National

Noodle-maker revolutionizes ramen culture in the U.S.

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

At the huge, brightly lit factory in Teterboro, New Jersey, machines from Japan gently mix eggs and flour and turn them into sheets of yellow dough that are then cut into thin wavy ramen.

Opened in 2012, the plant is a branch of Honolulu-based Sun Noodle, a business looking to educate people on true ramen culture and supply them with the goods once they’ve acquired the taste — in this case the finicky palates of New Yorkers.

Business is brisk. The plant, which now supplies noodles to 70 percent of the Big Apple’s ramen eateries, has seen an eightfold sales volume growth since its opening and now accounts for 40,000 servings a day.

To add momentum, Sun Noodle in January opened its Ramen Lab in Little Italy to educate noodle chefs and wannabes, and satisfy patrons. The company even offers starter kits.

“It’s been very busy since we opened the factory,” said Kenshiro Uki, 28, general manager of Sun Noodle. “We are constantly getting phone calls.”

Americans are not necessarily strangers to ramen, but for the most part they opt for the cheap, instant variety that just needs to steep in hot water for three minutes before it’s ready to eat.

Sun Noodle seeks to elevate ramen culture by instilling in chefs and customers the sense that the dish should be regarded as “bistro food” with freshly made noodles and meticulously cooked broth.

Sun Noodle’s strategy is paying off. The firm, which supplies all but one ramen shop in Honolulu and has a large share of the California market, is the noodle of choice for nine of the top 10 ramen restaurants picked by The New York Times, including celebrity chef David Chan’s Momofuku.

Sun Noodle ramen is now making inroads in the heartland — including in Austin, Texas, Nashville, Tennessee, and Chicago — where non-Japanese gourmets are starting up noodle bars using the company’s product.

“To be honest, there is a lot of competition out there,” said Uki, who pitched the idea of opening the New Jersey factory to his father, the company’s founder. “But we have been different from others by being (the first of a kind to reach the) market, and we’ve made ramen education a priority.”

Education also means Uki is learning, as he tests samples on potential customers to glean their likes and dislikes. It’s been a trial and error effort that traces its roots to Sun Noodle’s rocky start in Honolulu.

Uki’s father, Hidehito, launched the company in 1981. A noodle maker from Tochigi Prefecture, he started out with equipment left behind after a business partner of his father failed in an attempt to start a noodle business.

Honolulu, though popular with Japanese tourists, had only three ramen shops at the time.

The three eateries were supplied by some 20 Chinese noodle makers, but no one supplied fresh ramen. So Uki’s father saw a business opportunity selling freshly made noodles.

But winning over customers was not as easy as Hidehito thought, in a land where people opted for instant ramen.

Initially there were few patrons, and he was just 20 years old and spoke little English.

So he started making samples and kept adjusting their taste to build up a loyal clientele.

Hidehito paid about 15 visits to the local outlet of Ezogiku, a well-known Japanese ramen chain whose Honolulu shop was its first international location.

Impressed by the elder Uki’s customer attention, Ezogiku became Sun Noodle’s first customer and other eateries quickly followed.

Eventually Sun Noodle started shipping its ramen to eateries in California. There, too, the market was initially tough to crack because noodle factories were already operating. But Hidehito’s service strategy worked once again. He visited ramen shops and grocery stores, offering samples and making changes to satisfy customers’ tastes.

Kenshiro Uki, who was 5 years old when his father opened the Honolulu plant, recalled that when his parents approached the Mitsuwa Japanese grocery store chain that operated mainly in California, the employees wanted him to try his father’s samples, instead of them doing the honors. He recalled: “They thought if kids like it, other kids would like it.”

Sun Noodle opened a factory in Los Angeles in 2004 to meet the growing demand on the mainland. Ramen chefs point to Chan’s Momofuku Noodle Bar, which debuted the same year, as the starting point for Americans’ love affair with high-quality ramen. The dish became celebrated Japanese fare and was no longer just a quick snack.

Demand grew on the mainland and even in parts of South America, prompting Sun Noodle to open a second California factory, in Rancho Dominguez, in 2008

Kenshiro Uki took customer service to the next level by opening the Teterboro plant, which he hopes will serve as its New York hub as well as a product source for its growing European clientele.

Uki came up with the idea for the New Jersey factory when he visited New York in 2011 to take in the Japan Society-hosted Ramen Fever event. He visited his clients’ ramen shops and other eateries and was disappointed.

“I realized that our products were not represented in the way I always felt they should have been,” he said, “because once it leaves the California plant, it’s in somebody else’s hands.”

This is because Sun Noodle shipped noodles frozen from California to customers in New York. By the time the noodles got to the East Coast, they were crumbling and the original taste was gone. So before heading back to California, where he worked at one of the Sun Noodle factories, Uki emailed his father, pushing for a New Jersey factory.

“When I got off the plane, I had a voice mail and it said ‘OK, you are going to move out there in two months,’ ” said Uki.

When Sun Noodle moved east, the ramen boom had yet to hit New York. Ramen was being produced, but there were no factories using the same techniques as Sun Noodle, he said. Like before, the firm had to create the market.

Uki thus came up with the idea of the Ramen Lab to educate people who want to open eateries on how to create quality fare. For those with no experience, Sun Noodle supplied the ramen as well as the broth, which takes expertise to prepare. Now more and more eateries are using Sun Noodle’s starter kits to launch their business.

One of Sun Noodle’s competitors, San Jose, California-based fresh noodle-maker Yamachan Ramen, said Sun’s strategy is working.

“We had some conflict in New York, but Sun Noodle’s customers are mostly newly opened ramen shops,” said Hideyuki Yamashita, CEO of Yamachan, which produces about half of what Sun Noodle does but has been supplying the New York market for the last 20 years. “Because they are in New York, they have easy access to the market and can expand market share.”

Sun Noodle has won many converts.

“Ramen . . . has to be perfect . . . for soup,” said Ivan Orkin, who owns Ivan Ramen in the East Village and Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop in Hell’s Kitchen. “Sun Noodle is great because it is the only company which would do exactly the way my recipe is.”

Orkin, former chef at Mesa Grill in New York, started a ramen shop in Tokyo in 2007 and then launched two in New York in 2013. The New York Times named Ivan Ramen one of the top ramen eateries in the city.

Still, Uki believes American customers need to learn more about ramen. That’s why Sun Noodle opened the Ramen Lab in Little Italy under the leadership of chef Shigetoshi Nakamura, whose ramen shop in Japan was often ranked No. 1 by culinary magazines. The lab also did away with most stools and chairs so customers wouldn’t linger.

American patrons typically spend 40 to 50 minutes eating a bowl of ramen because they are not used to hot soup noodles, Uki said. The lack of seats also leads to faster customer turnover in a business where the ramen alone costs an average of $14 in New York.

Sun Noodle’s expansion has brought challenges. Quality control has become more difficult to manage. When the New Jersey outlet cultivates new distributors, it sends instructors to demonstrate how to care for the products

The company is also facing competition from Chinese makers that can supply much cheaper ramen than Sun Noodle, whose servings currently sell for between 60 and 70 cents each. Uki estimates that Chinese rivals can offer servings at around 40 cents, but at much lower quality.

Uki is still looking beyond the next horizon. He wants to bring ramen culture to different regions so that people in different parts of the U.S and the world can enjoy their regional tastes the same way ramen in Japan differs by region.

“I am still 28, but by the time I am 35, there will be ramen shops that specialize in their own region,” he said. “You will see very talented chefs who are trying to make changes.”

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