Founded in 1986, Chikaranomoto Company has grown rapidly and built up a hard-earned reputation for changing the image of ramen. Its 70 IPPUDO restaurants are across Japan and also around the world in cities such as New York, Singapore, Hong Kong, London and Paris. Founder and passionate restaurateur Shigemi Kawahara explains how the chain turned the image of noodle dining around and how it intends to set the global standard for ramen.
How would you best describe what characterizes the dining experience at IPPUDO?
The experience of eating ramen has completely changed since the establishment of IPPUDO in 1985. First of all, Japanese women in the past, about 30 years ago let’s say, never really used to eat ramen. Ramen used to be predominantly a food of men. The ramen-eating environment wasn’t friendly for women, but was qualified as “dirty”, “stinky” and “scary”, and also “sticky”. This is the kind of grungy image that it had. So we tried to transform the perception of ramen shops into something that is “clean”, “inviting” and most importantly “cool”. Our main goal was a to establish a new image for ramen shops in which a woman can come in by herself and enjoy a bowl of ramen. And IPPUDO is what we came up with. The classy shop interior with heavy emphasis on wood, modern jazz playing in the background, offered a very clean and sophisticated feel. The grimy feel of the traditional ramen shops was replaced with a modern ambiance in IPPUDO.
And in the past, the people who worked in ramen shops had very low standards in personal hygiene and presentation as well. You could see the undershirts, those grungy, stained shirts. I thought that with this kind of standard that reinforces the negative image of ramen shops, most people were not going to come. So I thought I’d establish a restaurant where the staff would be “cool” as well. Now you can see this trend in many restaurants where fashionable young staff have bandanas and wear t-shirts with the name of the restaurant printed on it. But we were the ones to start this trend. I wanted to make a restaurant where young people were willing to work with us and so this is the concept that we based ourselves on.
After we had established this new standard of ramen restaurant’s uniform, we also started collaborating on uniforms with fashion designers or local creators in NY, Paris, and Daimyo, Fukuoka where our first IPPUDO store is located, We want to show the world the endless possibilities of the ramen industry not just through our bowls of ramen but through other channels such as fashion as well.
So why have we been so successful? I think it’s due to the fact that we innovated consistently. People always think that IPPUDO is already established, that we are “corporate”, but I don’t think so at all. We are constantly growing. We still have a lot of possibilities and opportunities and we are still incomplete and will always be. Because as you see in our corporate philosophy, we “keep changing to remain unchanged”. I think it’s better this way; incomplete.
We have our many overseas locations and people may say great things about us from all over the world, but I will always be in pursuit of further change and improvement. I find joy in this endless journey as I believe this is what drives IPPUDO into the future. In 2008 we opened our US branch in New York. Now we have multiple shops but I still want to expand. There will always be new challenges after every accomplishment and this is where I find my excitement. Should this drive cease to exist, I think that IPPUDO will lose its identity.
It’s very interesting that you shared that sort of philosophy and approach with us, so that we can see what has fuelled the impressive global growth over the years. It is clear you still have a lot of passion for the project, for the business, for the food.
The backbone of our overseas expansion centers on ramen right now, but none of this could have been done without the local team who helped us materialize our vision. Some say what we do can only be expressed through Japanese people. However, I believe that this is a misconception and that it ultimately depends on the mentality of the individual, regardless of their nationality, of wanting to offer the best hospitality. This mentality is what it means to be Japanese. You walk into an IPPUDO store in the United States and the staff will greet you with an energetic, “Irasshaimase!”(Welcome to IPPUDO!) And they will efficiently work together to serve you ramen all the while offering a high standard of hospitality.
This is a very Japanese way of offering service that can only be experienced in our shops. Showing and displaying this aspect of Japan is, I believe, a very important part of our mission. We want to let our audience know that this is the Japanese way of welcoming our guests and serving them. Similar scenes play out in all of shops across the globe, from Asia to Europe, performed by our local teams. What we want to do is develop our inherent spirit of Japanese service to better cater to the local audience with the help of local staff.
What kind of opportunities do you have highlighted in terms of future growth and what are the major priorities over the short to mid-term, as we lead up to 2020?
As you know, 2020 is the year of the Olympics. Global interest towards Japan has been increasing year by year. For example the number of tourists visiting Japan over the last year reached roughly 20 million. Usually, the numbers range from around 10 to 12 million, so it is apparent that people worldwide are starting to become more interested in Japan. As we push towards the Olympics in the next five years, the Japanese economy will become more revitalized as this trend continues. And so by 2020, we hope to expand our operations further as well, especially in the United States.
