At the Fortune Cookie restaurant, there are indeed fortune cookies — as well as little bottles of soy sauce, a “lucky cat” statue, and stacks of paper take-out boxes. The menu, a bilingual broadsheet, features such familiar fare as General Tsao’s chicken, orange beef, pork egg roll, shrimp fried rice, egg foo young, vegetables in garlic sauce, and “moo shu everything.”
In many ways it’s a typical Chinese restaurant, the kind found in thousands of cities and towns around the world — but here in Shanghai, it’s a novelty.
The brainchild of two 2009 master of management in hospitality (MMH) grads, the Fortune Cookie opened in July 2013. It wasn’t a coals-to-Newcastle situation: as founders Fung Lam and David Rossi explain, the cuisine served in more than 40,000 Chinese restaurants across the U.S. is all but unrecognizable to inhabitants of the nation it’s named for. “Until I moved to Shanghai, I never really realized that American-style Chinese food is so different from ‘Chinese Chinese’ food,” says Lam, whose family has run Chinese restaurants in the U.S. since his grandfather opened one in Brooklyn in 1969. “Hot and sour soup, egg drop soup, wonton soup — all those menu items are very American.”
Mott’s applesauce Duck sauce
Heinz ketchup Sweet and sour sauce Skippy peanut butter The sauce on fried noodle dishes like chow fun and chow mein
Philadelphia cream cheese Crab rangoon
Clabber Girl baking powder The batter on General Tsao’s dishes
Kellogg’s corn flakes The shell on fried ice cream
McCormick seasonings The dry rub for BBQ ribs
Huy Fong sriracha Table condiment (the popular Asian-inspired hot sauce, with a rooster on the bottle, is made in California)
Lam and Rossi cheerfully admit they never planned on peddling chop suey and chow fun in Shanghai. They’d initially wanted to open a Western-style health food restaurant, tapping the expat market in an international city of 25 million. But as they struggled to nail down a location — after spending the better part of a year studying the language and getting the lay of the land business-wise — they identified a particular yearning in their collective midsections. “We were homesick for American-style Chinese food,” Rossi says. “That’s what Fung grew up with and that’s what I used to eat with my parents on Friday nights, but you couldn’t find it in Shanghai. There was no place to buy a pork egg roll, crab rangoon, orange chicken. There was no beef and broccoli, chicken and broccoli, kung pao chicken, General Tsao’s chicken, sweet and sour pork, chow mein. Even the fried rice is different.”
They eventually found a site, a fourth-floor location in a neighborhood frequented by expats. But getting the place up and running was a major undertaking. For one thing, since suppliers figured the concept was both crazy and doomed, they demanded large advance orders with up-front payment. As Lam and Rossi soon learned, neither fortune cookies nor traditional take-out containers — square and emblazoned with a red pagoda — existed in China, so they had to be imported or custom-made. “We had to buy in bulk by the tens of thousands,” says Lam. “There were giant stacks of take-out boxes all over our apartment.” Adds Rossi: “You literally couldn’t sit on our couch, because it was covered in fortune cookies.” When their first order of the restaurant’s namesake sweet arrived — from a U.S. supplier that also ships to Europe — the fortunes were printed in Dutch.
Sourcing ingredients was another headache. In China, food scares — often involving adulterated or poorly handled products — make regular headlines. To insure a reliable supply, Lam and Rossi pay a premium for foodstuffs with a guaranteed provenance; the Fortune Cookie’s menu even touts its “traceable meats.” “We need to be able tell our clients that our chicken is 100 percent safe to eat,” says Rossi. “It comes to us frozen in ice packs, it has an expiration date, it has the name-brand “˜Tyson’ on it.”
When the restaurant first opened, most customers were like its owners, expat Westerners longing for the comforts of home. These days, Lam and Rossi say, locals make up about half their clientele. The Fortune Cookie has been featured on CBS News and NPR and garners solid reviews on sites like TripAdvisor, whose commenters give it an average rating of about 4.5 (out of 5) — putting it in the top twenty of some 12,000 eateries in Shanghai.
Granted, its cuisine isn’t for everyone; hewing to the American palate, its food is often sweeter than homegrown Chinese fare. Lam and Rossi admit that some locals, used to ordering a variety of small plates, have been put off by its sizeable portions — another quintessentially American trait — and relatively high prices, driven by the cost of ingredients like the $7.50 jars of imported Mott’s applesauce it uses in its duck sauce. (An order of moo shu pork will set you back about $13, a half-portion of BBQ ribs around $18.) But the concept has proven popular and successful enough that the owners are contemplating additional locations. And — suspecting that they’ve maxed out word-of-mouth advertising in the expat community — they’ve recently stepped up their marketing efforts, aiming to attract locals through a more sophisticated campaign than the one they opened with: handing out fortune cookies on the street.