When some people get a wild hare, they buy a new car or take up a hobby.
Christina VonTorne opened a business. And not just any business: VonTorne opened Iron Dragon Mongolian Grill, taking on the ever-risky food service industry armed with business analyst experience, an angel investor, experienced kitchen managers, and a determination to build a successful enterprise from scratch.
“I live in Bonney Lake, and I’ve lived here most of my life,” VonTorne said. ” I have two kids who love Mongolian grilled food. So I would come home, the kids would say they wanted Mongolian grill for dinner, and I would go back in my car to Graham or Federal Way to the nearest restaurant, and every time I would think to myself, ‘This would be so easy if only there were a Mongolian grill in Bonney Lake.'”
VonTorne toyed with the idea in her head until she came to the conclusion that she could take the initiative and reap the benefits of being the only provider of Mongolian food in the immediate area.
“We went to a lot of Mongolian grills,” she said of her research into the market. “Aside from sampling the food and recipes, I looked at each restaurant’s volume of customers, their potential volume. I researched food costs and rental rates for lease spaces. And whether the market demographic matched the demographic of where I wanted to open.”
Applications for bank loans turned out to be dead ends. Financial institutions weren’t prepared to take a risk on a first-time restauranteur.
However, VonTorne was able to secure her funding from an unlikely source: her former divorce attorney.
VonTorne ran into Daniel Smith while he was jogging, and stopped to chat about their lives. VonTorne mentioned her plan for a restaurant and the difficulty of securing financing.
“It turned out he was looking for an investment, and he liked the concept,” she said.
Smith had put himself through school working various food service jobs and was able to provide insight into some of the finer points of service in a commercial operation.
If you’ve never eaten at a Mongolian grill, the basic premise is this: customers walk through a buffet line of noodles, meats, vegetables, and sauces, and gather their raw ingredients in a bowl. They then watch as a chef cooks the meal on a large plate grill.
VonTorne sought to improve on aspects of the buffet. For improved sanitation, sauces were placed in squeeze bottles as opposed to a bucket and ladle.
“At one restaurant we used to go to, I pulled up the serving spoon and a big noodle came out with the sauce,” she said. “Gross.”
Meats available include beef, chicken, pork, shrimp and sliced hot dogs (A kid-friendly addition, VonTorne said). Shrimp threw the restaurant an early curveball. Some opportunistic crustacean lovers would pile seafood high in their bowls, to the point that some meals were a net loss for the restaurant. So shrimp moved behind the counter, and VonTorne now offers a small surcharge for its addition.
Likewise, high-piling foodies can be surcharged for packing a hefty bowl.
Iron Dragon has two veteran short-order cooks with 24 years of experience between them.
For the remaining cooks and waitstaff, VonTorne mined Bonney Lake High School’s culinary arts program. She still receives three-to-four applicants per week, but has no current openings.
Iron Dragon is located at 19220 South Prairie Road East in Bonney Lake.