We have a 10-year plan, running up to 2025, whereby we hope to expand mainly in the United States as well as Asean and parts of Europe. But out of those I believe the United States is the most important.
What focus do you place on the development of your human capital and how key is their role in enhancing the customer experience?
In Japan we have a very stringent training program. It has been about 20 years since we started this training program. Whatever you sell, no matter what the company is, what you need at the end of the day are human resources, human capital. Humanity is what I believe it comes down to, the driving force of a corporation. So I believe using a training program to increase employee quality is important. For example, we were fortunate to become acquainted with the Panda Restaurant Group, Inc., a parent company of Panda Express, which shares many similarities with our company in that both of us place a heavy emphasis on the development of quality employees. They have about 2,000 franchises as a group throughout the world. Panda Express is a fast casual American-Chinese restaurant and I believe they have a very high quality training structure as well. I felt that as we expand further in the United States, we needed to integrate the Panda Express training method to keep up with our HR needs.
We are consistently innovating as an organization. We have yet to accomplish many things and are always in the process of undertaking further changes. Although I believe human resource development should be prioritized, at the same time we cannot let that one aspect alone sacrifice our speed of development and jeopardize any business opportunities.
It is easy to forget that enhancing human capital is extremely important and you have to continue putting resources towards it. So in 5-10 years in 120 stores in the US, the human capital might not be able to catch up, but we will still open our stores and we will ensure that the appropriate human resources can be invested there. You may ask, “Well then how do you make up for that?” The only answer that I can say is to “just do it”. You might say this is not logical; you can’t really do business simply based on logic. In the end, nothing comes easily but we must push forward acknowledging that fact.
Panda Express is a great hint of what we can do to go forward. Also, Maxim’s Group from Hong Kong might have the clues to answer this as well. Of all the people that we’ve worked with, they have a premium resource regarding human capital. With the United States or China, I would like to learn a lot from these people around the world that we have the pleasure of doing business with, and I believe that if we don’t learn from, then we cannot survive in the global market.
What are some examples of how IPPUDO innovates in terms of new concepts and ways to provide an exciting and enjoyable customer experience?
As I mentioned earlier, our philosophy is “keep changing to remain unchanged.” For example, in the case of our US customers, we strive to establish an atmosphere that is distinctly Japanese while offering food and hospitality that reflect pronounced Japanese qualities. These are the things that I want to suggest for this particular market. For example, in IPPUDO there’s like a sake bar, the open kitchen, there’s an open performance they give you. For example, in IPPUDO NY, there is a sake bar at the entrance, and inside you’ll find an open kitchen where customers can see the live action of our chefs creating ramen. It’s all a performance we offer to cater to the expectations of the certain demographic. Furthermore our collaboration with Marvel is an example of a tactic to make ramen more approachable and interesting. It helps to make a link to something that’s more approachable. Too often I think restaurateurs and people in the hospitality business provide the same thing because they think that’s what people want, whereas actually what keeps things interesting is to still maintain the quality with something different that’s an experience each time.
Japanese cuisine and food culture, along with a number of culinary experiences on offer are now globally very popular. What role do you believe restaurants, whether they are ramen or sushi, play in raising awareness and promoting Japan as a country?
I would like to take sushi as an example here. When you consider Japanese cuisine, sushi is timeless. I always wonder about which Japanese cuisine will survive the test of time. What are people going to consistently be interested in? Japanese cuisine is a little more difficult to understand, I think. Traditional foods are a Japanese concept, but I believe only a fraction of people understand this. Tempura, sushi, shabu-shabu, I think of which of these will continue to be popular in the long run.
Ramen is a specialized food, but if you serve only ramen, American audiences may lose interest in such a concept fairly quickly for its lack of variety. If you go to a sushi restaurant, it’s purely Japanese style, and you can’t capture a larger audience. My specialty is ramen, so I’m worried about serving only ramen in the United States or other countries. To capture the audience, I like to allow for a broader range of choices that we can offer. We are considering adding other side dishes that can accompany the ramen to allow for more variety.
