Business / Corporate | Taking the Lead

Ippudo ramen chain credits its global success to localized tastes

by Alex Martin

Staff Writer

Toshiyuki Kiyomiya likes to compare ramen to a carefully arranged universe in a bowl.

The savory combination of steaming broth, noodles and toppings — typically ranging from chāshū (Chinese-style roasted pork) and menma (pickled bamboo shoots) to soy-sauce braised soft-boiled eggs and sheets of nori — is a complete meal by itself that can easily be adapted to local tastes, he said.

“I’ve never seen a dish that can encompass such a diverse range of expressions in one bowl. And that’s why we can take it global,” he told The Japan Times in a recent interview.

Kiyomiya, 43, is the president and chief operating officer of Chikaranomoto Holdings Co., the company that runs the Ippudo ramen chain credited with elevating the Hakata-style tonkotsu (pork-broth) ramen into a nationwide brand.

His mission now is to bring bowls of Ippudo’s famed ramen to more locales around the world. And for that, adaptation is key.

Chikaranomoto currently operates 69 overseas outlets in 12 countries. By 2025, Kiyomiya wants to see that number grow to over 300 outlets in 20 countries. It’s an ambitious target, but something he considers feasible thanks to the footholds the company has already established in many parts of the world.

Ippudo’s first overseas outpost opened in New York City’s East Village in 2008. The flagship restaurant features a bar, an open kitchen and a variety of side dishes in addition to the signature Shiromaru Hakata Classic and Akamaru Modern tonkotsu ramen. It was a departure from the comparatively modest interior and menu offered at Ippudo joints in Japan, but a typical example of how Ippudo has worked to cater to local tastes and customs.

“New Yorkers like to enjoy a few drinks at the bar and order some appetizers before finishing the meal off with a bowl of ramen,” Kiyomiya said. From the start, the East Village restaurant was a roaring success consistently packed with customers, and remains the highest grossing of all Ippudo restaurants.

The following year, Chikaranomoto established its global headquarters in Singapore, a regional hub and the firm’s gateway to the rest of Asia.
Since then, Ippudo has been steadily expanding. It opened in Hong Kong in 2011, and then in Taiwan, China and Australia in 2012. An outpost in Kuala Lumpur opened in 2013, followed by restaurants in Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia in 2014.

The same year also saw Ippudo make its first foray into Europe with a restaurant in London. It’s Paris branch opened last year, and this year Ippudo is making a renewed push to expand in the U.S., a country it says is its primary focus for global expansion.

Wherever it goes, Chikaranomoto adjusts its ramen to make it just right, Kiyomiya said.

“There’s a certain level of quality that we demand for all ramen we serve. But beyond that, we fine-tune details like oil content, salt level and noodle length depending on the country,” he said. Product development teams in each region are assigned to check and maintain quality so it fulfills the company’s standards, he said.

Chinese customers, for example, donct like excessive oil in their soup, he said. Thus, Ippudo’s ramen sold in cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou have a lower oil content and tend to be subtler in flavor compared with the bowls it serves in Japan.

In nations with large Muslim populations such as Indonesia, Ippudo is introducing ramen made from chicken broth rather than its trademark pork broth.
Cracking new markets, however, hasn’t always been easy.

“Europe has been the most challenging in the past several years, for various reasons,” he said.

Chikaranomoto initially tried to replicate its New York-style restaurant in London, but received the cold shoulder.

“It just didn’t work,” Kiyomiya recalled.

Much like in Japan, Londoners prefer to head straight for the bowl, skipping the bar and appetizers. The steaming ramen soup had also been too hot to eat for some customers. Those differences in culinary habits called for a revised approach.

In Paris, Chikaranomoto acquired administrative rights to open a branch in a historical building, but the project was stalled for close to a year facing protests from residents. Staff patiently visited each household to explain the project, which helped the firm gain a consensus of general support.

These challenges took a toll financially, Kiyomiya said, but the company now has a foot in the door to new markets and the experience provided necessary know-how for deploying more shops.

“I think we’ve finally been able to build a steady foundation to accelerate overseas growth. We’re reaching that stage where we can say that our global business is our core business,” he said.

Chikaranomoto plans to launch restaurants in Vietnam and New Zealand, and is monitoring market conditions in other European nations as well as other regions in the world for potential opportunities.

