International locations of U.S. favorite Applebee's have adapted store design and menus to reflect local norms and preferences. / Dine Brands Global Inc. International locations of U.S. favorite Applebee's have adapted store design and menus to reflect local norms and preferences. / Dine Brands Global Inc.

For U.S. Restaurants, Expansion Abroad Means Adapt and Adjust

American restaurants can be found in nearly every corner of the world, from big chains to small, family-owned operations.

But success usually doesn’t come by plunking a cookie-cutter version of the original in a foreign locale. American operators have found that adapting to local markets is a necessity.

Clinton Street Baking Company is a boutique, family-owned restaurant that opened in New York City in 2001, serving comfort-food classics like pancakes, fried chicken and waffles, and brioche French toast.

Located on the Lower East Side, a popular tourist destination, co-founder and co-owner DeDe Lahman noticed that Japanese visitors were increasingly filling the dining room. By 2013, Clinton Street Baking Company had signed licensing agreements to open in Tokyo, Dubai and Singapore.

“Just like Americans love sushi, Asians, and Japanese in particular, love carbohydrates and heavily sauced dishes, which they don’t get in their country,” Lahman said.

Clinton Street Baking Company now has two locations in Japan, two in Dubai, and one each in Singapore and Bangkok.

While the licensing partners aim to re-create the flavors and experience of the original restaurant, modifications were required. For instance, in Japan, portion sizes shrunk due to customer demand, though the restaurant did maintain its beloved three-stack pancake serving.

“It is our classic, iconic dish, and it looks really beautiful and the presentation is part of it,” Lahman said.

Back-of-the-house culture also differs from New York City, mostly because Japan isn’t a tipping country.

“I found that there’s much more of a team methodology in Japan than there is in New York,” Lahman said. “They’re not racing for tips and they’re not sharing tips, so everyone just pitches in.”

The Chain Game

Chains have also found that flexibility is key in international markets. Applebee’s debuted in Kuwait in 1999, and IHOP opened in the United Arab Emirates in 2012. Today, Applebee’s has restaurants in 14 countries outside the U.S., and IHOP has locations in four foreign countries. Both chains are owned by Glendale, California-based Dine Brands Global Inc. (formerly DineEquity).

Applebee’s and IHOP quickly found that flexibility and respect for local culture were the keys to overseas success.

“In our earlier years, we built Applebee’s locations with a bar in the middle of the restaurant — after all, we are known as the quintessential American grill-and-bar — in the Middle East, in countries where serving alcohol was not even legal,” said Gary Moore, regional vice president of the Middle East and Asia.

Tweaks to menus and designs followed.

“The bar has been right-sized, and we created a special menu of mocktails and juices that are quite popular,” Moore said.

Both chains updated menus in the region, modifying the signature dishes that  Applebee’s serves beef ribs instead of pork in the Middle East, and IHOP offers turkey ham and beef bacon.

Johnny Rockets also has a strong presence in the Middle East, growing to 42 restaurants in the region since it debuted in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates in 1996. The chain has 400 restaurants worldwide.

In the U.S., Johnny Rockets is known for burgers, fries and milkshakes, as well as its 1950s diner-style décor. That’s essentially unchanged across its 203 international locations.

“The layouts are the same; the designs are the same; the décors are the same; the operations are the same; the training is the same,” said Naresh Worlikar, Johnny Rockets’ vice president of international.

But there are some differences. While menus in the region are nearly identical to those in the U.S., down to the brand’s signature ketchup smiley face on burgers, local operators have introduced unique regionally-focused menu items, like a date shake.


Skift Table contributor Marcella Veneziale is a journalist and editor based in Zagreb, Croatia. For the past six-plus years, her work has focused on food and the business of restaurants.

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