By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
Lately, the trend for successful Chinese businesses has been to head to the Eastside and forget Chinatown.
The Eastside is considered as the next step for expansion for much of Seattle Chinese business development. But Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot, which opened its first restaurant in Bellevue in 2011, decided to take a different path. Instead, they picked Seattle’s Chinatown/International District to build its biggest restaurant in North America.
Chinese hot pot is like fondue, but you don’t dip into cheese or chocolate, but boil meats and vegetables in soup.
Little Sheep’s management has invested almost $2 million to lease 11,000 sq. ft. and a two-story space from the Ocean City Restaurant. It gave the building a facelift, and will also serve as Little Sheep’s headquarters.
A huge chain in China, Little Sheep has grown globally with over 200 branch restaurants. In North America, there are over 30 branches. Its flagship restaurant in Beijing occupies a grand four-story building and can accommodate thousands of diners. It is called Mongolian Hot Pot, because the founder is Mongolian, one of the 56 minority tribes in China.
So why Chinatown? “Our hot pot is very popular among Chinese,” said Golden Zhang, chairman of the Little Sheep North America International Group, who made the trip from China for the restaurant’s grand opening on Oct. 18. “We try to find places where Chinese people congregate. Chinatown has a large number of Chinese visitors and residents.”
But Chinatown already has existing hot pot restaurants.
“We are unique,” said George Jiao, Little Sheep’s vice president. “Our décor is different, spacious, and comfortable. Our atmosphere is elegant. You feel the good vibes in the restaurant. The taste of our soup base is superb. Our beef and vegetables are fine ingredients. It’s one more choice for Seattle. This is the restaurant, which integrates Chinese culture and food. We have the foundation to achieve all our goals.”
Zhang said his dream is to expand to a few hundred restaurants in North America. When asked why he didn’t buy the property of Ocean City (it was listed for sale two years ago), Zhang said his plan is to invest in restaurants, not properties.
His plan is to open hundreds of branch restaurants in America.
Why the decision to lease to Little Sheep? When Christine and Tim Lee moved from San Francisco and took over the 30-year-old Ocean City Restaurant five years ago from their family, they struggled to run the restaurant. From a nightclub, to a bar, to a bubble tea shop, they couldn’t make the businesses work.
“We can no longer use the old formula just to hire a good chef and run restaurants today,” said Christine, whose family owned restaurants in San Francisco. “Everything has changed. We need people with new vision.” (end)
Assunta Ng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.