Stir Crazy

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."

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This article was originally published in the June 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Stir Crazy.

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