Wok This Way: Health-conscious consumers seek tasty Asian alternatives

Whether it's Kung-Pao Chicken, Shrimp Teriyaki, noodle bowls, or lettuce more and more Americans are searching for healthier and more exotic alternatives. This desire to eat better and experiment with flavors helps explain much of the growth in Asian concepts.

By using fresh vegetables and other lean ingredients cooked with little or no oil, Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian cuisines can offer tasty delights with fewer grams of fat and a lower calorie count than their weighty American counterparts. It's a market segment that's on the rise and has been recognized recently by industry publications such as Entrepreneur and Restaurant Hospitality magazines.

Consider Panda Express, the mom and pop chain that was started in a California mall and now tops 820 company-owned stores in 35 states. The chain towers over other Chinese competitors in terms of revenue or number of stores. In 2005, the company sold $735 million worth of Chinese nearly triple the combined sales of the No. 2 and No. 3 players: Pei Wei Asian Diner and Pick Up Stix, according to Technomic Information Services, which measures trends. The company may just be on its way to creating a national Chinese fast conglomerate -- a market that's been tough to crack.

As franchising goes, the Asian food quick casual segment has been hot in many other parts of the world (such as Canada and Europe) and appears to be gaining steady market share now in the U.S. Today's more cultured consumer palates are hungry for fresher, bolder, and more exotic tastes. Americans are more inclined to indulge cuisine from foreign lands such as Thailand, Vietnam, China, and Japan. They've become, well, more adventuresome.

And there are several franchises that can slice and dice and serve it up hot, right here in America.

Just last year, Made In Japan Teriyaki Experience announced expansion plans for the U.S. Within six months, the brand had secured commitments with two area developers to open more than 90 locations over the next five years in western New York, central Florida, and Georgia.

"Over the past 20 years we've successfully established our concept in both European and Middle Eastern markets," says Nick Veloce, chief operating officer of Made In Japan Teriyaki Experience. "Now the time is right and our team is excited about the opportunity to introduce the Teriyaki Experience to the American consumer looking for healthy Asian-inspired fast food."

But Made In Japan Teriyaki Experience has competition hot on its heels. Numerous choices in the Asian food franchise arena already exist--most with an eye on U.S. expansion. BD's Mongolian Barbeque, City Wok, Doc Chey's Asian Kitchen, Mama Fu's Noodle House, Manchu Wok, and Samurai Sam's are just a few of the players, with more on the way.

These concepts offer all the added value of the franchise model and, in particular, flexibility in location. Many of these brands can be launched in shopping malls, strip centers, airports, train stations, hospitals, universities, and other non-traditional venues. Each of these concepts offers its own unique cuisine credentials, whether it's noodles in a bowl or prepared Pan-Asian style.

If you're looking for a fresh way to serve healthy food that goes beyond the ordinary, an Asian food concept franchise may be the perfect take out order for you.

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