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Urban Wok: High-tech, customizable stir-fry

The St. Paul, Minn.-based restaurant chain offers a modern service experience with global flavors.

Mark Toth claims he never wanted to open a restaurant.

“I wanted to open a scalable concept — something that I could build a model around,” said the founder and CEO of Urban Wok, the first location of which he opened on Oct. 1, 2018, in St. Paul, Minn. Now the concept has five locations — three in the Twin Cities area, one in Atlanta, and a fifth in Columbia, S.C.

The Southeastern locations are franchised, and a second unit in Columbia is slated to open soon, with three to four more Minnesota locations slated to open this year.

Despite the name, Urban Wok isn’t an Asian restaurant per se, but what Toth calls “global fusion.”

As with many fast-casual concepts, guests start with a base, which can be rice, noodles, riced cauliflower with cilantro, or zucchini noodles. They can then select from some 20 vegetables, choice of protein — tofu, shrimp, steak, and chicken — and then a signature sauce, all made from scratch in-house and all gluten-free and vegan.

The sauces are pretty much all that is made in-house (“They’re very easy to make,” Toth said). The proteins and vegetables are pre-cut, meaning minimal back-of-house labor, although the workers they do have need to handle woks over hot 100btu burners.

The front-of-the-house is largely automated. Guests can order and pay via kiosks or on the chain’s app. The result is a lean business with labor costs of around 15-16% once a restaurant is up and running. Food costs pre-pandemic were 17.5-18.5%, but now it’s closer to 21.5-23%, Toth said. Annual sales per restaurant are around $750,000.

Square footage ranges from 2,500 in the original St. Paul location to around 1,450, with around 1,700 being the sweet spot.

“We can squeeze into 1,500, give or take,” said George McCorkell, director of growth and expansion.

Although Urban Wok isn’t exclusively Asian, its most popular sauces are Garlic-ginger-soy, spicy peanut and a Korean barbecue. A new sauce, agave-Sriracha-ginger, has also had positive reception. Other sauces include Caribbean jerk, citrus orange, mango habanero, and peach bourbon barbecue.

The entrées are priced starting at $12.99 for only vegetable toppings up to $16.99 for shrimp. Chicken accounts for about 80% of orders, which are served in Chinese-style takeout containers whether customers are dining in or taking it to go.

“Our slogan is ‘Wok Your Way,’” Toth said, meaning guests can eat in the restaurant —around 30% of customers do — take it to go, or have it delivered. Beer (mostly local craft beer) and wine are for sale and account for around 4% of total sales, which is on the high end for fast-casual concepts.

Appetizers, priced at $6.99-$9.99, include chicken wings, which started as a promotion for football season but proved too popular to take off; edamame spring rolls; cilantro lime fried rice; and a chickpea tikka bowl.

Guests can have apple crisp egg rolls for dessert.

As for new markets, Toth and McCorkell said they plan to stick to the Midwest and Southeast for now.

“We’re still a small brand, so I don’t want to fragment and get us too thin,” Toth said. “That way we can build some brand awareness and get some scale.”

McCorkell said we can expect to see them fairly soon in Charlotte, N.C.; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Florida communities such as Tampa, Sarasota, Bradenton, and Destin.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected] 

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