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 chashu (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 said.
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.
“There’s a certain level of quality that we demand for all ramen we provide. But beyond that, we fine-tune details like oil content, salt level and noodle length depending on the country,” he said.
Chinese customers, for example, don’t 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 a prominent Muslim population like Indonesia, Ippudo is introducing ramen made from chicken broth rather than its trademark pork broth.
The company plans to launch restaurants in Vietnam and New Zealand. 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.
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.
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.
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.”
One ongoing project Kiyomiya and Kawahara 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.