Lost in Translation: Part II

I often ask myself, why do most Asian restaurants FAIL?

As mentioned in past postings, I've had discussions with many Asian food service companies wanting to come to the US and/or sell to Americans. Americans want Asian products and Asian compaines want to sell to Americans. The problem is that Asian companies don't know how to sell to this target audience and Americans don't know what and who to buy from. A consumer goes home with something they don't understand and Asian companies wondering why Americans don't buy, it's "Lost in Translation."

What these companies don't get is that they need a bridge to gap between the seller and the buyer.These companies all want to serve Asian food to Americans and grow their distribution here. With a large Asian community and Americans hungry for Asian food, how hard can it be? They all think that it's just that easy. What they don't "GET" is who they're selling to and how to get the information to them.

I think that Korean food will be the next big Asian wave, but this will have to wait for another post. You'll have to stay tuned...

I'm not picking on Thailand, I've had conversations with food service companies
in Japan, Korea, and a couple other countries.  I've had the same conversation.

Not too long ago, I met with a group of investors from Thailand; they want to set-up a food service business in the U.S. The problem is that their food and operation looks like Panda Express. For example, Americans know Thai food as BBQ Chicken and Pad Thai Noodles, maybe two or three other dishes. If you don’t feature these items as the headliner, you’ll have problems selling the rest of the menu. I had the same conversation with another Thai company about 3 years ago. BTW, both of these companies don't think Thai BBQ Chicken would be a big seller here... Missed opportunity.

Here's some examples of the “Lost in Translation” misconceptions I pointed out to them:

Misconception #1: Thailand has 4 regions and each region is different, different type of curry, sauces, etc. I told them the same thing, unless you have Thai BBQ Chicken and Pad Thai Noodles as the headliners, green curry and red curry will be a hard sell. They mentioned to me that they have over 100 different menu items and all sell very well. YES, in THAILAND!!! If they only wanted to sell to Asians, then no problem, but they all say Americans are the target customers.

Misconception #2: Thai people eat with a fork and spoon, not chopsticks. I mentioned to the Thai corporation that they need to have chopsticks at the US venues. They proceeded to tell me that Thai people eat with forks and spoons. But the American perception is that Thailand is in Asia and Asians eat with chopsticks. I probably would have thought the same thing too, except for having Thai friends who always eat with a fork and spoon.

Misconception #3: Thai food is Spicy! Yes, there are dishes that are very spicy. To some people who live in the US, the MILD taco sauce at Taco Bell is too hot. I mentioned that they need to tone down the level of heat in their food to be accepted to a wide audience. They went on to tell me that Thai people like Spicy dishes, once again, who are you selling to?

Misconception #4: In order to be successful in the US, you need to build a beautiful restaurant. I can give you a list of very nice Asian restaurants that have closed, because they didn’t know it’s the food and service and not necessarily how nice the interior is. Most people don’t look at the chairs or tables, just the food on top of the tables.

Misconception #5: To make it an authentic experience, they want to send a full staff from Thailand who speaks English. Besides being very expensive to do, WHY? I can understand having a Thai staff, who knows the food and traditions, but we have a very large Thai population here and with the proper training would give customers that warm Thai personality; this is just an unnecessary expense. I would bring a training staff from Thailand, but not an entire restaurant staff. To a lot of people, PF Chang’s has the best Chinese food in the US. In my opinion, it’s not the food, it’s the service that Americans are accustomed to and that's why they're successful. They know who their customers are and how to sell to them. Most Asian restaurants spend very little on customer service training and expect me to train their staff in a couple of hours. The bottom line is that they don’t know their customers or how to sell to them.

Misconception #6: They wanted to build the kitchen in Thailand and ship it here, since labor costs are less over there. I mentioned that each county has a different set of building codes, health department standards, etc. I wanted them to know that it would be very expensive if changes are to be made. With my experience, there will be changes, some small and some over $50,000. What passes in one county probably won’t work in another.

I'm not saying that this concept won't work as is, it might but my gut tells me they won't be as successful as they think. Just ask the Japanese how many concepts failed and at what cost? They keep quiet about it as they exit the marketplace. Experience and training doesn't come cheap, I've spent a lot of time figuring it out and finding out what works, but each situation is different. But for a company who thinks it is easy, it could be an expensive lesson to learn. Not to say that they won’t be successful without my help, but it just makes sense to have people with marketplace experience from the beginning.

