The Great Man Theory of Eating

[Alternative Title: “You Picked a Fine Time to Feed Me, Beijing“]

A little quiz.

On the verge of the Olympics, Beijing opens one of the largest, and most architecturally uplifting, airport terminals in the world. In an effort to improve guest services, the airport authority invites outside vendors – Starbucks, KFC, TCBY(!) – to set up shop in the concourses. So – which foreign restaurant chain has the most prominent perch in the new terminal, the pride of place, the American chain sign most visitors will see first?

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That’s right – Kenny Rogers Roasters.

[What? You were expecting McDonald’s?]

I’ll admit. This troubles me. It troubles me because – among other reasons – it takes only a few minutes to figure out that Kenny Rogers no longer has an ownership interest in Kenny Rogers Roasters (the company was acquired by Nathan’s in 1998). It troubles me because – even though he has no ownership interest – the Beijing airport outlet shows an endless loop of Kenny Rogers concert footage to its customers. And this is all the more strange because I’ve never, ever sensed that Kenny Rogers has a Chinese fan base (I’m open to being corrected on this point).Celine Dion’s Roasters, Karen Carpenter’s Roasters … hell, Avril Lavigne’s Roasters – those would all make more sense from a name-recognition standpoint in the Chinese marketplace. But Kenny’s? I don’t think so.

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In another life, I might try to track somebody down from company HQ to hear what – exactly – they’re thinking (I might also ask one of the Beijing customers what they think of enjoying a wood-fired rotisserie chicken beneath an image of Kenny singing “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town“) But instead I just called a friend who knows a little something about this company and industry. He couldn’t speak to the China strategy, but he did tell me something that I didn’t want to believe: “Kenny Rogers is big in Malaysia.”

As it turns out, Kenny Rogers IS big in Malaysia – thirty-five stores big, compared to just ONE in the US (Ontario, CA). Now, as to what this tells us about China, country music, and rotisserie chicken, I can’t really say. But in the spirit of winding up this relatively pointless post with something useful, I’ll merely point out that Kenny Rogers is not the only dying or dead US brand that has moved to Asia and found a second life (taste: Orange Julius in the Philippines; watch: 10,000 BC in Chinese movie theaters). Whether that’s a good thing or not, I’ll leave to others.

[For the record, I have twice – in five years – enjoyed a meal at a Shanghai Kenny Rogers roasters.]

11 comments

  1. What I’ll never understand is how this blog can be so thoughtful and intelligent one day and then so plainly stupid and inane the next. Do you have any serious readers left?

  2. Speaking as a longtime reader of this blog – I don’t know what the hell a guy named “WuWuWu” gets off telling anybody to get more serious. That long post about patriotic religious education wasn’t exactly my cup of tea so I’m happy to get the Kenny Rogers treatment. For the record, I found this blog a few months ago because New Advent was recommending its China posts. I havent seen much about Catholicism lately, but I really am grateful for the youtube link to Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town. I had no idea Kenny could play bass like that. Love this site, don’t listen to guys with names that sound like sirens. WuWuWu can drop dead.

  3. Here, here, MertonHall. I’m a researcher on China issues based in the States, and Adam, your serious posts are priceless (and I don’t just mean in the literal sense, which of course is also true), and the Kenny Rodgers stuff a invaluable for people cut off from all the fun over there.

    I’ve been a blogger myself, and I could never understand what it was about the Internet that made people translate not liking my post into weirdly angry diatribes meant to punish me for having the audacity to provide them with some of my work for free. Strange times we live in.

  4. Thanks for the supportive comments, gentlemen. Truth be told, I really enjoy posting some of the odder pieces of life – from point of view of a foreigner – for my overseas readers (80% of this blog’s growing readership is outside of Asia). Hopefully, it gives people who don’t live here a sense of what this world feels like.

    In other news – I’ve received quite a bit of traffic from people googling “Kenny Rogers” – and it’s possible that a few of those folks are taking a look at some of the, ah, more serious content. Likewise, I hope that folks looking for updates on the Chinese Catholic Church or e-scrap will run into Kenny. The cross-pollination, if you will, is what makes this blog such a continuing joy to do.

    Thanks to all of my readers.

  5. I’m one of those folks who went looking for an update on scrap ran into this article. I love it. I love the quirkiness of China, and I’m fascinated by American industries that have gone out of step with American tastes but have found new homes abroad. This applies to things other than restaurants as well (for example, Supertramp is still unexplicably popular in France). Keep these articles coming, but a few more articles on scrap in Asia would be nice.

  6. I lived in Beijing back in 1996 and loved to eat at Kenny’s Beijing Roasters – it was packed even then! That’s at least 13 years of solid market base in China, nice work! And so much better than its Boston counterpart. As for Kenny himself, there is no need to question why The Gambler has such a large fan base… HE’S THE GAMBLER FOOLS!!!!

  7. Lawson’s in Japan, 7-11 in HK. (Though my native US state still has plenty of 7-11.) Two more examples. Let’s just make a big list of ’em while we’re at it.

  8. I am actually at the Beijing Airport Kenny Roger’s roasters right now. Sensing something was suspicious I googled it and this page came up. If anyone knows whats REALLY happening with Kenny Rogers in China, I would be very curious to know as this place seems more like a local Chinese restaurant and less like an international franchise (Seriously). The food came out in little bowls like from a cafeteria. The chicken was covered in some sort of mystery sauce which is supposedly barbecue sauce. Then there is the brown “pleather” style binder menu which looks like it was color copied from elsewhere and put together in Chinese menu style. Tiny cup of ice teas (gone in one gulp). No Kenny songs on TV but lots of Chinese folk songs..I too used to eat at Roger’s back in the late 90ies and it was nothing like this. Wonder if they lost control of the trademark or franchise in China…?

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