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Stir Crazy

Do-it-yourself stir-fry restaurants cater to diners' desire to have it their way.

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This story appears in the June 1998 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

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.

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