There are multiple Mongolian grill chains, but HuHot Mongolian Grills LLC sets itself apart with its efficiency. “There are very few, full-service casual concepts where within five minutes you’re sitting down eating your entrée, if you desire,” COO Jeff Martin says.
Based in Missoula, Mont., HuHot has a chain of 57 locations that allow customers to customize their own meals of meat, seafood, noodles and vegetables that are cooked in front of them by the restaurant’s “grill warriors.”
“Being able to watch their meal stir-fried as they wait to have it handed off to them really provides a level of fun and theater that our guests really enjoy,” Martin says. “People are incredibly interested in what goes into their food. There’s also more confidence in what they’re eating when the food never leaves their sight.”
HuHot has locations in 16 states and a staff of approximately 2,500. “We’re growing at a nice, steady clip,” Martin says.
At many of its competitors’ locations, “You’ll build your bowl, you’ll go sit and someone brings it out to you,” Martin says. “We think you’ll miss on the theatric nature that the grilling process can create.”
HuHot recently introduced its NuHu Mongolian Express concept, which relocates the Mongolian grill into a fast-casual format. “Obviously, the fast-casual movement in our industry has grown at lightning speed over the years,” Martin says. “As we looked at our concept and format as a casual sit-down restaurant, we began to think of the possibility of a limited, fast-casual version. We got excited about it and decided to develop NuHu.”
The concept’s name, Martin notes, comes from a play on the words “new” and “HuHot.” It offers a more interactive experience for guests. Customers choose what goes into their bowls, and grill warriors help put them together.
“We also have an expanded condiment and topping counter where the cooks direct the guests with their finished bowl,” Martin says. “The guest moves through that process as they build the perfect stir-fry meal.”
Despite the expanded menu, “We view NuHu Mongolian Express as an opportunity in a smaller footprint,” he says. “It opens up a new door for us with both franchising and company owned growth. It gives us two great concepts to march forward with.”
HuHot has opened one NuHu location on the edge of downtown Denver, Martin says. Although it is still early, “We are thrilled with our guest feedback to date,” he reports.
The company has gathered this feedback through its own surveys and programs. “We’ve won pretty glowing, positive reviews about our speed of service, which is also something we wanted to [focus on],” he says.
One item that has earned a strong reception is NuHu’s Roti Flatbread. “It has been a runaway freight train,” Martin declares. “Our guests are enjoying their stir fry, but we probably get more raves about the flatbread.”
But adjustments are still being made to NuHu. “We’re watching it closely and we’re making post-concept development tweaks as we go,” he says. “[Our expansion] will depend on how we do here.”
HuHot’s investments also include an infrastructure for growth. “We’re a vastly different organization than we were five years ago,” Martin says.
“It’s been an incredibly exciting time transitioning from a small, family owned company to a medium-sized chain,” he says. But during this growth, HuHot has kept 30 percent of its locations company owned and its closure rate under 10 percent. “It gives us a much greater understanding of what it takes for our franchises to be successful,” he adds.
HuHot’s market has seen more consumers looking for healthy meals that use fresh ingredients, but the company has been ahead of the curve. “That has always been a big part of HuHot,” Martin says. “We’ve led for many years in that category. It’s one of the few concepts out there today where even the kids are excited about healthy eating.”
It also strives to be progressive online, including on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and Instagram sites. “We definitely are a leader in social media marketing,” he says. “We’ll continue to use technology as our friend.”
HuHot is proud of its entire team, Martin says. “Our marketing staff is one of the best in the business,” he states. “They’re innovative and quick to be evolving and moving onto the next thing. They have a tremendous impact and influence to where our organization goes, moving forward.
“We also have an unbelievably talented and committed group of franchise owners that are very good at what they do,” he continues. “They do an incredible job of delivering to the HuHot guests. They’re involved in the decision-making and interactive programs.”
The company’s vendors also are key, including Southfield, Mich.-based PeachWorks, which HuHot has used for four years. “They provide our financial data polling, schedule programs and inventory management systems,” Martin says.
He sees strong growth ahead for HuHot and NuHu. “I believe that we will continue to push the envelope in terms of embracing technology and [satisfying] guest needs and desires,” he predicts. “We continue to look for ways to become more efficient. We’ve taken a lot of things from five years ago that were finite, old-school methodologies and moved to much more streamlined approaches, [such as] data polling and the ability to look at big and small data.
“We are focused on taking the best parts of what we are today and building upon them as we strategically grow toward a bigger future,” Martin says. “Believe me, the sky’s the limit for HuHot.”
It is important for HuHot to retain its small-company feel, Martin asserts. “We want to be flexible to the demands of consumers,” he says. “We want to embrace and enjoy our growth without becoming overblown in internal staff and slow in our decision-making.”