International Restaurant Chains Find Foothold in Los Angeles

A segment based on this story is being produced for KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected." Watch it on Wednesday, Oct. 22 at 8 p.m.

Deep in the heart of Pasadena's all-American Old Town neighborhood, a restaurant called Little Sheep Hot Pot does a brisk trade in meat. Guests of all backgrounds stop in to try boiling hot pots filled with an array of lamb cuts, other meats, and vegetables, all coupled with the restaurant's highlight: a massive make-your-own-sauce bar. But Little Sheep isn't just a California experiment in hot pot dining -- it's one of the latest branches of a Chinese chain with locations in Japan, Canada, the United States. Along with chain restaurants from the Philippines, South Korea, Japan, and India, Little Sheep sees opportunities in the massive American market.

American-born customers at Little Sheep, which also has locations throughout the San Gabriel Valley, might notice that the mainly Chinese-language menus have their share of English typos. Because Los Angeles, especially, has immigrants from all over the world, it's prime territory for foreign chains looking to serve a bit of home. A similar role is performed by Filipino fast food chain Jollibee at their 11 southern California locations. Although core menu items like hamburgers and spaghetti are similar to what you'd find at a made-in-America fast food chain, the tastes are tweaked for their primarily expatriate and second generation clientele: The ultra-sweet spaghetti sauce comes loaded with ham slices, and the hamburger comes topped with pineapple.

For international chains, the United States -- and Los Angeles -- is a prime moneymaking opportunity. "What international chain operators see when they examine the U.S. market is a consumer who spends almost half of their food budget at restaurants, and one who is eager to try new ethnic flavors," said restaurant consultant Darren Tristano in a recent conversation with industry publication QSR.

Depending on the chain, they may tweak their offerings and atmosphere to the American market or offer a relatively novel experience. Korean cafe chain Paris Baguette has many locations across southern California where the menu runs to baguettes and French pastries; by comparison, fellow import Tom N Toms Coffee offers many more Korean snacks. Guatemalan chicken chain Pollo Campero, with more than 10 southern California locations, distinguishes themselves with sides of yuca fries, plantains, and empanadas.

According to Pollo Campero, the chain -- whose first American locations were in southern California -- is now expanding into Houston, Washington D.C., and New York City. Many other chains, such as Jollibee and Paris Baguette, also opened their initial American locations in California.

Because of Los Angeles' West Coast location, foreign chains that open here tend to come from Pacific countries. By contrast, New York was the beachhead for British sandwich chain Pret A Manger, and Israeli chains Aroma and Max Brenner chocolate are primarily located in the northeast and Florida. A lot of it comes down to where the crowds to sustain a restaurant are. For Pollo Campero, opening in Los Angeles, the heart of the Guatemalan diaspora, made perfect sense. The same thing is true for Little Sheep and other Chinese and Taiwanese chains in the San Gabriel Valley. While serving expatriates might be a moneymaker for foreign chains, it's a boon for Los Angeles residents. After all, they're the ones eating food from all over the world.

TO TRY:

Little Sheep
45 S Fair Oaks Ave
Pasadena, CA 91105

Pollo Campero
1605 W Olympic Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90015

Paris Baguette
3740 W 6th St
Los Angeles, CA 90020

Tom N Toms
621 S Western Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90005

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