From the June 1998 issue of Entrepreneur

The food items on the menu can make or break a new restaurant. Before opening day rolls around, restaurant owners and their chefs spend hours planning menus and wondering whether their culinary offerings will tickle consumers' taste buds and entice them to come back for more. There is, however, a concept that offers a solution to this dilemma: Allow diners to choose ingredients from a fresh-food bar containing a variety of meats and vegetables, select a sauce or concoct their own, and then watch as a chef stir-fries the dish in a wok or cooks it on a grill.

First known as Mongolian barbecue, the newest incarnation of this cuisine, do-it-yourself stir-fry restaurants, is taking America by storm. Prior to the mid-20th century, restaurants in the United States serving Chinese and other Asian foods could only be found in the "Chinatowns" or other ethnic enclaves of major cities such as Chicago and San Francisco. But by 1997, Asian restaurants were cooking up nearly $10 billion per year in sales, and according to monthly magazine Chinese Restaurant News, today there are more than 30,000 such restaurants in the United States, a 36 percent increase since 1992.

Do-it-yourself stir-fry cuisine is just the latest in a long line of ethnic foods to undergo the transition from exotic foreign delicacy to everyday staple. "In the past 20 years, there has been a real ethnicization of Americans' taste buds," says Susan Blank of New York City-based international marketing research and consulting firm Roper Starch Worldwide Inc. "Ethnic foods and concepts start out in immigrant areas and, over time, jump out to the population in general. This has happened with both Italian and Mexican food. Originally, Mexican food was only served in small Mexican-owned restaurants in ethnic areas, and gradually it became a more American cuisine. In the process, the food has changed to suit American palates, but eventually it gained universal acceptance."

Stirring The Pot

Do-it-yourself stir-fry restaurants may not yet enjoy universal acceptance among the general population, but if food trends are any indication, it's only a matter of time. According to a poll from Roper Starch Worldwide, three in 10 Americans say they're always looking for new and unusual flavors, and one in five are very interested in foods from other countries. One in seven Americans likes to be among the first to try a new food, beverage or restaurant, and there is likely an even larger number of adventurous palates among those who have traveled outside the country or attended college.

The do-it-yourself stir-fry concept has a lot going for it, for both restaurant owners and consumers. Aside from giving diners a virtually infinite number of combinations to choose from, do-it-yourself fare is fun, healthy and reasonably priced.

Kevin Brown, executive vice president of Chicago-based restaurant management company Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Inc., opened a two-restaurant chain of do-it-yourself stir-fry restaurants called Big Bowl in the Chicago area in 1995. While Big Bowl's menu contains a number of traditional Asian favorites like potstickers, summer rolls and assorted noodle dishes, the restaurant's Asian Vegetable Market section, where consumers choose meats, vegetables and sauces that are cooked by a chef and served over rice or noodles, has generated some real excitement among diners. "Do-it-yourself is fresh," says Brown. "Customers want more choices and control over what they're eating. It's also a demographically desirable concept. The young market is enthralled by it because it's hip and fun, and older people really seem to like the value."

The do-it-yourself stir-fry dining experience offers more than just good food at good prices: The concept encourages a happy, noisy, party-like atmosphere that is attractive to groups of friends, families or co-workers. "People are very time-constrained these days, and they want to make the most of their leisure time," says Blank. "These restaurants fit into that trend by allowing people to go out and have an entertaining, interactive experience."

Healthy Choice

Health-conscious diners are always on the lookout for foods that are both flavorful and diet-friendly, but in many restaurants, they must specifically request low-fat, low-salt, low-calorie or meatless dishes. And even when they do, there's no guarantee the restaurant will comply with their requests. The fact that diners can pick and choose every ingredient in their meals means do-it-yourself stir-fry gives dieting diners total control over what they eat.

At Flat Top Grill, a do-it-yourself stir-fry restaurant with three locations in the Chicago area, founder and owner Keene Addington has become increasingly aware of his customers' desire for healthy fare. "The food can be as healthy as you want it to be," says Addington, who opened the original Flat Top in 1995 after seeing firsthand how popular do-it-yourself stir-fry restaurants were with Americans living in Hong Kong. "If you want meat in it, you can have that, or you can choose organically grown vegetables and rice or noodles instead. We list the sodium, fat and calorie content of our sauces as well as suggested recipes on blackboards behind the serving lines so you know exactly what you're getting."

There is another aspect of the restaurant business that not many restaurateurs want to talk about: food safety. "Nowadays there is a heightened awareness of food-handling safety and sanitation," says Addington. "In most restaurants, what you see is the finished, cooked product brought to the table. At Flat Top, you see the pre-prepared product, the cooking process, all aspects of the food. The food never leaves your sight, and I think that's an attractive thing to people right now."

Do-it-yourself stir-fry restaurants typically boast all-you-can-eat-for-one-price formats, not including drinks or a la carte items from the menu. Flat Top Grill charges $9.95 for each all-you-can-eat meal, but the average ticket ends up being in the $11-to-$14 range. Big Bowl offers a $7.95 vegetable-only stir-fry and charges an extra $2 to $3 to add chicken, shrimp or beef to the dish. While all-you-can-eat may seem like a losing proposition for the restaurant owner, the high perceived value encourages repeat business--the lifeblood of any venture. Addington estimates that up to 50 percent of his customers return multiple times, which he attributes to the restaurant's comfortable atmosphere and the diversity of food items available.

Causing Quite A Stir

The cost of opening a do-it-yourself stir-fry restaurant may be a little higher than the average restaurant because of the unique interior layout this type of operation requires, according to Addington. Pre-existing locations with large buffet serving areas and an open kitchen where customers can watch the chefs are rare, so the interior of a do-it-yourself stir-fry restaurant is usually custom-built.

"We look for plain, empty spaces," says Addington. "When you go into a spot that was a former restaurant, you end up building around the old setup. We like to have a space that is completely bare and lay out the space exactly how we want it. We've found it's worth it to spend a little extra to start from scratch." Apparently, it has been more than worth it for Flat Top Grill: Addington opened his first location in 1995 with a little more than $400,000 in start-up capital and the chain has since grown to three locations.

So what does it take to make a do-it-yourself stir-fry restaurant succeed? Despite the fact that diners customize their meals, the answer is still quality. "You have to maintain the product, the labor and the service," says Brown. "It's just like a theater. What's [happening] on the stage may change, but the activity at the back of the house stays the same. The rules and service standards that we keep here are no different, regardless of the concept."

The popularity of these restaurants continues to grow unchecked. Nation's Restaurant News has honored a do-it-yourself stir-fry restaurant, Stir Crazy in Chicago, as one of its 1998 Hot Concept winners, and with diners throughout the country getting into the stir of things, do-it-yourself stir-fry just may be here to stay.

Next Step

  • Monthly magazine Chinese Restaurant News covers issues and trends affecting Chinese restaurants and their suppliers in the United States. For more information, call (888) 727-8881.
  • The National Restaurant Association publishes a monthly magazine, Restaurants USA, for the restaurant industry. To subscribe, call (800) 424-5156 or write to the National Restaurant Association at 1200 17th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20036-3097.

Contact Sources

Chinese Restaurant News, 28750 Hayward Blvd., Hayward, CA 94542

Flat Top Grill, 1000 W. Washington St., Chicago, IL 60607, (312) 829-4800

Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Inc., (312) 640-8888 fax: (312) 640-1555

Nation's Restaurant News, http://www.nrn.com

Roper Starch Worldwide Inc., (714) 756-2600, http://www.roper.com