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International chain restaurants are choosing NYC as an entry point into the U.S.

"The greatest thing about New Yorkers is their openness to diverse, international offerings," a TKK Fried Chicken spokeswoman said.

TKK Fried Chicken opened its first U.S. location

TKK Fried Chicken opened its first U.S. location by Madison Square Park, in the fall, in a partnership with bubble tea chain Kung Fu Tea. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

New York City’s restaurant scene reflects its overall diversity, but not just in terms of its many authentic cuisines: A growing number of international chains also want a bite of the Big Apple.

Thanks largely to an array of immigrant communities and a lively food and restaurant scene, the city attracts international chains wanting to foray into the U.S. The upside for city dwellers: An evolving, wide range of restaurants from across the globe.

In just the past few months, the city has seen restaurants and bakeries from Denmark, the U.K. and Taiwan set up shop, with many more to come as chains from overseas see NYC as a big business opportunity. 

“If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere,” said Tony Chan, general manager of the flagship East Village location of dim sum chain Tim Ho Wan. 

Most recently, the city got a couple of European chain outposts: Ben’s Cookies from the U.K. and Ole & Steen from Denmark.

Known for its “chunks not chips” cookies, Ben’s Cookies opened a two-month pop-up by Penn Station earlier in the year, expanding briefly beyond its permanent and first U.S. store in Union Square.

The bakery, which came to the city in 2017, started in the U.K. in the 1980s and has expanded to several countries, including Kuwait, Japan and Singapore. Ben’s Cookies offers a range of flavors, including milk chocolate and peanut butter, snickerdoodle, lemon and coconut.

Also in Union Square, Danish bakery chain Ole & Steen opened its first stateside branch in January. Founded in 1991, the Copenhagen-based bakery is ubiquitous in the U.K. and Denmark, where it is known as Lagkagehuset. In the U.S. location, the bakery sells Danish classics such as the open-faced sandwich smørrebrød on carrot rye bread, ølander roll with Danish cured ham and Gouda cheese, and a soft cardamom bun called the kløben.  

One big draw for these franchises to launch in NYC is the diverse customer base. That was the case with Hong Kong-originated Tim Ho Wan, which came to NYC in 2016, Chan said. 

If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.

-Tony Chan, GM of the East Village's Tim Ho Wan

“Since New York City is one of the biggest cities, with a huge diversity of [ethnicities], different people with different taste buds, we figured why not New York?"

Since 2010, Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong and neighboring Asian countries has attracted many with classic dim sum such as steamed shrimp dumplings and pan-fried turnip cake. Its star dish, though, is the famous baked barbecue pork buns, which are equally popular in the U.S., Chan said.

Tim Ho Wan has fared well in New York, Chan said, noting that it has fueled the brand’s expansion into other states. After opening another location in Hell’s Kitchen, outposts are now planned for Irvine, California, and Las Vegas.

“The people of New York have been very kind and good toward Tim Ho Wan,” he said. “Opening the flagship store in New York City in the East Village location has helped the brand a lot.” 

Also from Asia is TKK Fried Chicken, which opened in fall 2018 by Madison Square Park. TKK is a Taiwanese fried chicken restaurant that partnered with bubble tea chain Kung Fu Tea to come to NYC. Kung Fu Tea, which got its start in Flushing, and now has more than 200 outposts nationwide, recruited TKK for the partnership on a trip to Taiwan in 2016.

Famous for its fried chicken and kwa kwa bao, which are balls of fried chicken skin wrapped around sticky rice, mushroom and pork, TKK also offers chicken sandwiches and tenders, as well as combo meals. Because of the partnership, TKK has a full Kung Fu Tea stand within the restaurant, a unique feature for this location. Encouraging customers to enjoy chicken and bubble tea at once, the two brands want to make this combo the next burger and milkshake, said Joyce Xu, marketing associate for Kung Fu Tea and TKK.

For TKK, the biggest lure to setting up in NYC: its melting pot makeup, which encompasses groups far beyond those of Taiwanese descent, Xu said.

“The greatest thing about New Yorkers is their openness to diverse, international offerings.” 

The fact that the city is such a big gastronomic and cultural hub helped with TKK’s venture, she added. This “foodie” environment that results in many curious customers wanting to try new or unfamiliar products makes the city an even bigger attraction, she said.

“TKK has no doubt benefited as the first Taiwanese chain to offer Taiwanese-style chicken like drumsticks and thighs.”

Speaking of fried chicken, South Korea’s Pelicana Fried Chicken also opened its first U.S. store in Flushing, in 2014. That location gained a lot of traction, enough for Pelicana to open six more spots in the city since. Beyond Flushing, it counts shops in Astoria, Bayside, and Sunnyside in Queens, Koreatown in Manhattan, and Fort Greene and Greenpoint in Brooklyn.

Like most Korean fried chicken places, Pelicana, which has been around in Korea since the early 1980s, gives diners the option to get regular, undressed fried chicken or poultry coated with a spicy sauce – or, half and half. In the U.S. spots, customers have a wider variety of sauces, such as honey garlic, scallion and spicy barbecue, which can be served on the side as a dipping sauce instead with the pieces tossed in it. Aside from fried, the restaurant offers chicken sandwiches, burgers and sides including onion rings and cheese sticks.

In the past two years, other international chains, including German’s Soup from Guyana, Ikinari Steak from Japan, Bourke Street Bakery from Australia and Copper Branch from Canada, have come to NYC as an entry point to the U.S. And in the coming months, diners can expect even more overseas places to plant outposts in the city. Chains slated to open in the spring and summer include Zooba, an Egyptian street food restaurant based in Cairo, and Uncle Tetsu, a Japanese cheesecake shop (currently only on the West Coast).

As the city continues to bring in more people from around the world, expect the restaurant scene to continue to expand and evolve. The “diverse, lively and adventurous” culture makes NYC an attraction for businesses, TKK’s Xu said.

“NYC is a key destination for the best food and drinks, a place frequented by foodies, tourists, people from all walks of life,” Xu said.

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