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Jinya gives ramen its due, stateside


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Four kinds of delicious at Jinya.

It’s not hard to see why Japanese ramen has become a global food phenomenon. Even though it’s only been around since the invention of the modern ramen noodle in the late 1950s, this simmering bowl of umami and contrasting textures has become one of Japan’s most prized exports.

One chef betting big on the growing ramen craze is Tomo Takahashi, founder and CEO of Jinya Ramen Bar, which is franchised and now has more than 30 operating locations.

Speaking through a translator, Chef Tomo shared his family’s restaurant background, the plan for expanding the budding franchise and his concept’s many variations on a surprisingly elastic bowl of simmering goodness.

If you’ve never eaten ramen, please forgo any mentions of those foul packets of Maruchan—that’s like equating a Big Mac to an expertly grilled filet mignon. Traditional ramen has depth, takes time, connects land and sea, and presents more colors and textures than nearly any other soup-style meal.

The broth is the star of the show when dining at any respectable ramen shop. Jinya’s offerings include the traditional Tonkotsu, a Japanese broth derived from simmering pork bones for hours, along with lighter chicken, creamy, clear, vegan and vegetable-based broths. In the lingo of Jinya’s menu, the foundational choices include Tonkotsu Black, Spicy Umami Miso, Sukiyaki Q (sliced beef), Lobster Me Happy, Spicy Chicken Ramen, Old Skool Ramen (chicken, fish oil, fatty pork), Vegetable Soup Ramen and its Spicy Creamy Vegan Ramen.

Diving into the challenges of franchising such an elaborate, time-consuming food that can take 10 hours just to finish the broth, Takahashi said the company trains franchisees and new kitchen managers in great detail. “We can’t just give them a recipe,” he added. “It’s also their experience. They have to be able to look at the broth, see the colors and what kind of ingredients they use that day could change the broth. It’s complex and there’s a lot going into making that kind of broth, but we have a really good training system.”

After drooling over his description of each broth, I asked what he’s seen as differences in American slurpers versus their Japanese counterparts, as he still owns four restaurants in Japan under a different concept.

“Japanese people go there maybe alone, lunchtime or after drinking,” he said. “You don’t really see a lot of family gatherings or couples, but here in our restaurants you see a lot of families.”

Tomo Takahashi

Tomo Takahashi is founder and CEO of Jinya Ramen Bar, with more than 30 operating locations.

Stunned by soup?

Whether you’re in Tokyo or Chicago, a hole-in-the-wall aesthetic is often a sign the food might be really good—appearances be damned. Takahashi has taken a different track with Jinya, attempting to put as much attention into the ambiance, the shape of the bowls and even the background music, as he does into his ramen. The goal, he explained, is elevating ramen to a place where it’s never been stylistically, while nudging it further into the American mainstream.

Takahashi moved to Los Angeles from Japan in 2010 and, soon afterward, opened his first restaurant in Studio City, back when ramen was still synonymous with cheap, gross and fast.

It wasn’t too long before, in his words, a gourmet ramen craze swept across the country, which kindled his interest in franchising. Recalling “Seinfeld’s” infamous “Soup Nazi” episode, this is the chance for Americans outside the big city to feel weak in the knees, speechless and truly stunned by soup.

With 30 locations now open and operating in the U.S., including restaurants in California, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Utah, Washington state, Virginia, Washington, D.C. and Texas, the brand is on track to hit 40 units in the coming months.

Contrary to many franchised restaurant brands that are shrinking their store footprints, Jinya has gone in the opposite direction. Initial U.S. locations were around 2,000 square feet, but lately that average has been closer to 2,700 square feet, with some as large as 5,000 square feet. Startup costs are estimated at $1 million for future locations. Inside, guests are greeted with wooden materials, metals and many uses of green, including synthetic grass that’s industrial, but intended as a warming element.

“I would bring my friends over and they can’t believe it’s just a ramen restaurant,” he said. “It’s not a typical ramen shop.”

For future franchisees, Takahashi stressed he’s looking for operators with restaurant experience and somebody who’s open to getting as enthusiastic about ramen as he is. “Making ramen isn’t easy, so we look for someone with good restaurant experience and also understanding the franchise business—sometimes that’s a big indicator,” he said.

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