North America, however, will be central to its overseas strategy. Of the 300 restaurants the firm aims to open outside of Japan by 2025, about a third are planned for the U.S.

For that, Chikaranomoto partnered with Panda Restaurant Group Inc., operator of the Panda Express fast food restaurant chain. It’s first outlet under the joint venture opened in Berkeley, California, in July, and plans are in the works for more on the West Coast.

Ippudo has come a long way from its humble origins.

Shigemi Kawahara, 64, the founder and chief executive officer of Chikaranomoto, opened his first, 10-seater Ippudo restaurant 32 years ago in the Hakata district of Fukuoka, the largest city in Kyushu and a ramen mecca known as the birthplace of the creamy tonkotsu ramen.

Until then, tonkotsu ramen joints were typically the “three ks” — kusai, kitanai, kowai (smelly, dirty, intimidating) — and had put off female patrons and genteel eaters. Kawahara set out to change that image. He removed the distinct odor by simmering the pork broth for 18 hours. He adopted a modern interior, trained his staff to be upbeat and polite, and played jazz in the restaurant.

The concept was a hit and Ippudo quickly grew its franchise. It landed in the Kanto region in 1994 with the opening of an outlet in the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum, followed by its first Tokyo shop in the Ebisu district in 1995.

Kiyomiya, a native of Yokohama who joined Chikaranomoto in 2011, recalls visiting both venues soon after they opened. “Ippudo really stood out. Its attitude toward customer service was very different from your typical ramen shop,” he said.

Kawahara’s reputation was solidified in the late 1990s when he won a series of ramen competitions on TV, earning him the title of Ramen King.

Chikaranomoto now operates 138 restaurants in Japan under several brands. For the year that ended on March 31, its net income more than doubled from the previous year to ¥271 million, while revenue grew 7.5 percent to ¥22.43 billion. In March, Chikaranomoto listed its shares on the Tokyo Stock Exchange Mothers section, the market for emerging high-growth stocks.

Dr. Barak Kushner, an associate professor at the University of Cambridge and author of “Slurp! A Social and Culinary History of Ramen — Japan’s Favorite Noodle Soup,” attributed the international popularity of ramen to its easy adaptability as a “platform food.”

Ramen began catching on globally at the beginning of this century, following a similar trajectory to sushi, which first became popular in Asia before being exported to the West, he said. “I think ramen finally caught on in the West because it doesn’t fundamentally differ from a lot of what many will consider to be European or American tastes, which would be based on a meaty, hearty taste,” he said.

“Unlike sushi, where the consumer needs to conform to the taste, ramen can adapt. So around the world, you see different types because it has to appeal in some ways to the local culture.”

Chikaranomoto’s overseas restaurant branches are mostly locally staffed. Kiyomiya said he eventually wants to see local hires in management positions and running foreign subsidiaries. Video-based multilingual training manuals viewable on smart devices are in the works.

In Japan, the company provides a program for all new employees at its spacious farm in Oita Prefecture, where rookies undergo practical training and agricultural experience.

Kiyomiya also took part in the course after he joined in 2011. Until then, he worked at Culture Convenience Club Co., the operator of the Tsutaya bookstore chain.

Kiyomiya was approaching the age of 40 at the time, and wanted to try his hand at something new. He made the rounds speaking with various firms and was eventually introduced to Kawahara. It was around the time Chikaranomoto began its overseas expansion and was diversifying its business model.

“The only image I had of him until then came from the television ramen competitions,” Kiyomiya said. “In person, he is very creative and charismatic.”

“I asked him what he had in his mind for his company, and he said he was approaching his businesses like playing a game of go,” Kiyomiya recalled. “It left an impression.”

Kiyomiya quickly rose up through the ranks, and was appointed COO in 2012. In 2014, he was promoted to president, and Kawahara assumed the chairmanship.

Despite their globe-trotting schedules, the two still meet once a week to chat, according to Kiyomiya.

One ongoing project they are working on is spreading the phrase “zuzutto,” an onomatopoeia of slurping noodles. While slurping is generally considered bad manners in the West, Kiyomiya said it enhances the flavor of the noodle dish.

“It’s one of the keywords for our global expansion,” he said.

This section runs exclusive stories on top business leaders and executives interviewed by The Japan Times.

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