: Classic glazed.


Shops in Shanghai: 389

The Story: Started by a dude in a white suit calling himself The Colonel in Kentucky in the 1950s. Big innovation was pressure-frying chicken, not unlike this duck place on Xiangyang Lu. Franchised out to others who paid him a nickel for every chicken they sold. In 1964, sold the franchise with 600 outlets for two million dollars. Whoops. Today there are more than 23,000 KFCs around the world, and KFC in China (6,500+ stores) made 949 million dollars profit in 2019 alone.

When KFC opened in Beijing in 1987 it became the first Western fast food brand in the country, and it's still often the only Western restaurant in hundreds of small Chinese cities (usually at the train station). Its success here has been the focus of books and a Harvard Business Review case study. Also, KFC in has arguably China's best sweet egg tart (here's the story of how that came to be). Congee is good too!

The Order: Spicy fried chicken wings, some congee and two egg tarts. The Dragon Twister if you're a student of international fast food relations.


It hasn't all been French fries and rainbows for American chains trying to crack the China market. A few more to etch on to the tombstone of international relations. (Thanks to Thomas Paninaro for the long memory.)

Auntie Anne's pretzels (alive in Shenzhen!)
Caliburger (homegrown In-n-Out)
California Pizza Kitchen
Chipotle (pulled out before they even opened)
Fatburger (hanging on in Beijing)
Hard Rock Cafe (twice)
Hooters (tried forever)
Kenny Rogers Roasters rotisserie chicken
Krispy Kreme
Outback Steakhouse
Quizno's (once planned 1,500 stores)
P.F. Chang's
Rainforest Cafe (a lifetime ago)
Stubb's Bar-B-Q
Taco Bell (once)
TGI Friday's
Tony Roma's ribs


Shops in Shanghai: 326

The Story: Started in 1948 when two brothers got in a fiddlin' match with the Devil and lost. They have been doing his dirty work ever since. They came to China a couple years later than KFC and haven't quite kept up with The Colonel: they have less than 3,000 locations in the country. I guess that's still a lot of French fries.

I am neutral on McD's. It is an evil 150 billion dollar corporation that has destroyed the world's diets. It's also a shining example of food technology and consistency and nostalgia button-pushing. Creating the same crap hamburger across the world under very different conditions is an achievement.

I use McDonald's as a writing test for prospective SmSh applicants; I make them write a review. The idea is that McDonald's is so big and so multi-faceted that whatever one chooses to write about, whether it's bovine methane emissions or the saltiness of the fries, it will reflect more on them than on McDonald's, and give me an insight into their personality. McDonald's is a blank page.

The Order: The apple pie.


Shops in Shanghai: 193

The Story: Blah blah blah STUFFED CRUST PIZZA, then they were everywhere. Also, little league victory meals and personal pan pizzas after the rollerskating rink. Then China. Pizza Hut (better known as bi sheng ke) opened in Beijing in 1990; now the country is its second-largest market in the world. Its 2,200 China stores generated 14 billion rmb in revenue in 2018.

The Order: I... I... I... don't... I... can't.... Here.


Shops in Shanghai: One, down low in IFC

The Story: American dude opens seafood restaurant chain, sells out to General Mills two year later. Then goes on to open Olive Garden. Now they sell 395 million biscuits a year, and business writers go there to test how many shrimp from the "endless shrimp" promotion they can actually eat. (Business Insider ate 305 shrimp over eight hours, then asked for some to-go. There is no endless shrimp in China.) We talked business with the China bossman and ate like it was our birthday.

The Order: The 1.3kg trophy lobster, the largest they have, for 888rmb.


Shops in Shanghai: 7

The Story: Started by a dude named Bell in the 1960s (no "bell" involved) outside LA. Pepsi bought it in 1978 and took it national.

China never really got the mmunnnnnnnnchies. Taco Bell tried in 1999 but that experiment ended in 2008. Then eight years later, they came back, re-positioned themselves as a "healthy" Californian chain and got rid of the rice and beans. SmartShanghai went to both, here and here. Three stars. Mas.

The Order: Cheesy Beefy Double Decker Taco


Shops in Shanghai: Just one, next to the Mouse House

The Story: Beverly Hills, 1980s. Guy whose mom had a wholesale cheesecake business opened a restaurant with a bunch of cheesecakes. Got rich. Expanded to more than 200 restaurants. Famously created a single dish with more calories than a 12-piece bucket of Original Recipe fried chicken from KFC: the Crispy Chicken Costolletta, with 2,610 calories and four days' worth of saturated fat.

In 2016, opened at Disneytown in Shanghai, which remains the only location in Shanghai (and according to a source in January 2020, will remain the only one due to some special tie-up with Disney). Cheesecakes flown in from the U.S.

The Order: Ultimate Red Velvet Cheesecake (1,580 calories) "Moist layers of Red Velvet Cake and our Original Cheesecake covered with our special Cheesecake Factory cream cheese frosting."


Shops in Shanghai: 4

The Story: Started in 1921 in the Midwest as the original spot for sliders, small burgers that you order by the sack. Founding dude was supposedly a short-order cooked who got pissed off with a meatball and smashed it with a spatula — the first smash burger. By 1961, White Castle had sold more than a billion of their square, onion-y sliders, two years before McDonald's hit the big B. A year later they took the wild, wild move of adding cheese to a burger. Also Kal Penn is actually a vegetarian and never ate a real White Castle burger in The Movie.

In 2017, private equity company ClearVue partners brought them to Shanghai and got to invent all kinds of 2 inch-by-2-inch flavors, like mapo tofu sliders and whatnot. They've been a little... cautious... in expanding since. But then White Castle was always the hard-to-get one. They only have like 400 stores in the US, so they were never going to go full McD's over here.

The Order: Eight cheese sliders and some mozzarella sticks, duh.