Green Dot Stables was never meant for expansion. Sure, it has been popular since its 2012 opening, thanks to its focus on sliders and affordability. Everything on the menu, including cocktails, costs only $2 or $3. But it was a neighborhood kind of place, operating out of an old brick building that used to house an equestrian-themed dive bar. So owners Jacques and Christine Driscoll had regularly declined offers from would-be partners hoping to spin off Green Dot Stables elsewhere in Michigan, elsewhere in the United States, and even one offer to open a sister restaurant in Toronto. Then, on February 8, 2014, an email arrived.
At first, Jacques Driscoll wondered if the email was a scam. The man who sent it wanted to discuss a financial partnership. And he was from Malaysia, a foreign country Driscoll didn't know much about. But the email included enough detail to intrigue Driscoll: The writer knew he owned a Detroit restaurant that shared similarities with fast-food chains, but was "more boutique in nature," and the man wanted to open franchises. The next day, Driscoll dashed off a short reply. "I would gladly discuss with you," he wrote. "Do you have any details so I have a better idea of what you have in mind?"
Over the next several months, the two men outlined a proposal to license the Green Dot Stables name and introduce sliders to Malaysia. And, a little more than a year later, one of Detroit's most popular restaurants opened its first and only spinoff location in a suburban mall outside of Kuala Lumpur. This is the story of why and how Green Dot Stables unexpectedly went international.
This is not your typical international expansion. Green Dot Stables is not like McDonald's, a massive fast-food chain sprawling in all directions across the globe. It's not a boutique fast-casual chain like Shake Shack that slowly grew domestically before partnering with licensees like Sazaby League (which also brought Starbucks to Japan). And it's not even like San Francisco's insanely popular Tartine Bakery partnering with Blue Bottle Coffee to open a brand-new concept in Tokyo. As Eater reported last year, expansion for these American companies was particularly strategic — zeroing in on Tokyo, where they already had a potential clientele — and offered ample control over their brands.
By contrast, this is your favorite neighborhood restaurant sharing its name and recipes with another small business owner in suburban Malaysia, all more or less on a lark. But that doesn't mean it didn't have business potential, and Green Dot isn't the only one-off restaurant with its first expansion to happen outside the United States. In recent months, restaurants like Portland, Oregon's Navarre and bakeries like San Francisco-based Mr. Holmes have branched out abroad (to Tokyo and Seoul, respectively).
In the case of Green Dot Stables, Weng Kit Chew was delighted that Driscoll had responded to his email so quickly. Chew, an accountant by trade and owner of three Chinese restaurants in Kuala Lumpur, was looking for a new project to take advantage of the city's ballooning international food scene. American fast food, particularly, was all the rage: McDonald's was embarking on an aggressive expansion plan throughout Malaysia, and even the Johnny Rockets chain — itself inspired by the classic Los Angeles burger joint the Apple Pan — was gearing up to expand from two to 10 restaurants in the Southeast Asian nation.
Chew had read a syndicated article about Green Dot Stables in Malaysian English-language newspaper The Star; it declared the restaurant would "give you a whole new vision of the lowly slider." Chew didn't know much about sliders; they weren't so much a thing in Malaysia. But it occurred to him they might do well. After all, the portions at rapidly expanding American burger restaurants like Johnny Rockets are huge. Too huge, he figured, for the Asian palate. Maybe, the 60-year-old figured, it was up to him to make sliders happen. "At my age, if you see something interesting, you just do it," he says.
And so he responded to Driscoll with more details. At first, Driscoll couldn't figure out why Chew hadn't just knocked off the Green Dot Stables concept and left it at that. In Iran, copycats have been as blatant as Pizza Hat and Mash Donald's, while Forbes notes that Sunbucks coffee shops and KFC imitators are often a problem in China. And unlike In-N-Out's swift complaints against its many copycats at home and abroad, Driscoll didn't exactly have the same legal heft to chase down a Malaysian restaurateur. But as Chew made clear over months of emailing that followed, he wanted the authenticity that came with being a franchise. Just as the McDonald's and Johnny Rockets of the world were welcome in Malaysia, Chew was banking on the marketing advantage of opening a bona fide American hamburger restaurant — particularly one that would set itself apart from the competition by focusing on sliders.
Chew was banking on the marketing advantage of opening a bona fide American hamburger restaurant.
The proposed deal was a basic licensing agreement: Chew and his business partner Paul Tan paid Driscoll $25,000 for the rights to use Green Dot Stables' name, recipes, logos, and handbooks, and pledged five percent of the royalties. Green Dot Stables agreed to send a manager to Malaysia to oversee the restaurant's opening stages. "It was a fun thing," Driscoll says. "The worst-case scenario is we go to Malaysia." And the deal wasn't financially any different from other proposals Driscoll had received from would-be U.S. partners. "Sure, it would be great if it makes a few bucks," he says, "but it was more about the experience and the potential of what it might become in Asia."
Though the deal did give Driscoll veto power over the Malaysia location's business decisions, he prefers a hands-off approach. His main stipulation from the outset was that the restaurant had to keep its price range more or less in line with the Detroit location, where nothing costs more than a few bucks. Other than that, Driscoll figured, Chew and Tan knew the Malaysian market and could manage the restaurant just fine on their own.
The idea of "American-ness" was essential to Chew's entire business plan. Chew made it clear he meant to duplicate Green Dot Stables as closely as possible in Petaling Jaya. He insisted on keeping the name even though its equestrian element might not translate well, and he was also adamant about using Detroit executive chef Les Molnar's menu. As Chew explains it, Malaysia's history as a former British colony predisposes it to Western culinary influences, with burgers and fries often seen as a fitting alternative to the country's customary noodle dishes. And these days, he says, more and more young Malaysians are studying overseas and bringing a taste for burgers home with them. The American decor and the "American Flavor" sign at the entrance is all a ploy to get customers in the door.
