How the Dutch cargo-cult American cuisine (and fail)

Until a few years ago, we mostly had McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC (in bigger cities) and a handful of Starbucks and such around here. I remember when I used to go to the only Subway restaurant in the Netherlands back in 2002: now there are 181 restaurants in our tiny country.

Yesterday I passed through the newly opened section of the “Hoog Catharijne” shopping area in Utrecht –next to Utrecht’s central train station– fittingly rebranded “The Mall”. Within five minutes I passed a Cinnabon, TGI Fridays, Five Guys and Dunkin Donuts. In other cities, Taco Bell recently opened. None of these brands had any stores in the Netherlands a year ago.

That wasn’t always the case though: we used to have Applebee’s, Wendy’s, Dunkin Donuts and Pizza Hut before. Wendy’s closed their only Dutch restaurant in the 80’s. Dunkin Donuts closed all of its five locations in 2000. Applebee’s threw in the towel in 2001. Out of twelve Pizza Hut locations, only one remained last year though they have announced fifteen new ones a few months ago.

For some reason, franchisees assume the times have changed. And maybe that’s true, courtesy of Netflix and others. Starbucks’ product placement appears in pretty much every American movie and is what made them big here, not their amazing coffee. Even in a down to earth country like the Netherlands, we want to feel like the Manhattanite who grabs a coffee on their sneakers and changes into dress shoes at the office.

It’s strange how the Dutch seem to love American eateries even though we have a totally different culture when it comes to dining out. For instance, ask any Dutchie when they last took the family out for breakfast (answer: pretty much none of us ever have). We don’t want the service provided in chain restaurants in the US too; we want our servers to do their job and not make smalltalk.

Cargo-culting: we love it. But it didn’t work in the 80’s and 90’s, and I wonder how well it will work now.