Stir Crazy

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.

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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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