"We started Green Dot Stables just to be a little local neighborhood bar, and now we’re here in Malaysia."
Driscoll had his doubts about how well the Detroit menu — especially its Coney Dog slider — would translate to the Malaysian palate. But the more immediate challenge that Tim Ziegler, Green Dot's contract-stipulated envoy, faced was sourcing. While in the U.S. restaurants tend to source their products from several vendors, it's more common in Malaysia to buy as many ingredients as possible from the same vendor for a bulk rate. And there aren't too many vendors selling Western produce. So while Green Dot used the same vegetable vendors Chew and Tan use for their Chinese restaurants in Kuala Lumpur, the team had to look elsewhere for particular ingredients. They commissioned a local dairy to start making provolone cheese just for Green Dot, and began importing full brisket from Australia to grind in-house rather than using subpar beef. Ultimately, the only things not replicable were the kale salad — it's been replaced with watercress — and the rotating Mystery Meat slider featuring exotic meats like bison and crocodile. Most of these animals are protected in Malaysia, Chew says, joking, "Everything is protected here other than the rats."
Alcohol was also a struggle. Malaysia is, after all, a Muslim country, where many people abstain from drinking on religious grounds. But beer and cocktails are so key to the Green Dot Stables DNA that there wasn't any thought of opening its Malaysian outpost as a dry establishment; rather the challenge came when Driscoll realized that a fifth of Jack in Malaysia costs somewhere around $50 wholesale. It would be impossible to keep prices at the equivalent of $2 or $3. So Driscoll okayed slightly raising the booze prices, so long as the Malaysia team made sure it was still a relative value for drinkers.
But Driscoll says that the harder decision was whether to put pork on the menu. You never want to alienate 60 percent of your potential clientele right off the bat, he says. Ultimately, though, the team decided that most of Malaysia's Muslim population probably wasn't going to come to Green Dot anyway. If they were going to have beer and liquor available, they might as well have pork, too.
In early May 2015, a week before the restaurant officially opened, Driscoll and the rest of the Detroit team pulled up in front of Centrepoint Bandar Utama mall. The first thing Driscoll saw was the Green Dot Stables sign, a moment the restaurateur describes as one of the highlights of his life. "We started [Green Dot Stables] just to be a little local neighborhood bar, and now we're here in Malaysia," he marvels.
Though locals seemed to take to Green Dot right away — a local newspaper filed a praise-filled, four-page review — there was just one problem: nobody really understood the point of sliders. Thanks to the ubiquity of American fast-food chains in Malaysia, hamburgers evoked a vision of giant meat patties, sometimes several to a stack, a meal all in itself. Ziegler says that whenever Malaysian diners were told that sliders were just tiny hamburgers, they'd ask, "Why would you want to do that?" To some extent, this was an anticipated problem: The Petaling Jaya menu has photos so people can see what they're going to get. And even though the local service style is a little more low-key and less chatty than you'll find at an American restaurant, all the Green Dot servers have been rigorously trained to explain the concept to guests and encourage them to order more than one dish. (Some servers even quit because of the time-consuming service style.)
It's a comparable adjustment to the small plates trend that besieged American restaurants in recent years, and Chew believes that Malaysian diners will come around to it in time. "The concept of sliders has not really caught on because no one knows what sliders are," he says. So he plans to spend the next year or so telling people about sliders until they adjust to the idea.
Driscoll has reworked his royalties agreement with his Malaysian partners "due to some economic issues."
In the meantime, Chew figures it's time to experiment with the menu. Green Dot Stables has added Western dishes, Chinese dishes, and bar snacks to its lunch and bar menus to draw in diners who aren't so sure yet about sliders. But Driscoll's fears about translating Detroit flavors to a Malaysian audience were only somewhat on point. The Coney Dog burger is actually doing well, but it turned out that diners in Petaling Jaya hated the fried chicken with panko-sage maple syrup. So Green Dot Stables took that sandwich and two other bottom-sellers off the menu and added a slate of "local flavor" sliders, which includes varieties like chicken satay, lamb curry, and blackened chicken sliders. Still, Chew says most customers still prefer to order from the original Detroit slider menu. Ziegler thinks all these changes have helped. When he left Malaysia in the fall, food was only a quarter of sales; now it accounts for a third.
As is true anywhere, opening a restaurant in Malaysia — and particularly the restaurant-saturated area in and around Kuala Lumpur — is risky. Chew estimates that out of 10 restaurants that open, one will do well, three will survive, and six will change owners. While Green Dot Stables has broken even, making money has still been tough. Driscoll writes in an email that he has reworked his royalties agreement with his Malaysian partners "due to some economic issues." He'd rather see his partners succeed than worry about money. Chew says that what matters to him most right now is that sales are improving and that the food is consistent. "My concentration is the food," Chew says. What he wants to focus on now is marketing those sliders and, eventually, expansion.
Even before they opened the Petaling Jaya location, the Green Dot Stables team has been eyeing new locations in Southeast Asia, especially beyond Malaysia. Chew recently checked out some locations in Phuket, Thailand, and otherwise considers Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam to be friendly markets. But Chew doesn't want to expand Green Dot Stables as aggressively as other American chains. He wants to keep it casual, with 10 locations at most.
Meanwhile, Driscoll has turned his attention back to his expanding Detroit empire, which now includes the Huron Room and Johnny Noodle King. But he's proud to have a piece of Detroit represented in Malaysia. "The whole thing is amazing and fun," he says.
Lead photo: A man walks by a burger advertisement in Malaysia. Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images