Sit down at any HuHot Mongolian Grill restaurant in the United States, and you've got a special guest: Laura Blaker's dragon.
Savor your meal also with a contortionist. A juggler. A two-bodied beast.
Whatever you choose, you can be sure you'll get a complimentary side dish of probing eyes - the eyes of a warrior, the eyes of a horse. Snake eyes, even.
And always there is a dragon. In fact, if there's one thing that's consistent about Blaker's creations, it's the omnipresence of the big, fire-breathing brute.
"I put a dragon in every restaurant," said Blaker, a Missoula graphic artist and painter who has worked on multiple sets for the Missoula Children's Theatre.
In each of HuHot's 11 franchise restaurants is an original, hand-painted mural filled with Blaker's imagination. The restaurant chain opened its first store in Missoula in 1999 (then called Mongos Mongolian Grill) and will add five more franchises this summer alone, from Michigan to Iowa to Texas.
Part of the contract with franchisees is the inclusion of Blaker's exquisite murals, which average about 600 square feet in size. HuHot didn't want to discuss Blaker's fee specifically, but it's in the multiple thousands of dollars.
Not that the fee is a concern with entrepreneurs, said Molly Vap, HuHot's director of franchise development. Blaker's art is central to HuHot's look and brand identity.
"It is such an essential part of the image," said Vap. "It's like a McDonald's and its arches. When you think of the franchise, it sticks with it. They know the dragon is in every HuHot."
Blaker approaches each new restaurant as a fresh exercise in art. She does stick to a basic color scheme - oranges, reds, greens, purples - strong, bold colors that bring to mind ancient Asia and Mongolian mythology.
That color scheme is no accident, said Vap.
"If you use bad colors, that can create a bad appetite even," she said. "This is more like trying to create a hip atmosphere. We wanted it to be an Asian atmosphere, but not too overwhelming. We wanted a little more originality with it."
But color considerations aside, the creations are limited only to Blaker's imagination and what she's studied of Mongolian culture and traditions.
"The characters are all very graphic," said Blaker, a 1979 graduate of the Colorado Institute of Art in Denver. "It's worked out well because every restaurant I go to, each has different shapes. I have all these characters I've come up with."
Blaker typically does a lot of work ahead of time before she begins the actual job of painting her murals. She studies floor plans of the future restaurant and then sketches out her ideas. By the time she shows up, she already knows what she'll transfer to the walls of the restaurant.
"I have all my drawings with me," she said. "It's becoming an art just knowing what I'm doing. I get them to send me a floor plan and all the measurements. I'd do my drawings ahead of time and take them with me."
Transforming the drawing into a completed wall mural takes about six hours, depending on the size of the project, said Blaker. And these days, it seems like each new mural is getting bigger.
"Some of the restaurants are massive," she said. "Each time I go in, it's more space. The last one I did was 750 square feet."
Massive too is the workload ahead for Blaker. HuHot plans to nearly triple the number of franchises in the next 18 months - including the possibility of the first overseas HuHot.
It's quite the job for somebody who was approached six years ago to do a sole painting for one restaurant.
"Nobody knew it would be like this," said Blaker. "Nobody knew it would be so crazy."
Entertainer editor Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at firstname.lastname@example.org