Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot, which has 450 locations worldwide, this May opened its seventh U.S. store in Bellevue. But the restaurant was preceded by an independently owned hot pot shop that also calls itself Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot. Many diners--our critic included--presumed the Little Sheep which opened on Northeast Eighth Street in 2009 was affiliated with the franchise.
Steve Yang, a regional manager for Little Sheep's North American operations, says customer confusion was compounded by the knock-off Little Sheep using the same Chinese characters for its name as the original Little Sheep uses back in China.
"Our logo is trademarked, but there's no trademark for Chinese characters," Yang says, adding that the chain's legal team is investigating the situation.
Restaurateurs in Boston and Los Angeles have also borrowed the Little Sheep name, but Yang says, "We've never really encountered this situation in terms of a fake one with a strong following."
When friends plan to meet at Little Sheep, Yang says, it's not uncommon for half of them to go to Little Sheep on Eighth Street while the rest of the party waits at Little Sheep on 156th Street. Servers at Yang's Little Sheep are frequently asked "Is this the real one?"
"We tell them from the taste of the soup, they'll know right away," Yang says. "Obviously, some ingredients can't be exported from China, but the main essence of the soup is there."
Little Sheep is so ubiquitous in China that restaurant analysts have likened it to Applebee's. Janney Montgomery Scott's Mark Kalinowski recently told the Louisville Courier-Journal that while Little Sheep "is definitely not something that caters to what an American would think of as chain casual dining experience," it's a popular venue for family gatherings and office parties in China.
Yum Brands--best known stateside as the force behind KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell--this year purchased the Chinese division of the Little Sheep chain. Yum hopes the acquisition of Little Sheep will allow the company to quadruple its Chinese presence to 20,000 stores.
"Maybe one day we'll be selling fried chicken too," Yang says with a laugh.
This weekend's grand opening celebration will include "dragon heads, a little bit of speeches, and some performances," Yang says. He plans to open five Little Sheep locations around the Puget Sound in the next five years.
"It's a very unique type of dining," Yang says. "Most people in America have never cooked in soup."