The Secret Second Life of Kenny Rogers Roasters ... in Asia

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Kenny Rogers Roasters' Malaysia website

Terminal 3 in Beijing's Capital International Airport, first built to funnel visitors to the 2008 Olympic Games and one of the world's largest, is a marvel of modern design. The one-million-square-meter, energy-efficient, feng-shui-compliant complex can handle nearly 20,000 pieces of luggage per hour. From above, the mass of glass and steel has been made to look like an iridescent dragon clutching a pearl in its mouth. Passengers, on their way to or from one of 314 check-in counters on a maze of moving walkways, have 63 dining options to choose from. And a good number will settle on Kenny Rogers Roasters, a location of the American country singer's failed rotisserie chicken chain.

Kenny Rogers Roasters is one of several obsolete, tarnished or dying U.S. brands enjoying a second and much more robust life in Asia. The business, launched by Rogers and former KFC owner John Y. Brown, Jr. in Florida in 1991, went bankrupt in 1998. It was bought by the fast-food company Nathan's Famous, which in 2008 sold the entire chain to its Asian franchiser, Malaysia-based Berjaya Roasters Sdn Bhd. That same year, in an interview with the Raleigh News Observer, Kenny Rogers lamented, "You know, we had those little corn muffins that actually had corn in them. I miss that." By then — and still now — a lone restaurant in Ontario, Calif., was all that remained of hundreds of American outposts.

But those who imagined they might never again partake of its crisp drumsticks and innumerable sides — Kenny included — need only take a trip across the Pacific. There are now close to 140 Kenny Rogers Roasters locations Asia-wide — and counting. The Gambler's botched foray into food has been described as "one of the fastest growing restaurant chains along the Pacific Rim." Three years ago, Berjaya bought Kenny Rogers Roasters for $4 million; total revenue for the last fiscal year was over $100 million. The chain, whose presence is strongest in Malaysia and the Philippines, will move into southern China next, where it intends to expand at the speed that the Beijing airport's newest terminal spits out baggage. The first restaurant to the area will open in early September and one hundred more are scheduled to follow over the next five years.

The family-style chicken eatery is not alone in finding another chance at success and popularity across the pond. The Spinelli Coffee Company brand, which originated in San Francisco and whose U.S. stores have all been converted into Tully's coffee shops, is alive and kicking in Singapore, China and Indonesia. The logo on its signposts still bears the name of its hometown despite the fact that it no longer exists as a brand there. Swensen's, the California-born mom-and-pop ice cream chain, has twice as many stations in Singapore and one and a half times as many in China, as it has left in the States. Even casual clothing retailer Esprit, founded in America, at one time shuttered its U.S. operations and began expanding in the East under the direction of a new Asian owner. In other words, no American should count the favorite brand of their youth dead until they've scoured the shopping malls of Shanghai.

There are plenty of reasons for which enterprises that flounder at home sail smoothly overseas. By hanging on to their original names and core offerings, U.S.-born companies are afforded a cachet and credibility associated with Western brands in Asia, says project manager Elisabeth de Gramont of Shanghai market research firm Jigsaw. At the same time, though, "few people here know the context behind these brands, so they can shed their baggage," she says. "They can more or less start from scratch."

Indeed, while in countries like the Philippines Kenny Rogers Roasters has become a household name, no one quite knows what that name refers to. In mid-June, Berjaya surveyed a focus group of its potential customers in southern China, asking, in one section, if they knew who Mr. Kenny Rogers was. "They didn't," says executive director Datuk Francis Lee. Asian consumers are unlikely to have seen the Seinfeld episode in which Kramer both attempts to close his local Kenny Rogers Roasters down and becomes addicted to its (in Newman's words) "pretty strong bird." They probably don't know, either, that the chain sunk miserably in the U.S.

What they do appreciate is the all-American ambiance and food — though with regional add-ons like Balinese spicy sauce, this isn't quite the restaurant that America's post-80s generation came of age with. As a result, the bearded, black-and-white rendering of Kenny Rogers's head that has long nestled in the curl of the R in Roasters is being phased out. Says Lee: "We are slowly moving away from the face."

The question is whether a faceless, kick-started Kenny Rogers Roasters will ever stray back homeward. And if it does, will it succeed? "I'm sure we will go back someday soon," says Lee. "Why wouldn't we? The United States is the place of our humble beginnings." Others have pulled it off. Esprit, for one, was able to revive itself on its own turf after being re-energized abroad. It used to be that when U.S.-founded brands spoke of "going global" they were referring to the aspiration of international expansion. But in 2006, Heinz Krogner, chief executive of an Esprit then on the cusp of its American reentry, told TIME: "We want to be a global player. Global means you have to be in the U.S."

Mr. Rogers might take solace in the plans of the convenience store giant Lawson, Inc. Remembered in the U.S. for its "Roll On, Big-O" jingle and French onion chip dip, the first Lawson shop was opened by a dairy owner in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, in 1939. It later grew into an American chain and, under the ownership of Consolidated Foods and by an agreement signed with supermarket retailer Daiei, expanded in 1975 into Japan, where it became the nation's second largest convenience store chain. The brand, which has hit China and is set to launch in Southeast Asia, is now present only in Asia. But one of its long-term goals, President and CEO Takeshi Niinami told Reuters in June, is to re-infiltrate the American market — large, proud and chip dipless. If Kenny Rogers Roasters takes its cue, Kenny may not have to venture very far for his next corn muffin after all.