The ever-growing Aspen Place shopping center recently acquired a new tenant, and so far it’s a hit.
HuHot Mongolian Grill, which opened in late March, is marketed as an affordable, family-friendly restaurant and has managed to garner a large customer base in a short time. With its unlimited, buffet style stir-fry and variety of ingredients, it offers something for both young and old.
“We’re absolutely geared toward families,” said franchise owner David White. “And I think it’s a great value -- you can come as many times as you want, you can get different styles of food for a reasonable price.”
The first HuHot was opened in Missoula, Montana, in 1999 by Andy Vapp, whose family still owns the company today. Currently, the business boasts 68 locations in 18 states, according to White, with the Flagstaff restaurant marking the first HuHot in Arizona.
White decided to open the franchise last year after he passed through Flagstaff with his wife. The two were on their way to the Grand Canyon and agreed that the town was the ideal location to settle down and open a franchise, he said. White has been in the restaurant business for over 30 years, four of which were spent working for HuHot; Flagstaff just seemed like the logical next step, he said.
“And then it was the fastest, best hiring process I’d ever experienced,” White said. “We hired 80 employees in the course of a couple of weeks.
HuHot now occupies a space (across from Wildflower Bread Company and kitty-corner to REI) that was tenantless until recently.
Upon entering, customers are brought to their table, where they receive instructions as to the mechanics of the buffet. More specifically, customers are told to fill their bowl with any ingredients and sauces they might want, then to bring those to a large 360 degree round grill -- meant to emulate a warrior’s shield — for frying.
“All warriors put their shields over the bonfire and they put their meat and vegetables on them to cook their food. So we are a create-your-own stir-fry,” White said in reference to Genghis Khan, whose name appears frequently throughout the menu.
Said stir-fries can be constructed using a self-made recipe, or by way of small recipe cards found at the beginning of the buffet. The cards list ingredients with which to make specific dishes. Dishes have names such as ‘Cap’n Khan,’ a bowl of calamari, snow peas, zucchini, and garlic broth, or ‘Khan't Get Enough,’ which consists of beef, broccoli and ‘Samurai Teriyaki’ sauce.
While the dishes and ingredients represent a number of Asian countries and cuisines, names such as ‘Mongol Mustard’ and ‘Nomad’s Green Curry’ semantically re-center the restaurant on its theme. Murals painted to depict Mongolian folktales can be found on several HutHot walls across the country.
HuHot offers neither Buuz (Mongolian dumplings), nor mutton, nor goat, found in main cities and on the steppes alike, but it does mirror the concept of Mongolian barbecue with its grill. It also has the staples people have come to expect in the United States: sodas, ice cream (fried in wantons, in this case) for dessert, a large variety of choices, and the unlimited returns to the buffet.
And in the name of affordability — something White sees as central to the restaurant’s business plan — kids ages 4-9 eat for $4.99, those ages 10-12 eat for $5.99, and adults can purchase a $10.99 lunch. The restaurant will also implement a kids-eat-free Wednesday soon, according to White.
“It’s so expensive to take a family out”, White said. “So we’re kid-friendly, kids love us, they love to watch the cooks make the food, they love not having to sit down the whole time, and they can pick their food. And for adults I think it’s a great experience, too.”