ON RESTAURANTS

Brand expansion

Asian Concepts prepares for new growth spurt

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Barnet D . Wolf

THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

Szechuan tofu at Mark Piís

RENEE SAUER DISPATCH PHOTOS

Mark Pi Jr., president of Asian Concepts Inc., is shown at the new Mark Piís in the Ross Heart Hospital at OSUís Medical Center.

Itís been a decade since the Mark Piís Chinese restaurant business emerged from bankruptcy, a mere shadow of the company it had been. The company that survived was relieved of its debt, but it didnít own any restaurants. Instead, it franchised the Mark Piís name and provided the menu items and advice.

Now, the privately owned operation, known as Asian Concepts Inc., wants to expand the brand.

Itís testing a new quick-service concept for food courts, called Mark Piís Asian Fast Food, in Ohio and the Carolinas. Additionally, the company is working on a more upscale concept, Mark Piís Wok and Grill, with a Colorado franchisee.

Asian Concepts also has growing franchised operations in Asia.

"Itís taken quite a number of years to get back on our feet," said Mark Pi Jr., president of Columbus-based Asian Concepts. "Weíre trying to grow the company, redefining our brands and redefining the market we want to be in."

There are 20 Mark Piís Express and Mark Piís Asian Fast Food units, most of them in Ohio; seven Mark Piís China Gate restaurants in Ohio and Indiana; and one Mark Piís Feast of the Dragon Buffet in West Virginia.

There are six restaurants in India under the name Mark Piís Crazy Noodles and five in South Korea known as Mark Piís Shanghai Grill.

But these days, Mark Piís faces a lot more competition than it did, not only from local restaurants but from fast-food and fast-casual chains such as Panda Express to upscale casual operations, like P.F. Changís China Bistro.

The Mark Piís enterprise began in the 1970s. Mark Pi Sr., born in Korea to Chinese parents, came to the United States in 1972 at age 26 to work in a Chinese restaurant in Chicago. A few months later, he was able to acquire enough money from loans to open his own restaurant.

He bought a number of restaurants in the next few years before settling in the Columbus area and beginning Mark Piís, featuring a unique blend of fast food and Chinese cooking.

"He had the vision before everyone else," his son said.

Columbus restaurant consultant Randy Sokol said there were plenty of Chinese restaurants, "but not fast food and with drive-throughs."

The chain grew, fueled not only by Mark Piís food and franchising operation, but because the company was serving as a banker for franchises, providing the financing and lease guarantees to help open more restaurants.

By the early 1990s there were 75 Mark Piís restaurants. Entrepreneur magazine named Mark Piís China Gate the top oriental chain and Mark Piís Express as the best franchiser in Chinese fast food.

"At that time, everything he touched turned to success, so he was fearless," Mark Pi Jr., 37, said of his father.

The tactics ultimately proved to be the companyís undoing. Several of the weaker franchises failed in the economically fragile early 1990s economy, and the Pi family suddenly found itself on the hook for several 10-year leases and other debts.

The organization filed for bankruptcy protection in 1994, citing overexpansion and poor site selections. At the time, its debt was reported as $2.5 million.

"Franchising is very challenging," said Sokol, who works for Restaurant Consultants Inc. "Itís finding someone whoís not only financially fit but is an experienced operator. Sometimes in an attempt to grow, quantity is chosen over quality."

By the time Piís business reorganized two years later, it had closed all of its companyowned units, leaving only the surviving franchisees. That number eventually shrank to about 25 units.

Its manufacturing plant, which makes many of the chainís menu items, was spun off into a separate company, with Mark Pi Sr. holding the majority stake.

The founder, 61, retired from the business about five years ago and lives in Las Vegas. He travels regularly to China and Korea, and makes the trip to Columbus three to five times a year to do consulting work for Asian Concepts.

While the Mark Piís Express restaurants remain in the hands of franchises, those owners and Asian Concepts are working hand-in-hand to develop the Mark Piís Asian Fast Food restaurants.

One, in the Ross Heart Hospital at Ohio State University Medical Center, initially was owned by Asian Concepts, which sold it to a franchisee once it was up and running.

Pi Jr. says expansion will be purposefully slow. The company, he said, learned its lesson in the í90s.

Piano man

Jazz pianist and singer James Blackmon expects to open his own place, Jamesí Club 88, early next year at 55 W. Long St.

The club will have a full bar and a limited menu, including light sandwiches, hors díoeuvres and desserts, the owner says.

The Tuskegee, Ala., native, who arrived in central Ohio from New Orleans with his partner in 2002, has been performing in some local clubs and for special occasions locally.

But owning a club is "is what I really wanted to do," he said.

The club will be open from 5 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Tuesday through Sunday and will be closed Mondays. Shows at 8 p.m. will feature performers playing jazz and popular standards, but novices could be allowed to play during off hours.

Parts is parts

ē Sbarro, the privately owned fast-food chain begun by Italian immigrants 50 years ago, has been sold to private-equity firm MidOcean Partners. The chain has 1,000 restaurants in 34 countries.

ē More chain openings: The national Planet Smoothie chain has opened its third central Ohio location at Easton Town Center, while a second local Foxís Pizza Den is set for 1035 Polaris Parkway. Other planned or completed chain openings are Donatos, 2115 Eakin Rd., and Tim Hortons, 2754 N. High St. and 5470 N. High St.

On Restaurants is a weekly column about the restaurant industry. Send tips, information and news releases to bwolf@dispatch.com  or call 614-461-5264.