New Asian restaurants hope to find a niche in Grand Forks
With electricians working nearby, Qin Chen pointed to the decorations adorning the walls of what will soon be Sakura Japanese Steak House in Grand Forks.
The restaurant’s co-manager made a special note of the large Buddha statue sitting in the middle of the former Space Aliens on 32nd Avenue South. It came all the way from Japan, she said.
“It’s kind of our signature,” she said.
Sakura and HuHot Mongolian Grill are two Asian restaurants with plans to open in Grand Forks later this year, joining a handful already here. While those restaurants’ owners and managers acknowledge that there may be increased competition among them, they each hope to offer something different.
“We want to bring something that they don’t have,” Chen said.
Grand Forks and East Grand Forks are already home to several Asian restaurants, including China Garden and Shing Ya.
Dave Scheer, who co-owns the Drunken Noodle/Little Bangkok in East Grand Forks, said the interest in more restaurants may have more to do with the state’s favorable economic climate rather than changing tastes.
“Everybody hears about North Dakota on the news,” he said, referring to the oil boom that has brought a flood of new jobs and investment into the state. “People view North Dakota as, ‘Wow this place must be really hopping, they must need another restaurant.’”
Xing Lin, project manager for Sakura, is involved with a Sakura restaurant based in Brooklyn, New York. He said the company decided to open in North Dakota to tap into the oil field workers out west.
Sakura, which already has locations in Minot, Williston, Bismarck and Dickinson, will feature teppanyaki chefs preparing food for a group of people on an iron griddle similar to those at Fuji Japanese Seafood and Steakhouse on South Washington Street. They hope to open the Grand Forks restaurant at the end of July.
The HuHot chain has locations in 16 states. Project planners are hoping to open on South Columbia Road near Columbia Mall later this year.
“Grand Forks has been on our radar for three years,” said Bryon Itterman, president of Pentex Management, which operates the other HuHot restaurants in North Dakota. “It’s just part of our long-term strategy in developing the North Dakota market.”
Grand Forks isn’t the only place seeing more interest in Asian food. Nationwide, sales at Asian restaurants totaled $25.4 billion in 2013, up from $24.5 billion a year before, according to Technomic, a Chicago-based firm that tracks the food industry.
“Consumers are looking for more and more ethnic, interesting and innovative flavors,” said Mary Chapman, director of product innovation at Technomic. She added that people who may already know they like Chinese food may then try Thai or Japanese foods.
When Panda Buffet opened more than 10 years ago, there were only a couple of other Asian restaurants in Grand Forks, according to its owner Xing Lin, who is not the same person as the Sakura project manager.
“Even though there’s more restaurants, it looks like sales are still steady and even with a little bit of growth too,” he said.
Panda Buffet is looking to expand to add seating at its South Columbia Road location for parties and large groups.
Dan Clark, who helped open Fuji in Grand Forks a couple of years ago, said the restaurant has been doing “extremely well.” He acknowledged some customers might try the new restaurants that open here, but he’s confident that they’ll come back.
Although the restaurants each can be described as Asian in a broad sense, their owners point out the varying styles. For instance, HuHot allows customers to pick out individual ingredients before watching a chef prepare it on a large circular griddle, while other restaurants might provide a more traditional buffet. Some might also offer different varieties of sushi.
Scheer said each restaurant has its own niche, and customers may be more aware of the differences in Asian styles today than they were years ago.
“I think people are becoming more sophisticated and they really do appreciate the difference,” he said. “You find the occasional person who can’t remember whether it’s Thailand or Taiwan that has Thai food, but that’s really the minority now.”