Emerging Concepts | March 2011 | By Judy Kneiszel

One to Watch: Magic Wok

Ohio-based Asian concept pushes the healthy nature of its menu, including into area schools.

Magic Wok has many types of noodles available on its menu.
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To most of its customers, Magic Wok is a destination for a quick, tasty, healthy Asian meal. For founder Tommy Pipatjarasgit, Magic Wok represents the realization of his father’s American dream.

“My father came from Thailand in 1968 with just a couple hundred dollars in his pocket,” Pipatjarasgit says. “He opened a few restaurants that failed, but in 1983 a regional mall came to Toledo and it included a food court. Food courts were just starting up then, and he had the idea that he could work the kitchen while mom worked in front. It just took off, so he said, ‘Let’s try opening up some more.’

“He wanted to prepare healthy Chinese entrées fresh to order in an open kitchen where people could see the food being cooked theater-style,” Pipatjarasgit says. “And he wanted customers to be able to customize their orders, too—without certain vegetables or with extra sauce, whatever they wanted.”

The second Magic Wok unit was located in a building that had previously been a Taco John’s, so it had a drive thru. Pipatjarasgit says Magic Wok was one of the first Asian concepts to offer drive-thru service, and since that original drive-thru location, the company has had other opportunities to take over buildings with drive thrus.

“The way it is set up, entrées are cooked in 45 seconds,” he says. “We make the sauces in advance and meats are cooked daily. As soon as an order is placed, ingredients are taken from the cold table and blanched, then put in the wok for 30 seconds.”

The Magic Wok chain has grown to 11 stores in Ohio and Michigan, as well as three stores in Bahrain.

Besides Pipatjarasgit taking the reins of Magic Wok in 2000, there have been other changes at the company, mostly dictated by consumers’ tastes becoming more

sophisticated.

“We were much more traditional Chinese in the beginning, but now we have brought out more Asian dishes,” Pipatjarasgit says. “Noodle dishes have become popular and spicy dishes are becoming more popular as people’s tastes change.”

Pipatjarasgit’s wife, Annie, is also from Thailand, and she brought many of the flavors of her home with her when she entered the family’s restaurant business. Annie handles product and menu development for Magic Wok and helped infuse the menu with a wide variety of Asian influences,

Pipatjarasgit says.

“Pad Thai dishes were added to the menu five years ago, and that’s become popular,” Annie says. “Teriyaki noodle dishes are also becoming popular, as are the lo mein noodles cooked to order with chicken, shrimp, veggies, or beef.”

Magic Wok

President: Tommy Pipatjarasgit

HQ: Toledo, Ohio

Year Started: 1983

Annual Sales: Undisclosed

Total Units: 14

Franchise Units: 5

www.magicwok.com

She says that at the Magic Wok in the student union food court at the University of Toledo, tofu pad Thai is popular, indicating younger customers are even more accepting of what she calls “new-generation Asian” cuisine.

Pad Thai is also available with shrimp or chicken for less than $5, and an average ticket at Magic Wok is about $8. Drink selections include fruit smoothies, which have proved popular, especially in a special promotion offering a smoothie with an egg roll for $3.99.

Because Magic Wok has always stressed healthy eating—cooking with lots of vegetables, very little oil, no trans fats, and no MSG—the “Magic Wok School Lunch Program” has found favor with many Toledo-area schools, some ordering meals to be brought in for students as often as once a week.

“We cater to schools from elementary through high school looking for different lunch choices,” Pipatjarasgit says. “They are looking for something they can bring in and serve besides pizza.”

Popular choices among the schools include fried rice with chicken, sweet and sour chicken, and lo mein noodles with chicken and vegetables.

Introducing children to “new-generation Asian” flavors is a proactive way to encourage Magic Wok’s future growth, Pipatjarasgit says. The company is also growing by adding locations.

“We plan to keep growing mainly through controlled growth within a 100-mile radius of Toledo,” Pipatjarasgit says, adding that the company is aiming for two new store openings this year, with plans for a total of 30 stores to be open by 2015.

Pipatjarasgit says in choosing a location for a new Magic Wok, he looks for high-traffic areas close to a corner in an area of population growth.

The Pipatjarasgit family knows the new generation of customers they are attracting receives marketing messages from untraditional sources.

“In the past we did a lot of print advertising, but in recent years we have moved away from that and moved toward more electronic and digital media,” Pipatjarasgit says.

Magic Wok even uses social media interactively. The company posts trivia questions on Facebook, and people have to come in to the store to answer. If they answer correctly, Annie says, they get an entrée valued at $2. If they answer the question incorrectly, they still get a free egg roll.

“Even though they guessed wrong, they made the trip already, so they usually buy something to go with their egg roll,” she says. “And most who get the question right will add a drink and egg roll to their $2 entrée.”