HuHot Mongolian Grill’s store base has grown 52 percent since 2009, and its customizable, all-you-caneat signature food and service format are key to the consumer appeal fueling that growth, executives and industry observers say.
Based in Missoula, Mont., the 47-unit casual-dining chain was founded 14 years ago by the Vap family, whose HuHot Mongolian Grills LLC owns six restaurants, is affiliated with nine operated by family members and franchises 32 to others.
HuHot offers a small menu of à la carte appetizers, salads and desserts. For its Mongolian Grill entrée option, however, the chain permits guests unlimited trips through the service line, where they can select from a wide range of raw proteins, sliced and diced produce, oils, sauces and other toppings to create personal, Asian-flavored dishes that are then prepared for them on a large circular grill.
“It has the three ‘C’s for consumers: control, convenience and customization,” said foodservice training consultant and Nation’s Restaurant News contributor Jim Sullivan. “Time is one of the things people want to control, and [at HuHot] you can get up there and get your food in relatively quick fashion, and you can make it as spicy as you want.”
Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of the Dublin, Ohio-based WD Partners consultancy, said Mongolian barbecue concepts such as HuHot work
for a slightly younger demographic for a variety of reasons.
“But I can also see grandparents taking their grandchildren there,” he said. “There is a lot of activity and consumer interaction going on around the food, which makes it a fun place for a date or [social] things like that,” Lombardi added, noting that the format spurs users to talk to one another while choosing ingredients and watching their meals cook.
Industry watcher Sullivan said the ingredients and cooking style at HuHot foster the perception that the food is fresh and better for you.
“You can make it as good for you or bad for you as you like,” Andrew Vap, HuHot co-founder and chief executive, noted. “If you load your plate with noodles, meats and heavy sauces, that’s not so good for you. Having lots of vegetables and lighter sauces is.”
Vap said having a customizable signature food is one of the chain’s strong suits. Most operators charge $8.99 for the Mongolian Grill option during weekday lunch and $12.99 at dinner.
“When people come in, they often have a recipe they have created and have really dialed in,” he said. “We have a recipe contest every fall, and customers get excited about it because the recipe cards of the winner and runner-up are distributed to all the stores.”
Vap said he expects HuHot to maintain its recent double-digit rate of unit growth in 2013 by adding eight to 10 new restaurants, including three in the Salt Lake City market and one each in Denver; Rapid City, S.D.; and Virginia. After that, he said, he anticipates adding between eight and 12 restaurants annually.
Related to marketing, Vap said, HuHot has seen good results from its limited-time offers, such as the Gobi-Nanas wrapped and fried bananas dessert LTO of 2012, and quarterly Sauce of the Season promotion, which recently featured Khan’s Revenge, a habañero-spiked condiment.