It’s hard to know what to make of this Nation’s Restaurant News graphic, which shows that Asian food, and therefore Asian restaurants, significantly outpaces all other restaurants in consumer satisfaction by six different metrics; even “accuracy of order” in a sector of the industry notorious for its employment of non-native English speakers! In case anyone thinks this is a statistical anomaly, NPR points out that “[t]here are about 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States — more than the number of McDonald’s and Taco Bells combined.” Add to this the smaller but burgeoning population of Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Korean restaurants, and you’ve got yourself a story. (By the way, we can only assume they just mean East Asian and not also South Asian and Middle Eastern restaurants. Because that would be ridiculous.)
So what accounts for the apparent superiority of Asian restaurants? It’s hard to approach this question without making the types of sweeping generalizations that NPD did in constructing this poll. But if we had to paint with broad strokes, we’d say:
1) Immigrant work ethic: many Asian restaurants in the United States are owned and operated by recent immigrants. The common narrative about new immigrants to the United States is that they work really hard to attain their slice of the American pie (literally, in this case). Hard workers run better restaurants, provide better service, and perform better on surveys.
2) Heavy competition among similarly structured restaurants: your average Chinese take out spot does not resemble a top-end Japanese fusion restaurant, but within the categories, there’s substantial repetition. We go through a lot of Chinese take out menus and they hew very closely to a model — thirty different preparations available with four different proteins. Egg rolls, spare rib, wonton soup? Name a Chinese restaurant that doesn’t offer those. Southeast Asian restaurants behave in a similar fashion, although their canons have not been normalized to nearly the same extent as Chinese restaurants. Now, Asian cuisines are as complex and diverse as any on Earth, but only a limited selection of dishes have become successful in America, and those are the ones you see on menu after menu. The point of all this is that, if any given Chinese restaurant’s menu is the same as the other, it creates a highly competitive system that rewards quick, competent service. Restaurants that do not meet a certain ever-increasing standard disappear within short order. Overall quality is high in such an environment, and the consumer recognizes that.
3) Lack of frame of reference: statistically, most people who participated in this survey did not eat home-cooked Asian meals growing up. If all you know from Asian food is what you get in restaurants, that will tend to bias you toward what Asian restaurants make. Not having to compete against Mother is certainly a leg up.
4) Asian food is especially delicious: this is not exactly an objective opinion, but let’s (optimistically) call it an expert one. Boy do we love Asian food! Perhaps more of a confirmation of the survey’s results than an explanation of them.
We’re not all that surprised by the results, even if the magnitude of difference is striking. The good news is, now that a discrete subgroup of restaurants has been identified as successfully meeting consumer expectations, it should be easy enough for the rest of the pack to emulate it.
Chinese Restaurant Workers in U.S. Face Hurdles [NPR]
[Graphic: Nation’s Restaurant News]