Singapore pair corners ‘halal ramen’ market

by Siti Rahil

Kyodo

A Singaporean couple who run Japanese restaurants are hoping to promote “halal Japanese food” worldwide in an effort to target the massive Muslim market.

Roger Tan and his wife, Yvone Lim, recently sealed a 12-year master franchise agreement with a Qatar-based food and beverage company to open several such restaurants in 15 countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including Iraq, Syria and eventually Libya.

The first outlet under the franchise deal is expected to open early next year in Doha.

They said they are also looking to expand their business through franchises in Central Asia, India, China, Russia and Europe, where there are significant Muslim populations.

Their companies — Ramenten Restaurant Pte., specializing in ramen, and Shin Tokyo Pte., which specializes in sushi — operate two Japanese restaurants in Singapore, both of which are certified halal by the Islamic authority in the city.

The halal designation means the food doesn’t contain ingredients forbidden to Muslims, such as pork, its by-products or alcohol.

Former flight attendants, the couple often flew to Japan and fell in love with the nation’s food.

They started a noodle shop in Singapore in 2002, hiring Singaporean chefs with experience in Japanese food to create more than 20 varieties of ramen.

But with the realization of an overabundance of Japanese restaurants in Singapore, the pair decided to venture into the niche market of halal ramen.

In 2003, they began researching halal ramen and two years later obtained certification from the Islamic authority.

“We were the first halal Japanese restaurant in Singapore, and now, with this platform, we will be able to go to the Middle East and take advantage of this huge opportunity,” said Lim, 41, the managing director of the two firms.

“People are well-traveled nowadays. They are exposed, they all know what Japanese food is, but they might not have the courage to try because they don’t know if it’s halal or not, but once it is brought into the country and certified halal, they would be confident to try,” she said.

“We realized that we should differentiate ourselves and so introduced halal Japanese cuisine because there are so many operators in Singapore and the rest of the world, as well, for Japanese food,” she added.

The couple sees the Middle East as an attractive market due to the affluence of the oil-rich region. Lifestyle changes have also helped make people there more open to new experiences.

In addition, there is little competition in the mass market for Japanese food in the region, with most Japanese restaurants located mainly in high-end hotels.

Tan believes his restaurants also have an edge because the parent company in Singapore is already certified halal.

Even for countries such as Iraq, Syria and Libya, Tan said, his franchise partner is confident the current political instability will only be temporary.

The 15 countries under the franchise deal have an estimated 270 million Muslims. With the overseas expansion Lim and Tan expect 90 percent of their revenue to come from abroad.

“It’s exciting because globally there are not many halal Japanese cuisine players,” said Tan, the 46-year-old executive director of the two companies.

Much of Japanese cuisine depends on pork or alcohol for flavors. So Tan and Lim had to devise their own recipes to replace those elements with halal ingredients while still maintaining the traditional taste.

This was a particular challenge when it came to ramen because most depend on a soup made from pork bones.

“Now some of our fans love our ramen more than other Japanese traditional ramen,” Lim said.

She added that the popularity of Japanese food has been on the rise because people “like the lifestyle and like to be involved in a sushi session together.”

“Japanese food is something that is very rich in Japanese culture and a very healthy alternative. Japanese restaurants have also got a unique ambience and people like to be seen in them,” she said.