A Cold, Creamy Taste of Home

A lot of first-time visitors to China exclaim to me that they’re astounded to see so many familiar American chain restaurants. You can find McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks in all but the smallest cities (and even those will almost certainly have a KFC), but the country’s first-tier megalopolises (Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou) offer much, much more. Outback Steakhouse, Subway, Hooters, Ruth’s Chris, TCBY, TGI Fridays, Dunkin Donuts, Mortons, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Sizzler, Cold Stone Creamery … if you’ve come to China but don’t like Chinese food, there are plenty of familiar options. (Though, really, Chinese food is excellent and you should give it a chance. Start with real wonton soup and you’ll be a convert in no time.)

As accustomed as I am to seeing American strip-mall restaurants pop up in Shanghai, though, I still couldn’t believe my eyes a few weeks ago when I came across this ice cream shop on the fourth floor of a shopping mall in the Xujiahui neighborhood:

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Bassetts Ice Cream? Bassetts Ice Cream from Philadelphia?? In Shanghai???

My first thought was that it had to be a knockoff. This is not unprecedented: China, of course, is known for its imitations of foreign goods, and that includes restaurants. I’ve had a very credible fake Chipotle meal in Shanghai, and I’ve heard that there’s a burger joint nearby whose food can easily be mistaken for that served by In-N-Out. But almost as soon as the idea entered my mind, I swept it aside. The colors and logo were exact matches to those at the Bassetts stand in Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market that I’ve been going to since I was a child. Besides, I reasoned, Bassetts is famous, but it’s not really that famous. Copycats only make sense when the original is instantly recognizable.

I went inside and asked the girl behind the counter, “Is this Bassetts Ice Cream from Philadelphia?” She nodded and pointed to a video screen above the counter, which was playing footage of scenes from the Reading Terminal shop. A picture of the Liberty Bell. President Obama accepting a cup of ice cream. Yes, this place was the real thing.

“I’m from Philadelphia!” I told her.

She smiled politely but briefly. “Oh, really?”

So, we weren’t going to bond. Okay. Still, I couldn’t just walk into the store, ask a question, look around, and leave—I obviously had to buy some ice cream.

Though she wasn’t much of a conversationalist, the server was eager to help me choose a flavor. “Would you like to try anything?” she asked, holding up a tiny spoon for sampling. I pointed to “WHYY Experience” (WHYY is Philadelphia’s public television station), and she scooped out a tasting. Chocolate-covered pretzels, a little bit of butterscotch—it was good, but I was looking for something a little more basic.

Aha! Pistachio. I’ve never seen pistachio ice cream in China before, and it’s one of my favorites. I ordered a small cup and only blanched a little when I realized that the price was 32RMB. My single scoop of ice cream cost $5.* (And I enjoyed every. single. bite.)

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Given both the cost and calories, I don’t intend to make frequent trips to Bassetts. But I did head down there again yesterday afternoon, for two reasons: (1) I finished an important chunk of work on my first book proposal (more about that later) and wanted to celebrate/reward myself, and (2) I’ve had a sore throat for three days (spring allergies, I think) and needed to soothe it with something other than Cepacol drops. A cup of peanut butter swirl did the trick, at least for a few hours.

China and its famed “one billion customers” lure plenty of foreign companies to the PRC, so I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised to find that Bassetts Ice Cream had set up shop in Shanghai, as well as Taiyuan (known as China’s dirtiest city due to its coal-mining industry) and Fuzhou (a coastal city across from Taiwan). Still, Bassetts is an otherwise regional brand—its American ice cream parlors are located in Southeastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, plus an outlier in Alabama. Apparently, however, its China outlets are paying off; in a 2013 Philadelphia Inquirer article, the company owner reported that China now accounts for 20 percent of Bassetts’s sales. Like other restaurants, Bassetts has tweaked its products for the China market, making ice cream-filled mooncakes in the fall and offering green tea and black sesame flavors at its shop yesterday.

I can’t say that the store was doing a brisk business on either of my visits (I could count the customers, including myself, on one hand), but that section of the mall just opened a few months ago, so maybe things will pick up as the weather gets hotter. I can definitely promise that in this expat Philadelphian, Bassetts has gained a loyal, if occasional, customer. And next time, I’m going to try the black sesame.

* This is about a dollar more expensive than Baskin Robbins here and probably about the same as Häagen-Dazs. At the low end, a cone of vanilla soft-serve at McDonald’s or KFC is 3RMB ($.48).

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