Based in Missoula, Mont., HuHot Mongolian Grills has become one of the fastest-growing Mongolian grill concepts in the nation. The company was founded in 1999 and is celebrating its 15th anniversary in 2014. Through a growth strategy that includes a combination of corporate and franchised locations, HuHot is striving to optimize internal operations and differentiate itself through fast, customer-oriented service and fresh, healthy food.
“We are a growing, national chain of create-your-own Mongolian grill stir fry restaurants,” COO Jeff Martin says. “Our guests enjoy dining in our restaurants, selecting from fresh ingredients and having meals cooked right in front of them with all of the theatrics and flair.”
HuHot has 52 restaurants in 16 states with four more locations slated to open this year. Although the company has continued to expand its footprint, it is still a small enough organization that everyone in its central office plays a central role in its growth.
“We have a great marketing department, and our goal is to grow the company by being attractive to franchisees and expanding our own locations,” Martin says. “We protect our brand by delivering consistency, and we are looking to maintain the fundamentals of our model while at the same time looking to evolve the concept.”
Consistency is one of the major concerns for HuHot. To ensure a memorable guest experience, HuHot strives to provide food known for freshness, flavor and excellent preparation. It also wants to provide guests with speedy service and value. Customization is another focus, as HuHot allows guests to create their own experiences.
“There are few casual, full-service sit-down restaurants where guests can be eating within five minutes,” Martin says. “We are also the only national Mongolian grill that provides an unlimited amount of food, as our offering is based on how many times guests go through the line.”
HuHot has a huge focus on consistency, which extends to food safety and health. Guests hand select fresh ingredients, and their food is always within sight. Grills are double- and triple-scrubbed, which can be reassuring to guests who have food allergies.
“In order for us to get all of this done, it has to start with great training systems, identified standards and a strong operations manual,” Martin says.
To measure performance on the franchise side, HuHot utilizes tools such as secret shopper programs, online feedback, social media and operational reviews. On the corporate side, it measures performance through strong internal controls. “We embarked on our ‘Crazy Good Operations’ initiative early this year on the corporate side,” Martin says. “We are putting more energy, time and resources into training, execution, measurement and observation. We recertified and retrained all employees and customized a series of tools for operational successes. We also invested in upping our labor costs, adding hours for critical positions in order to boost the guest experience.”
Preparing to Succeed
After spending a number of years focused mainly on franchise growth, HuHot has been putting more emphasis on corporate growth in the past few years. Martin says the company hasn’t been neglecting franchising, but it has been improving its corporate infrastructure so both sides of the company can grow efficiently.
“As of late, we are gaining momentum with the growth of company locations,” Martin says. “We now utilize our own stores as testing platforms and take the lead on company initiatives. We believe in HuHot as a concept, and we are thrilled to be playing a more proactive role.”
Investments in both sides of its operations are of critical importance for HuHot. On the franchise side, it is investing in its support structure. HuHot has invested in enhanced training, marketing and purchasing to support franchisees. HuHot has elevated the importance of consistency within the franchise system regarding all of its product lines and concept execution. In addition, it entered a new beverage partnership with Coke.
“We are also evolving our restaurant design and have upgraded some of the restaurants,” Martin says. “In addition, much focus has been placed on enhancing the brand and concept through people investment and the development of management teams and staff.”
The keys to success for HuHot are to make sure it is in markets where it can succeed, to partner with the right franchise groups and to invest in sturdy infrastructure. Its aim is to grow its store count annually by anywhere from approximately a half-dozen to a dozen locations.
In the end, the company feels the sky is the limit and sees no parts of the country where the HuHot concept would not be welcome.
“This is an exciting, young brand in a niche that is still relatively untapped,” Martin says. “We are excited to be leading the charge with our concept and finding ways to expand.”