Applebees in China … Applebees in China?

[Alternative title: “Applebees in China: What the @#$%???”]

Five years ago, the first Shanghai/China opening of a major American chain restaurant like Applebees would have been a significant event, drawing homesick American expatriates and curious, affluent Chinese. Under those ancient circumstances, atmosphere mattered more than actual quality, and Western-style restaurants frequently got away with serving sub-standard facsimiles of hamburgers and other staples that wouldn’t be taken seriously in an American maximum security prison (and yes, I’m aware that we’re not talking about Michelin star-rated venues, here).

But those days are long over, and companies like Applebees can no longer succeed in China just on the basis of being a “famous American brand” offering a foreign atmosphere. The Shanghainese (and their expatriate guests) have more than a decade of exposure to American food (at the low-end, McDonald’s; further up, Malone’s), and foreign restaurants which overlook this important fact are not only arrogant – but imminent failures.

Which is one reason that I was so startled to be served an ice-cold beer in a chilled glass — filled with ice cubes – at the first Applebees outlet in China last night (it opened October 1):

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When I complained to my waiter, he rushed to find his supervisor, who patiently explained to me that “American beer is served ice cold.”

According to the well-oiled Shanghai rumor mill, the staff of the Shanghai Applebees was trained by a crack team of Americans sent from Applebees International in Kansas — who, apparently, don’t know how to serve a proper beer. Let’s be clear here: I’m not going to blame a Chinese wait staff for the poor or inadequate training provided to them by a foreign parent company that ought to know better. I’m going to blame the foreign parent company that ought to know better.

[Last night, an acquaintance in the US pointed out to me that the Chinese have been serving beer “American-style” – that is, German style – for almost a century. He makes a decent point. Factually speaking, after five years in China, this was the first instance that I’ve been served beer with ice cubes. Topic for another day: Applebees responsible for Chinese cultural regression? Discuss.]

And since we’re (I’m) piling on here …

Below, the full-sized (nasty) Appetizer Sampler (as opposed to the half-plate), including, clock-wise: shrimp and onion quesadillas, seasoned french fries, and deep fried chicken chunks dipped in sweet tasting glue – er, sauce. In the middle, topped by a half-frozen ball of sour-cream, are the nachos — minus cheese. That’s right: cheese-less nachos.

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[Addendum: No, I won’t provide an address. If you want to eat there, you’ve gotta find it yourself.]

[Update: Two readers ask why I went to Applebees in the first place. I was there as part of a wider assignment that includes – in a tangential way – Applebees International.]

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6 thoughts on “Applebees in China … Applebees in China?

  1. I haven’t ventured to eat there, but a few days after it opened I wandered by and asked to check out the menu. I wasn’t hungry, but wanted to see what it offered.

    I was attacked by a swarm of overeager servers wanting to talk awkward English at me, trying to drag me in and seat me, giving me a lengthy “company introduction” in incoherent English. I answered them in Mandarin, I suggested they speak Mandarin as I didn’t understand most of their English, but they continued in English. And they just would not stop, wanting to know personal information, suggesting that I must be very happy as an American to have an Applebees in China! (Actually, no, never eaten there before, didn’t feel like explaining it’s rural white trash food.)

    It took me a good 15 minutes to extract myself. The servers actually seemed really uncomfortable with speaking at me in English, realizing that they were being invasive and wanting to speak Mandarin. In your face faux friendly is so NOT a Chinese cultural value (thank god!). It seems like there is a policy there to train the servers: “When you see a Caucasian, speak English and be very, very friendly.” The result of this policy is that I will never, never eat there; if I want obesity-causing American food, there’s always the impeccable and inobtrusive service at the Burger King up the block.

  2. if I want obesity-causing American food, there’s always the impeccable and inobtrusive service at the Burger King up the block

    Or the chipper service at the Hooters overlooking the Bund. They serve a pretty decent bacon cheeseburger.

    (Guess where this happily-married man was taken by his wife last night for dinner. And the place seems to be popular with couples on dates, strangely.)

  3. So are they “boneless Sichuan wings” when they’re served in China? If it makes you feel any better, the Applebee’s in Delafield, Wisc., isn’t exactly an award-winner, either.

  4. Oh, it wasn’t all that funny, or confrontational. I just responded to their pawing with classic Chinese passive-aggressive noncommittal grunts and very unfriendly body language. Which the Chinese staffers could not have failed to read, but they were following their training despite being themselves as uncomfortable as I was.

    I was amused that the Shanghaist reviewer gushed about the same faux friendly fawning I found so offputting. I guess that makes me…female? Or cultural difference? Look, there can be rude extremes, but overall I like the nonchalant directness of service in China. If the waitress is all, “I hate my job, I hate you, I just spit into your soda”, I’d rather she be upfront about it, and not forced to have the feigned enthusiasm of a beauty paegent winner at a state fair. That was also the worst part about being on the other side of the apron in my US student days. *Pep!*

    Along with Burger King, you should also try the Kraze Burger on Tianyaoqiao Lu at Xietu Lu. Smallish but really good burgers in the 25-40 range.

  5. I went. It was pretty good and I’ll go again. The young staff was really eager. But it was OK. Someone said it is rural white trash food, which is accurate. And for me, why I’ll go again. Someone mentioned Kraze Burger, that one is a good one too. There’s one near Ascendas Plaza on the same road.

  6. I always thought Malones was Canadian, but I suppose American/North America is about the same.

    My only exposure to Applebee’s is from Adult Swim/SeaLab

    I didn’t know it was a real restaurant chain!

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