“Why can’t ramen be a chain, like Shake Shack or Sweetgreen?”
That’s a question posed by Dolores Tay, CEO of fast casual Ramen King Keisuke, which launched in the Los Angeles area last month. Created by ramen chef Keisuke Takeda, whose pork tonkatsu has been named among the best in Japan, it’s a concept that’s already established in Singapore, with 23 units there, as well as a couple dozen in Japan and Australia.
Now, Tay and her husband Chris Au have partnered with Takeda to grow Ramen King Keisuke in the U.S., with the help of a Big Name Investor they cannot yet reveal. Their goal: 500 company-owned units across the country in the next five years.
But Tay and Au are not alone in their pursuit of chain ramen dominance in the U.S.
As mom-and-pop ramen shops proliferate across the country, introducing a wider audience to the joys of slow-simmered bone broth with noodles, an increasing number of operators see the potential for a national ramen chain—with several of them growing out of the pan-Asian communities of California.
Los Angeles-based Jinya Ramen Bar, for example, already has a big jump on the competition. It has about 50 locations open, mostly franchised, and a growing portfolio that includes a robata concept and a bar and lounge that spotlights Japanese whisky and sake.
But other concepts are following close behind.
Serving up a bowl of comfort
As a dish, ramen has been embraced by American diners.
The classic version is tonkatsu, made with pork bone broth simmered for 10 to 12 hours (or longer) until the liquid is silky and rich with collagen. The noodles are generally thin but hearty, made with wheat, and the dish is typically garnished with slices of tender pork, called chashu, dried seaweed, mushrooms, scallions and often soft-boiled eggs.
The dish can be varied in many ways to meet the ever-evolving needs of consumers, and not only in terms of toppings and spice levels. Ramen concepts in the U.S. now commonly offer a chicken broth variation, for example, and miso- or mushroom-based meatless alternatives. More recently, chains have introduced a lobster broth version, adding an element of luxury to what is otherwise a more humble comfort food.
In fact, a primary challenge for growing ramen chains is convincing U.S. diners this is not the just-add-water ramen of their college dorm years—though one taste of the real stuff makes that distinction clear.
Ramen can be a true work of art, said chef Masaharu Morimoto of “Iron Chef” fame, who developed six-unit Momosan Ramen & Sake and is also known for his eponymous restaurants offering a broader, higher-end menu.
“A great bowl of ramen is a combination of components, including the broth and the fresh ingredients used as toppings, like a soy-marinated soft-boiled egg, a spicy yuzu ball or long-simmered pork chashu,” he wrote in an email. “All of these pieces come together to create a flavorful, smooth and tasty bowl of ramen.”
Ramen goes fast casual
For ramen operators, there’s a tremendous amount of white space in the U.S.
Across the country, an estimated 3.5% of restaurants have ramen on their menus, according to Technomic Ignite Menu Data. But interest is growing. Over the past five years, mentions of ramen entrees on menus have increased 32.3%, including 2.3% growth over the past year alone.
Typically, ramen is served in a full-service setting. The presentation for the hot bowls of broth garnished with various delights is a key component. And very hot liquids capable of melting plastic can be downright hazardous as a takeout dish.
But with so many other types of cuisine, the pandemic taught consumers to love ramen, even for takeout and delivery. Operators say it can travel well—with the right packaging and a certain level of deconstruction.
At Ramen King Keisuke, for example, the plan is to grow with a variety of formats and locations, said CEO Tay.
The first unit, which opened in the Monterey Park neighborhood of Los Angeles in September, offers dine in and to-go. The second is in a Westfield Mall food court, a mall that was already home to a location of the four-unit chain Ramen Nagi, based in Tokyo.
Tay said another 13 Ramen King locations are scheduled to open before the end of the year.
The company has agreements with mall-operator Simon to open more food-court locations, and they are looking at other high-volume spots, including college campuses. “As a one-dish meal, it’s very satisfying and perfect for students,” said Tay.
Tay and Au have developed a model for operation that is relatively simple: The broth and other ingredients are prepared in central kitchens that will service the small-footprint outlets. Tay said the company has secured a noodle maker in the U.S. that can supply the Ramen King-recipe noodles, which are fortified with a touch of buckwheat to give them more structure in the hot broth.
Ramen King’s menu is focused on either pork or lobster broth, though a vegetarian version will be added soon, she said.
The price is accessible: The basic tonkatsu starts at $9.95, but a fully loaded bowl can reach $19.95. On the side are maki rolls, made to order with help from an automated sushi roller, priced at $5 for eight pieces. Lobster broth-based ramen starts at $14.95, though the dish does not actually contain lobster.
“We feel we’re bringing something that’s very unique, especially with the lobster ramen,” Tay said. “We’re giving you something that tastes luxurious but at entry-level prices.”
At Ramen King, guests order from a kiosk on site, and soon digital ordering will be available through an app.
Perhaps most attractive is the “labor-light” model, said Au. Units can be operated with as few as three people.
Ramen King has no plans to franchise in the U.S., but that’s how the Jinya concept has moved from Los Angeles across the U.S. and into Canada.
