Growing create-your-own stir-fry brands are setting their sights on new markets around the country, particularly the Southeast.
Midwestern stir-fry concepts, like bd’s Mongolian Grill, and Stir Crazy and Flat Top Stir Fry Grill from Chicago-based Flat Out Crazy Restaurant Group, are targeting growth markets in the Southeast because they are rich with the brands’ core customers, officials said.
Tom Ragan, vice president of franchising for Burnsville, Minn.-based bd’s, said the 34-unit chain’s reasons for looking to the South are more about demographics than geography.
“The Southeast is a great market,” Ragan said. “The population we go after is 16 to 40 years old — that’s the Southeast. We have inquiries in Atlanta right now, and it’s just an awareness issue. It’s a wide-open territory, and our competitors are helping us build awareness.”
Since opening a location in Hampton, Va., last December has opened up the whole Southeast and East Coast up to Philadelphia, Ragan said. But getting potential operators access to funding is slowing the pace of growth, he added.
bd’s will open three locations in the fourth quarter of 2011 and plans to open another nine over the next two years, Ragan said. The next franchised bd’s location to begin construction will be in Pittsburgh and the company looks to expand in Ohio and Louisville, Ky., Atlanta, and Florida in the near future.
Flat Out Crazy is on track to open eight restaurants in 2011, including two in Texas and single units in Alabama and Georgia, said president Greg Carey. The company expanded Stir Crazy this year to The Woodlands and Southlake, Texas, and Atlanta. A Flat Top Stir Fry Grill is slated to open soon in Alabama.
So far, Stir Crazy has performed well at its three South Florida locations, Carey said, but the rest of the Southeast also has opportunities for both Stir Crazy and Flat Top.
“When I ran Buckhead Life [Restaurant Group], I got to know the Atlanta market,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to bring a full-service Asian concept back to Atlanta. They love eating out and enjoy good food. The can be picky, but if you deliver food and service optimally, they’ll embrace that.”
The company just opened a Stir Crazy restaurant in the Brookhaven Center development in Atlanta, which is an “underserved” area with dense housing near the Buckhead neighborhood, he said. Flat Out Crazy also is anticipating a Flat Top location opening this month at The Summit lifestyle center in Birmingham, Ala., a piece of real estate Carey has wanted to develop for a while.
“It’s not so much driven by the desire to go to the Southeast as it is that we look at the project and surrounding demographics,” Carey said. “I’m comfortable that Asian is a crossover food. I don’t think there’s one area that doesn’t have the demographic profile we’d need for it to work, so I have no real regional concerns.”
Carey doesn’t worry about growing in markets competitors already have established in their backyard, such as in Texas, near Genghis Grill headquarters, or in Michigan, where bd’s was founded and has most of its restaurants.
“We feel like there’s room for all players,” he said. “They have their market share and have been around a long time, but we’re comfortable with how we execute and our style difference. There are lots of areas the big guys haven’t gotten to yet, and we look for those at the same time, but there’s something comforting about a market already proven for a create-your-own stir-fry concept. bd’s got people to understand in Michigan and got them comfortable with this way of dining.”
Dallas-based Genghis Grill has the most market share in the Southeast, with nearly 40 locations in Texas, seven units in Tennessee and three restaurants in Georgia. The chain also has two locations apiece in Florida, Virginia and North Carolina, as well as single units in Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana.
Earlier this year, Flat Out Crazy opened a Flat Top in South Bend, Ind., and will open additional Flat Top units in Rochester Hills, Mich., in September and Noblesville, Ind., in October. A new Stir Crazy location is scheduled to debut at Minnesota’s Mall of America in October.
“We’ll continue to grow, and if there’s a change for 2012, it’s that we’ll be über-conservative with locations we finalize,” Carey said. “When we open a restaurant, we want to be real sure we open in a strong market, making sure real estate plays out appropriately. The goal to get to 100 restaurants is still very much in our sights.”