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Ramen, Amen!

Japanese food was always kind of a mystery to me before 2002 when I began working to launch CREST Japan, NPD’s foodservice market research service.  Sure, I knew sushi.  And I had stumbled on this cool little tempura place run by an older Japanese couple in what had been a small coffee-shop on North Avenue in Chicago (if you remember this place, let me know…it was a long time ago).  And who doesn’t know Benihana? But I was clueless as to the panoply of Japanese dishes from ono-giri to shabu-shabu to yaki-tori and all the variation of flavorings, seasonings, ingredients, and service styles that go with them.

One revelatory lunch in Tokyo was at a ramen place that my colleagues told me was Chinese food.  What I’ve since learned about all the best ramen places is that this place was spartan from top to bottom — lightly finished plywood on the walls, hooks on the walls for coats, and a counter for service.  No drinks except tea, water, beer, and saki.  There’s a ramen place near our new office where you pay for your meal at a vending machine at the door and give your chit to the waitress when you sit down. Spartan.  My colleagues talked me through the menu as they did meal-after-meal at that time.  And, wow, what was served was eye-opening!  A huge bowl filled with delicious broth (which is the secret to success for all ramen operators), a few vegetables, noodles and a slice of meat (pork, I think…although it didn’t matter).  One of those funny spoons and some chopsticks were my eating tools. I ate and drank every bit and asked to go there every couple of days after that.  It’s not something you want to eat when you’re wearing a white shirt…just a tip.

Much later I was working on a project with the Tokyo NPD team and a couple of folks from NPD in the US who were originally from Hong Kong came up for a visit.  I mentioned to our Chinese colleagues that the Japanese say that ramen is Chinese food. “But it’s Japanese” they replied in unison.  And so it goes. There’s a Japanese chain that is building units in the PRC called Ajisen Ramen.  It’s a Japanese company running a ramen (Chinese food?/Japanese food?) chain in China.

I’ve since learned that Japanese men eat ramen after being out drinking much in the same way the English will go out for curry (this is information I track and collect, by the way, it’s telling).  I’ve also learned that, while the Japanese think of ramen as Chinese food, the Chinese see it as a Japanese food….not unlike burritos in the US and Mexico.

Our CREST Japan consumer foodservice tracker tells us that hot ramen is one of the top dishes served to men and women on-premises at lunch and dinner in Japan (although it’s more popular with men).  It’s right up there with beef bowl, sushi, and curry dishes.

So it’s no wonder that Lotteria, which CREST Japan tells us is the third largest Japanese hamburger chain after McDonald’s and Mos Burger, introduced the Ramen Burger this year.  Like all non-North Americans, “burger” refers to “hot sandwich on a round piece of bread” so this burger has pork and a layer of fried ramen noodles between the buns.  Take a hugely popular dine-in dish and package it for take-away.  Certainly worth a try in variety-seeking Japan.

And, in the tradition of rare exclusivity that brought us the cronut, comes this from Brooklyn (where my nephew resides and looks askance at the cultural backwater called Manhattan):  another Ramen Burger . This time with the noodles as the BUNS! What a thought.  The picture of it looks great (see below). Take the most popular item in the US and make it special.  Too bad there are only 150 made and there is no restaurant serving them yet.  Makes the cronut’s 500 per day limit seem almost industrial!

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About Bob O'Brien

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Bob O’Brien is global senior vice president for market researcher The NPD Group, foodservice sector. He joined NPD’s foodservice division in 1987. He has been responsible for driving foodservice analysis outside the United States, leading the launch of CREST® Japan, China, Australia and the new CREST® Mexico pilot project. Bob speaks frequently to industry and management groups. He can be reached at the NPD Group.

Mr. O'Brien's column on foodservice is syndicated to Blue MauMau by permission of The NPD Group.

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