September 28, 2005
In 1981, John Gundle founded Papa Aldo’s Pizza in Hillsboro, Ore. He sold the company in the early 1990s, but his creation has become the fifth-largest pizza chain in the world (since evolved into Papa Murphy’s).
Now Gundle has a new ambition for restaurant franchising, and it is starting in Hood River with the Red Panda Mongolian Grill.
“I did some research on Mongolian grills, and it turns out that they’re really a Northwest phenomenon,” Gundle said. “There also aren’t any chains that have more than 15 or 20 restaurants.”
Gundle said that the concept of a Mongolian grill seemed easily duplicated, and with his expertise in franchising and his degrees in business from Portland State University and Harvard University, a chain of Red Pandas could become a reality.
He said that he is planning on using Hood River as a test market for 12 months, during which time he would refine his process.
“I decided to put the first grill in Hood River because I know the community and felt that the idea was unique enough here,” Gundle said, noting that it is much easier to start businesses in smaller communities than in large cities.
And with the way the business has taken off in Hood River, the 12-month test period may get cut short. Although the grill has only been open for a month, Gundle has been approached by people that would like to put a Red Panda in their town.
“I’ve had people from The Dalles that want us to put one in there,” Gundle said. He also said that, should the chain take off, he’s already got commitments for over 60 locations in the Northwest.
The idea of the Mongolian grill is not a new one, nor is it unheard of in the Northwest. But Gundle is convinced that his franchise would have what it takes to make it big.
“I had the chance to meet Ray Kroc (the founder of McDonald’s) at a convention one time,” said Gundle. “And he said that although it was not his original idea, it was his vision. ‘People can steal my manuals,’ he said, ‘but they can’t steal what’s in my head.’”
These are the words that Gundle says he lives by. And he has taken them and applied them to his own business, which he says is like no other Mongolian grill he has been in.
“In my wanderings, every grill uses white rice,” Gundle said. “But we have white rice, brown rice and jasmine rice. The combinations are endless.”
And it’s the endless combinations that make the Red Panda accessible to everyone — from die-hard carnivores to vegans, there is something for everyone.
The concept behind Mongolian grills is a build-it-as-you-like-it style buffet. You create your combination of meat, vegetables and noodles yourself, then add various sauces and oils to create your own taste.
But even from grill to grill, there is not much variation in the ingredients — it’s almost as if once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. But Gundle refused to accept this as status quo.
“Through trial and error we’ve created new types of yakisoba noodles,” he said. Along with the regular noodles that most grills serve, Red Panda also has spinach-flavored and spicy noodles.
“We get our yakisoba three times a week, so it’s always fresh,” Gundle said, also noting that their vegetables are fresh every day. Red Panda has also developed a Hawaiian barbecue sauce that is exclusive to this restaurant.
Another fresh product that Red Panda offers — that is different from any other Mongolian grill that Gundle has been in — is sushi.
“We chose to include sushi because it’s becoming more and more popular,” Gundle said.
The sushi is made fresh in the restaurant every day by a Burmese man named Peng who has been making sushi for more than 20 years. “He’ll make anything that anyone wants,” Gundle said.
Gundle strives to make the restaurant an experience for anyone who comes through the door.
“When people come in, it’s very comfortable. We want to give people more than they bargain for,” said Gundle, who pays attention down to the smallest of details.
“The doormat is the first thing that people see. If it’s not clean and perfect, people are going to judge you,” he said. “Whether it’s the food, the service or the atmosphere, it has to be a complete experience.”
And the service aspect of it, Gundle says, is everything. “When someone drives by a competitor to get to your door,” he said, “you treat them like gold.”
The Red Panda is located on Westcliff Drive near Charburger Country. They serve a lunch buffet from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, and dinner buffets from 4 to 9 p.m. daily and until 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.