The Mongolian BBQ Business Model

Jeff Robbins
3 min readFeb 16, 2021

Have you ever been to a Mongolian barbecue restaurant? There are a number of chains here in the US… and lots of independent restaurants. You’d probably remember if you’ve been to one.

These restaurants have huge salad-bar-style buffet tables of raw ingredients: meats, vegetables, fruits, rice, noodles, sauces, and spices that you pile into a bowl. They’ve often got little recipe cards with suggested ingredients. But ultimately, it’s up to you to go around and to imagine what would taste good together. Maybe some chicken, a little garlic, broccoli, with this red sauce… over noodles? Then you bring them up to a big round grill in the middle of the room where they cook them for you while you wait. They scoop your concoction onto a plate and you sit down at your table to taste what you’ve created.

Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s bad.

But here’s the genius part: either way, you want to come back again. If it’s good, the incentive works just like any other business. But if it’s bad, you only have yourself to blame. You sort of consider it an education. You want to come back to try again to see if you can do better.

It’s a genius business model when you think about it. Customers who have gotten a bad product are just as incentivized to return as those who’ve gotten a good one.

But is this manipulative? Is there some psychological trick at play? Not really. It’s pretty much all right out in the open — literally! The food is out, the grill is out, the cooks are out. It’s the ultimate in business transparency.

So how can your business be more “Mongolian barbecue” in its thinking?

  1. Be transparent. Let your customers and your employees know what’s going on. Try not to hide too much of the process.
  2. Get your customers involved. Give them opportunities to help shape the product or services you’re delivering.
  3. While your customers are coming to you for your experience and guidance, both you and your customers should know that ultimately, they’re the ones choosing the ingredients.

If your customers feel like they’re part of the process — if they’re involved in the outcome — they’re much more likely to come back for more. This may scare some clients. And I’m not asking you to avoid responsibility or downplay your expertise. But you can only give them what they want when they know what they want. So guidance, education, and transparency end up being beneficial for everyone. Projects and products are much more likely to be successful. And your customers are more likely to come back, even if the process doesn’t go perfectly. Because honestly… when has it ever gone perfectly?

Jeff Robbins is a business coach, mentor, and virtual business partner who works one-on-one with company owners and leaders to help them build vision and direction for their companies while building productivity, stability, and happiness for their employees and themselves. You can work with him too. Reach out to set up a free consultation session.

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Jeff Robbins

Cofounder at @Lullabot. Executive Coach at @jjeff. Rockstar at @Orbitband.