China

Who Owns Culture? The case of P.F. Chang’s

Written by Haiming Liu.

In 1993, restaurateur Paul Fleming made a visionary decision. He sold his Ruth’s Chris Steak House and opened his first P.F. Chang’s China Bistro in the Fashion Square shopping center in Scottsdale, Arizona with Philip Chiang as his partner. ‘P.F.’ stood for Paul Fleming and ‘Chang’ for Chiang.

The restaurant entered the market at the right time. By the 1980s, “ethnic” restaurants constituted ten percent of all restaurants in the United States, with Chinese food accounting for thirty percent of these. In New York City, for example, the number of Chinese restaurants was 304 in 1958 but had grown to nearly 800 by 1988. The thriving Chinese business was a result of the rapid growth in the Chinese immigrant population. Many Chinese establishments congregated in Chinatown in big cities or in Chinese concentrated neighborhoods such as San Gabriel Valley in Southern California or Flushing in Queens, New York. They served authentic Chinese food instead of “chop suey” meals. But ninety percent of the customers were Chinese. There were no standardized, full-service chain Chinese restaurants for mainstream middle-class American customers. Fleming’s vision was to carve out a niche for this clientele.

For most Chinese customers and operators, these restaurants were considered a place to eat. The business strategy of many Chinese restaurants was to get as many customers as possible. Food items on the menu could be a dim sum dish for one dollar or a bird’s nest soup for upwards of seventy-five dollars. With prices ranging from fifty cents to fifty dollars per dish, the proprietors targeted customers of all social classes. But restaurant culture is often class sensitive. Patrons of different classes usually do not want to mix when eating out. In some Chinese restaurants, food was authentic and tasty but the furniture was cheap and the restrooms filthy. Few Chinese restaurants had an open kitchen. Such business practices failed to attract a critical mass of middle class American patrons. One executive of P.F. Chang’s noted: ‘We looked at the restaurant universe and Chinese wasn’t represented. … There were only independent operators. The whole country was available for the concept.’

P. F. Chang’s was a new concept in the Chinese restaurant world. It provided a comfortable eating atmosphere that made mainstream American customers want to come back. As a chain restaurant business, the size of P. F. Chang’s stores ranges from 4,500 square foot to 8,000 square foot and accommodates inside seating for 210 to 225 customers; some stores offer patio dining. It has an open kitchen and standardized menu. In flavour, cookery and palatability, P.F. Chang’s tried to keep as close as possible to the Chinese food tradition. It did not drastically change the ingredients or flavour of Chinese dishes to suit the American palate. P.F. Chang’s menu claimed to feature five major Chinese regional cuisines – Guangdong, Hunan, Mongolia, Shanghai and Sichuan. As early Chinese immigrants came from Guangdong, Cantonese cuisine had more influence in America than any other Chinese regional cuisines. Brought over by immigrants from Taiwan, Hunan cuisine had been popular since the 1970s. P.F. Chang’s executive chef Paul Muller toured China often and tried to prepare his food as close as to what he saw and learned there. He observed that his patrons frequently commented: ‘This is way too salty. This is way too oily.’ But the customers kept coming back. American customers readily accepted genuine Chinese food in this corporate-owned American Chinese restaurant.

In 1996, P.F. Chang’s purchased back all its original stores managed and partially owned by other people, hired a management team and opened stores in Denver, Las Vegas and Houston. When P.F. Chang’s had ten stores in 1998, it filed an IPO at $12 a share which jumped to $32.75 in March 2000. By then, the chain had opened thirty-nine stores and was scheduled to open thirteen more. The speed of growth was set at thirteen to fifteen new restaurants each year. By 2016, P.F. Chang’s was operating over 200 full service Bistro restaurants across the United States. In American food history, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro is the first and so far the only sit-down Chinese restaurant that has become a publicly traded stock on Nasdaq. This is an important landmark in Chinese restaurant history in America.

P.F. Chang’s success is a mixed blessing for Chinese Americans. While Chinese American culture – including culinary culture – appears hereditary or primordial, in reality, it is a part of the public domain. A piece of culture does not necessarily belong to those with whom it originated, and to make authentic Chinese food part of the mainstream American restaurant market requires no ethnic association or intrinsic linkage to the Chinese American community. When taken and used as a commodity, food is no longer an inherited culture. Corporate America has appropriated it from the Chinese community, and the success of P.F. Chang’s poses a serious question to Chinese Americans – who owns culture?

Haiming Liu is Professor of Asian and Asian American Studies at California State University, Pomona. He is an author of numerous articles and two books. His recent book From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express: A History of Chinese Food in the United States by Rutgers University Press won the honor title of the 2015 -2016 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in the Adult Non-Fiction Category by American Liberian Association. Image Credit: CC by Jan Fidler/ Flickr.