The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

  • #26 on the New York Times Best Seller List
    and featured on The Colbert Report, Martha Stewart,, CNN, The Today Show, Good Morning America, Charlie Rose Tomorrow, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, and NPR stations coast to coast. Also selected for Borders Original Voices and Book Sense. Follow me on Twitter! Fan me on Facebook.

  • « | Home | »

    Comparing Non-Profits to Chinese Restaurants

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | November 20, 2008

    My friend Alex Tsai sent me this post on the scaling of non-profit giving from the Acumen Fund blog:

    “We need to talk about how we get foundations to stop giving inefficiently,” said Aaron, who likened the multitude of nonprofits with similar missions to the hundreds of Chinese restaurants across New York City. “All the restaurants serve dumplings, lomein”…to be efficient, “they should all be one Panda Express.”

    Of the 45,000 Chinese restaurants in this country, only 1,000 of them are Panda Express. (Though, Panda Expresses don’t even use wok cooking).

    The non-chain chain of Chinese restaurants is astounding. The story of McDonalds and its golden arches is the epic restaurant tale of 20th-century America. It is the story of highways, homogenization and a nation in a hurry. The standardization of menus, décor and experience is regarded as a post-war organizational triumph, coordinated from the company’s Oak Brook, Illinois corporate headquarters.  Chinese restaurants — which outnumber McDonalds in the United States by two to one — have achieved largely the same effect, but without a central nervous system.

    The vast majority of Chinese restaurants are in fact mom-and-pop partnerships and establishments.  Yet at times, it seems that the restaurants operate as one giant pulsing entity, a lively example of one of the most fertile research area for biologists, sociologists and economists alike: spontaneously self-organizing networks. The principles that govern ant colonies, slime molds and the growth of the Internet also extend to Chinese restaurants: from local actions emerges collective wisdom.

    McDonalds has spent billions on advertising over the years to establish its brand. Today, a red-haired floppy-shoed clown and the bright yellow “M” evoke strong nostalgic sensations in its customers. Chinese restaurants have spent but a fraction of that (much of it on disposable takeout menus), yet they’ve left an equally indelible imprint on the American culinary psyche. Walk by a Peking Garden or China Buffet and you know you can get a reasonably tasty food in healthy portions for somewhere between $5 to $10 no matter what region of the country you may be in.

    While there are Chinese restaurants in the Bay Area and New York for people with taste buds which escape the gravitational pull of homogeneity, by and large, in a large swath of the country, American Chinese food has become its own brand. What Chinese restaurant menu doesn’t offer beef with broccoli, sesame chicken, roast pork lo mein, fried wontons, egg rolls and egg drop soup? Somehow, someone had decided these were going to be the standard bearers of Chinese cuisine in the United States, but not through the focus groups and market testing that dominate American food corporations. This standard is created through decisions on the local level.

    Good ideas have historically rippled quickly through the Chinese restaurant system, carried by word of mouth that runs through the streams of immigrant dispersal.  Fortune cookies traveled eastward from California. General Tso’s chicken travel westwards from New York. Philadelphia cheesesteak rolls traveled south from Pennsylvania (I was shocked to find them in a Chinese buffet outside Hiawassee, Georgia).

    With Chinese restaurants, the best ideas bubble sideways.  It’s like open-source software development. In the end it pays to be part of the informal system even if you don’t have exclusive claim to your own innovations. The entire system benefits. If McDonalds is the Windows of the dining world (where Microsoft controls the standards), then Chinese restaurants are akin to the Linux operating system, where a decentralized network of programmers contributes to the underlying source code. The code is available for anyone to use, modify, and redistribute freely.

    Topics: Chinese Restaurants | No Comments »

    Comments are closed.