Missoula's HuHot finding national appetite for its food
The Vap family cut their teeth in the pizza business.
Now, after owning and operating as many as nine Godfather's across the state for more than two decades, they've launched their newest restaurant into a franchise operation.
HuHot Mongolian Grill is by no means new to Missoula, but after operating at 3521 Brooks Street for more than three years, the Vaps have spread their wings.
Named after the ancient capital of inner Mongolia, two HuHot franchise restaurants opened in Nebraska with more in the offing and they have plans to open up to 10 restaurants of their own in the next year.
"We basically were looking to diversify into new things," said Andy Vap, a partner in the operation. "It was a great run … We just wanted to add growth back into it so it would have enough longevity to last."
They're closing or selling their Godfather's - they have two remaining in Billings and one in Helena - and because of their numerous connections from their years in restaurants, they decided to float the franchise idea.
"It was just so easy to operate, and our startup costs were low and other things that were interesting to other franchisees," he said.
Thus far, said Vap, the idea has brought promising results.
Franchises in Omaha and Scotts Bluff are up and running with others planned by the Nebraska operators in Fort Collins, Colo., and Sioux Falls, S.D.
"This actually operates in a very comparable fashion to a pizza place," said Vap, a Loyola Sacred Heart High School and Georgetown University graduate. "An infinite number of products done in an infinite amount of ways tailored to the customer."
A meal at HuHot Mongolian Grill is an interactive dining experience.
Customers select their staple of meat, chicken or seafood, then add their favorite noodles and vegetables and choose from a dozen traditional sauces. The more adventurous can concoct their own combinations from garlic, ginger, soy or cherry.
"Our standard sauces are really meant to accommodate most everybody," said Vap. "You can take a prepared sauce and manipulate it."
The selections then are handed to one of the cooks, who slices and dices the meal on a 52-inch circular grill, cooks it and returns it to you, all in less than two minutes.
Then there's a variety of toppings available to customize your selection. If that doesn't fill you up, there's no limit to the number of returns to the food bar.
"You think Mongolian Grill 'what the heck is that?' The name almost points you in one direction like it's something that I'm not going to be comfortable with," said Vap. "But it's exactly the opposite. It's something you have complete control over … It's really tailored to let the customer get exactly what they want."
"We were surprised at how many people knew about Mongolian grills and what that means," he said.
Picture Genghis Khan, home from the hunt with his group, throwing their shields on a roaring fire to heat up the sliced meat and potatoes for their triumphant return.
"That's the concept," said Vap. "But it's super Americanized. Asian food tailored to what you want."
The current trend in the restaurant business is for more of a dining experience, he said.
To that end, HuHot fits the bill nicely.
"It's interactive dining and you get to be involved," said Vap. "It's a bigger experience than just the normal eating out … We're much more of an event dining experience."
Growth is the most pressing issue right now for the Vaps. They'd also like to see their restaurants in Billings, Bozeman, Kalispell and Helena, and maybe in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and Spokane.
Reporter Mick Holien can be reached at 523-5262 or at firstname.lastname@example.org