At 27 units and counting, Mama Fu’s is one of the largest of these chains making its mark on the ever-expanding Asian market. Concentrated primarily in Central Texas, the 12-year-old brand serves made-to-order options with a range of Asian influences, from lettuce wraps and kimchi to pad Thai and pho. “It’s five main culinary categories from Asia, and it’s all high-quality food,” says CEO Randy Murphy. “It’s basically just a small-footprint P.F. Chang’s.”
In an attempt to persuade consumers to eat Asian food more frequently, brands like Mama Fu’s take this Pan-Asian or fusion approach, in which they offer a variety of dishes, flavors, and cuisines under one roof to secure repeat visits. “It allows you to expand your menu and have some depth and variety for somebody who’s not looking for just noodles or Orange Chicken, but is looking for a more interesting experience where they can be exposed to new flavors and textures that you can’t necessarily get at Panda,” Synergy’s Small says.
Consumers’ willingness to add Asian food into their regular restaurant rotation is setting up brands like Mama Fu’s for promising growth potential, as well as giving them the ability to compete with the burger and pizza segments. “People are eating Asian so much more today than they were 10 or 15 years ago, especially millennials and Gen Z,” Murphy says. “We’re targeting kids in elementary and high school now that have the palate of a 38-year-old. It’s great because we have so much more demand.”
And although the Asian population in America continues to grow—making up 5.6 percent of the U.S. population, according to the 2010 Census—interest in Asian cuisine isn’t just coming from the Asian-American market. As more Americans travel abroad and food culture becomes increasingly pervasive, the demand for more exotic flavors back home is higher than ever. “There’s no better time to cook Chinese and Asian food than right now,” says Lucas Sin, chef and culinary director at Junzi, a New York City–based concept serving Northern Chinese noodle dishes and wraps known as bings. “The amount of limited-service restaurants that are in the Asian spectrum—or even in the Chinese spectrum only—is bigger than ever. The food is delicious, the operations are innovative, and it’s all in all pretty incredible.”
To ease customers into her Vietnamese concept—a cuisine in which the average American diner isn’t all that well-versed—Aregoni designed Saigon Sisters’ menu to have a sort of “soups, salads, and sandwiches” approach, making the pho, spring rolls, and banh mi categories feel a little more familiar. “We wanted to convert people to Vietnamese food, and this makes it more manageable for someone eating Vietnamese for the first time,” she says.
Emphasizing Vietnamese food’s healthfulness—thanks to its limited use of oils and heavy reliance on fresh herbs and vegetables—has also been crucial for Saigon Sisters’ success. This ability to fit into a healthier lifestyle and diet is something many Asian operators think set the segment up for future growth.
“A lot of times, we’re not even considered Asian by our customers,” says Frank Klein, CEO of 10-unit, Northern California–based Asian Box, which creates grilled Vietnamese “boxes” using ingredients like lemongrass pork, coconut curry tofu, fresh vegetables, and brown rice. “We’re just considered a great healthy lunch or dinner for their family, and I think it differentiates us greatly from other brands.”
Mama Fu’s Murphy says customers are often surprised to find out how easily the brand’s food can be adapted to fit their dietary restrictions or needs, whether it be low-carb, low-sugar, gluten-free, or vegan. “It’s one of the few cuisines that you can eat with almost any diet out there, unless you’re going to eat a salad every day,” he says. “But it does come with a bigger SKU mix and a slightly higher cost of goods.”
These aren’t the only challenges standing in the Asian segment’s way as it tries to make its presence known in the limited-service market. A majority of these concepts use recipes that require a higher level of skill or specialization than those used by burger, pizza, sandwich, and even Mexican concepts.
“Anybody can buy a frozen patty that’s high quality, cook it in their store, get a great potato bun, put mayonnaise and pickles and ketchup on it, and it’s going to taste great,” Klein says. “It’s a little harder to execute when you’re trying to use sriracha and tamarind and fish sauce. These things have a lot of techniques to them that are very hard to execute on scale.”
Often, these concepts rely on staff with a high knowledge of a particular region’s recipes, ingredients, and prep methods. But as wages rise for many Asian-American and Asian immigrant workers, finding the labor needed at a low price tag has become almost impossible. And with the skill level and pay required to staff Asian concepts, brands become harder to replicate and remain consistent as they scale. Mama Fu’s Murphy says that’s likely been one barrier preventing many Asian concepts from growing.
But perhaps the biggest challenge for Pei Wei and other Asian concepts’ success is the elephant—er, panda—in the room. “They have a system, and it works very well for them,” Solano says of Panda Express. “But it’s really not on-trend with consumers.” And with Panda being the largest brand in the game, by far, its visibility can mistakenly lead consumers to think there are few concepts that offer more adventurous options in a limited-service format.
That’s why brands like Pei Wei, Mama Fu’s, Saigon Sisters, and more are focused on scaling the success they’ve seen thus far to steal more market share from Panda moving forward. Murphy says many of these concepts are poised to perform well in a regional capacity, as Mama Fu’s has done with its Central Texas base. The brand plans to grow at a rate of about 8–10 percent each year, clustering its units in smaller markets to help gain more traction.