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Making the right Moo-ves in diner fare - good grub, good prices, good deal

WITH the wind knocked out of the global economy's sails, there has been a dramatic drop in global diners' spending and a change in eating patterns. Expats in Shanghai have not been spared either, and many are opting for better value from their meals instead of experiencing new-fangled and risky dining "concepts."

In times like these, it is chains like American diner Johnny Moo that are well-positioned to cater to the crowds. Its brand of classic American fare is well-priced for Westerners tightening their purse strings, while at the same time also catering for young locals seeking new experiences.

Of course, diner fare is nothing new in Shanghai. The pubs and bars charge a premium for their grub, while family restaurant Moon River Diner suffered when it expanded much too quickly. City Diner hit a niche for the late-night crowd but not for its food, while Munchies is simply an overpriced fast-food joint pandering to middle class Westerners who don't know any better.

The key to Johnny Moo is not in its fare but in its strong brand elements. Just as successful chains like Element Fresh and Wagas have expanded without being the very best in town, their success is down to consistent, identifiable product.

Singaporean Nicholas Ong knows a thing or two about what makes a brand successful. The managing director of parent company Intefoods Ltd was formerly the Asian regional head for Hard Rock Cafe - the world-renowned memorabilia museum-cum-entertainment venue that sparked off a million clones. Though the brand's Chinese locations eventually closed down, the brand still holds great cachet and these ideas rubbed off on Ong.

The first was to hook a catchy name, and Ong, who first arrived on the Chinese mainland in 1989, revived a blast from the not-so-distant past. In 1995, one of Ong's two partners started a small eatery as a side project in Gubei area and named it Johnny (after his dog) and Moo, because it sounded fun. Six months later, however, his wife was blessed with child and the couple had to close the store.

Fast forward to 2006, and the idea of reviving this old name was struck upon. From there one thing led to another - the cow motif, the concept colors (bright maroon booths set against a black and white interior). "The whole concept took us just 60 days of research," says Ong.

The food and beverage industry veterans understood very quickly that a key element was pricing. Yuan for yuan, Johnny Moo offers some of the best value in town. Finger foods, like homemade chicken tenders or chicken quesadillas range from 24 yuan (US$3.50) to 38 yuan. A heaping of salad costs about 35 yuan, pastas cost about 43 yuan while mains peak at around the 50 yuan mark. Nothing fancy, and catering to popular tastes.

Diners are serious business and the litmus test must be applied to the cornerstones of diner fare - the burger and shake. Johnny Moo burgers may not hit the same gourmet heights of its more illustrious counterparts but, at about 40 yuan, gets the job done. This is a solid meat patty on a passable bun with fresh lettuce and tomato, not a frozen slice of cardboard smothered in mustard and masked with pickles.

The Famous Moo Burger (49 yuan) may sound odd on paper - BBQ sauce, cheese, bacon, onion rings and a sunny-side up egg - but its top billing suggests the public is lapping it up.

Likewise, the shakes pass the muster - so thick the straw stands upright in the glass.

Most of all, Ong stresses the brand is about fun. "Our culture is to treat customers like friends and family," he says. "We're not calculative with small little things." All basic soft drinks and coffee, for example, are given free refills, while customers waiting for takeaway food are given a complimentary drink. There is no smoking, and the stores all offer free Wifi access - compulsory these days.

Johnny Moo currently has three outlets in Shanghai - the original on Hongmei Road, one in Jinqiao, Pudong, and the most recently opened on Pudong's Jinfeng Road (in Shanghai Bay Shopping Center).


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