I always give the example of the California Roll. It was developed by a Japanese sushi chef at Tokyo Kaikan* in Los Angeles in the late 1960's. This chef was a marketing genius! Think about it; crab meat, avocado, and a cucumber inside the seaweed, rice on the outside so the customer couldn't see the black seaweed. It has an English name, no problems trying to pronounce or remembering a foreign name. The success of this roll is due to knowing that the American customer wanted to try sushi, but was afraid to, as it was too exotic at the time. He knew his target market and made it American friendly. A PURE GENIUS!

I've often thought about keeping my mouth shut and saying YES, YES, YES to these companies and make a lot of money. I've learned from my parents, if you're going to do something, do it the right way. I've consulted and developed successful food service concepts and have done it the right way with the right people. These businesses are successful and the owners have learned if it's working, leave it alone. I understand why these companies don't hire me, I just don't get it. Maybe they want to pay millions for their education... Not only food service and food companies that don't understand who they're selling to but also local restaurants too.

I appreciate your comments, good or bad. If you think this has value, please forward it on. I appreciate your time and interest in my restaurant rants. Thank you!

*Tokyo Kaikan - My dad helped with the design of this restaurant, developers of the California Roll. It's funny how things come around full circle.


Chef I am laughing and cringing and shaking my head while reading this. So many observations but the chief issue in my mind is a general observation about any business proposition or any communication. Success belongs to those who begin where their customer/consumer/listener/audience is and builds a bridge back to their position/product/service.

It seems so obvious to me, but clearly is something many overlook. Just because you think you have a good idea and enthusiasm, knowledge, expertise or even all of the above if you do not understand where your audience is before you begin, you are starting off in BIG hole.

True in training managers in business, products, services, new websites I've learned it's widely applicable as a concept.

Jay Eats said…
Agreed, since I have a marketing background and have worked with many CPG, entertainment, food production, and food service companies, this is Marketing 101. Know your target audience, conduct market research, train your staff, and get the word out and often.

This is not a new concept or just for Asian restaurants, these examples could be almost any business. Listen to and watch your customers and their buying habbits. Design a presentation that would appeal to them.

Thank you for your comments, I appreciate you taking the time.
Ken Burgin said…
Great post - thanks. It's the red/green/yellow curries that are the most popular here in Australia, and the charming service.
dave said…
makes sense to me even though I have no marketing experience.

good blog :o)
Jenny Vergara said…
Chef, having worked in casual dining for many years, I know that what you say is true to sell Thai or Asian food to many Americans.

My concern is if we keep catering to the comfort zones of typical American palates, how will we ever get people loving and appreciating the authentic food of another culture?

I struggle going into my favorite Dim Sum place in KC and getting handed the sweet & sour chicken menu and being shuttled into the bar because of my blonde hair, instead of being offer a chance to sit in the back dining room and enjoy the best Dim Sum in the city.

It doesn't matter how many times, I ask for a family run Asian restaurant to make me something "how they would eat it" or to "make me what you had for lunch today" in order to get to the true heart of their cuisine...my inquires are met with disbelief or suspicion.

How can we raise the bar on introducing Americans to various Asian foods, without dumbing down the authentic nature of the food, experience or culture?
Jay Eats said…
Thank you all for your comments. We can raise the bar by educating consumers and restaurants.

I understand why you get the funny looks or suspicion from them, they don't know how to answer your request. The best thing to do is to talk to them, esp if you're a regular. They don't want to disappoint you or have you tell others that you didn't like their food. Yes, they should be educating you and other customers on their cuisine, but they don't know how or language barrier.

This is the "Lost in Translation" that I speak of. Too many times I've been in an Asian restaurant asking questions and they can't explain the food or how it's prepared, "it's beef with a brown sauce that everyone orders and is good." Doesn't really answer my question or make me want to order it. So, they avoid the questions or stick to a very Americanized menu. I'm just trying to keep these restaurants in business and grow their customer base. Once they get to a level of comfort, they can grow their menus with more exotic dishes. But most are just trying to survive.

I'm working on a project now that will help answer some of the questions, but even I've found a lot of resistance in a diverse city as Los Angeles. There are only a small minority of foodies like us who want to grow and learn and WE need to exchange information and grow together.

Thank you all for your comments and input. I appreciate what you have to say. This is my perspective and experience from my small corner of the world.
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