Expecting to reach about 65 units by the end of 2022, the goal is to reach 100 within three years, with about 15 of those being company owned, said Jinya founder Tomo Takahashi, with the help of a translator. The son of a restaurateur in Japan, Takahashi came to the U.S. in 2010 and quickly realized the potential for ramen here.
Jinya Ramen Bars are full service. The broth and noodles have been developed as proprietary products that are supplied to the restaurants.
Takahashi is also building his restaurant portfolio, with a robata concept scheduled to debut next year. In Honolulu, the company also opened LBD Japanese Bar & Lounge alongside a ramen unit there, with a wide selection of sake and whisky.
The company is also planning a new concept called Saijo near a Jinya Ramen Bar unit in Houston. Saijo will offer handrolls and kushiyaki, or skewered foods. And coming by 2024 is a Japanese bakery that will be called Shirogane Bakery.
Despite the growing competition, Jinya remains the first and only truly national ramen concept, Takahashi said.
“Being the pioneer in the ramen culture here in the U.S., we would like to be remembered and known for such,” he said in an email. “You have the burger chains, the chicken wings and hot chicken sandwiches, and when you think of ramen, Jinya will always be the one that people will remember, and that’s how we envision our growth to be.”
Growing out of Orange County, the Yoshiharu chain has unit No. 9 under construction and in September went public with an IPO that raised nearly $12 million.
The company plans to double its unit count, said CEO James Chae, though he didn’t specify a time frame, and parent Yoshiharu Global Co. is in the process of registering to franchise in California.
In filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission before the IPO, Yoshiharu saw potential to open up to 250 units domestically and 750 units internationally.
“Our near-term goals are focused in the U.S., but, ultimately, we intend to grow Yoshiharu into an international brand,” Chae said in an email.
With full-service restaurants that also offer takeout, Yoshiharu units are supplied by a central kitchen, with noodles from an outside supplier. The chain this month soft-launched a new menu that includes sushi rolls, appetizers and plates, in addition to a St. Louis Pork Rib Spicy Miso Ramen.
Chae said growth will focus on restaurants, franchising and partnerships with grocery retailers “to truly unlock the potential of our authentic Japanese cuisine,” though he did not offer details on the CPG plans.
‘Iron Chef’ ramen
Another contender is chef Morimoto's Momosan Ramen & Sake.
It's designed for ramen purists, offering signature tonkotsu (from the Kyushu region of Japan), though the chef uses a combination of pork and chicken bones, which gives the typically white broth more color but makes it a bit less pungent.
Momosan also uses aged “temomi” noodles, translated as “hand massaged,” which have thicker and thinner segments to make them easier to grab with chopsticks. The concept also has Chinese-style tantan ramen and the “dipping ramen” known as tsukemen.
“Momosan is such a fun concept for me because it’s exactly the kind of food that people want to be eating right now,” said Morimoto in an email. “It’s delicious, satisfying, fast and at a price point for almost every budget.”
Unlike at other ramen chains, everything at Momosan is cooked in the full-service restaurants. The new unit in San Jose, Calif.’s Santana Row, for example, has an open kitchen. There, the basic tonkatsu starts at $18 but a fully loaded “all-star” version is priced at $29.
Morimoto said he developed the noodle recipe with supplier Sun Noodle so it doesn’t become soggy as quickly as most
“It maintains its texture, thanks to a special ratio of powder, flour and water that we came up with,” he said via email.
First debuting in New York City in 2016, Momosan now has units in Hawaii, Seattle, Miami, Boston and, most recently, San Jose. Morimoto said the company is looking to continue growing in the U.S., though he can’t say yet where.
But the brand has no plans to franchise, Morimoto said: “I prioritize the quality of my restaurants over the quantity.”
Falling somewhere between instant ramen and the higher-end ramen found in restaurants is Yo-Kai Express, an automated kiosk that makes bowls available round the clock.
A far cry from the vending machines that offer hot water on instant noodles, the high-tech system is designed to create an experience that nears restaurant quality. Chief Operating Officer Amanda Tsung said the automated kiosks are increasingly popular across the U.S., particularly in nontraditional locations with off-hour demand.
In addition to offering its own branded ramen, Yo-Kai also works with restaurant partners to develop their own automated outlets, though Tsung declined to disclose which restaurant brands they are working with.
“This gives them a chance to have a different platform to expand their branding to reach more people and bring more awareness,” Tsung said.
Takahashi of Jinya, for example, said his brand will soon be available in a Yo Kai kiosk.
“We are already in the process of producing ramen,” he said. “We will start in earnest next year.”
In a press release earlier this year, Yo-Kai said it will be working with Chikaranomoto Holdings Co. Ltd., parent of the Ippudo ramen restaurant chain, to develop automated outlets in Japan.
Tsung, however, declined to discuss details.
But Shigemi Kawahara, founder of Ippudo, said in a statement that the technology will assist his company’s goal of making ramen a universal word.
“A new piece of technology originating from the U.S. has opened up new possibilities for customers to enjoy ramen in a new form,” he said. “It is a homecoming for ramen in Japan and the birth of a new culture.”
And he added: “A vending machine cooks hot ramen on the spot. It’s exciting, isn’t it?”
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