Sushi might feel like a special occasion kind of food for people around the world, but as our company, we want to serve it as a commonplace food that people eat. We want to express ourselves as a ramen shop for entrepreneurs. If at the end of the day, if some local customers go to IPPUDO, they say, “Oh, we went to this ramen shop” or “this Japanese cuisine restaurant called IPPUDO,” then we’ll be excited.
To what extent do you think IPPUDO is beginning to act as a food ambassador to the outside world providing an authentic and genuine experience in, say, New York or throughout the world?
We wish to emulate Kikkoman and we are working strongly towards it. Not really “made in Japan,” more like an experience of coming “to Japan.” The reason why I wanted to do this is because I’ve been in this industry for 37 years already, not just ramen, but other restaurants too. Once we succeed and develop and expand, all the Japanese restaurants in this country will look at IPPUDO and say, “Hey! Look at these guys! They’re doing so great! Let’s get there too.”
Ramen culture has taken the US market by storm and within such a large market it clearly holds great growth potential. Can you tell us more about IPPUDO in the US market and your hopes for further development there?
If you serve sushi in a restaurant, it becomes a sushi restaurant, but if you serve sushi at a ramen restaurant, it’s still a ramen restaurant. I think that’s one of the strengths of ramen. Everybody knows sushi around the world. American people know a lot about sushi. Ramen, maybe not as much. But if we utilize this strength, I think that we’ll go further in this market. For example, in the United States if you open a restaurant of this type, IPPUDO, and establish one in every single state, it might not be strange to suddenly see 250 stores across the country. Or in New York, we also have another brand called Kuro-Obi. It serves a chicken-based ramen, using soy sauce or miso paste as seasoning. We could expand this Kuro-Obi brand by opening stores in shopping malls like Panda Express does.
With all that said, I want people around the world to eat the ramen that we make. I want to establish the world standard of ramen with our brand. There’s an extraordinary market with many different types of products. So the question of what’s fake and what’s authentic is typical, but no doubt there’s going to be a lot of imitators. I don’t want this, because I want to spread the authentic flavors of ramen; I want the customers’ first contact with ramen to be with people like us. We hope to expand to many stores in the United States with the Kuro-Obi brand and open up the window frame of ramen.
I believe it is our duty to expand the ramen culture. But, nevertheless, you’ll probably see a bunch of different ramen places coming out. Establishing a standard, a world standard, is what we are after. The world standard is not just about taste, it’s about the atmosphere for the customers, and developing human resources, all of these included; we have to go towards a world standard. There are many people who just have food, but the taste, the service, and the atmosphere is important and we want to make something that represents the high integrity of the IPPUDO brand.
The Cool Japan Fund injected 700 million yen into Chikaranomoto Co., Ltd. How has this worked in terms of the initiative helping to propel the company specifically into the US market?
Like I mentioned earlier, ramen was more like an underground kind of food in the past. In the last 30 years or so we faced resentment towards this image and we had to change it. But the fact that we received this funding from Cool Japan Fund says something about how the positioning of ramen has risen and I believe that we have been key contributors to this paradigm shift in this industry.
You have two IPPUDO stores operating in the US. How does the brand adapt to a new country?
I believe the success of our New York storefronts have had a lot to do with Yelp. This is a coincidence, I guess. It doesn’t have much to do with branding, but I believe to what extent we utilize SNS or videos or image, it’s very important that we pay attention to these channels as well. Some of them might be deliberate, some of them might not be deliberate, but I think we still need to keep on thinking about these kinds of things. For the basics I think we need to scrutinize our food production, and establish an atmosphere. Customer service is a major premise and without this we can’t really move forward. All the things that I’ve been saying might be of little consequence to you, but I’m always thinking about these things. I believe that this is what ultimately leads to innovation.
On a separate note, we are a very distinct company. Our company is called “Chikaranomoto” in Japanese. Maybe “Source of Power” might be the right phrase for it. I took this from the Force concept in Star Wars. Although the company itself was established in 1986, I already had this idea of what to name the company back in 1977 when I saw Star Wars Episode IV. In Episode IV, Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker, “Use the Force, Luke!” And I wondered, “What’s the Force?” Later I found out that the Force is what brings the entire universe together. Shortly after, I came up with this word in Japanese. The reason why I implemented this concept into the company name is because I believed that our happiness through smiling was the source of power, the Force, that binds the universe together. It’s the principle in the food service industry: we need our customers to be happy, right?
You are widely considered as the ‘ramen king’. Your work and reputation is highly regarded across both the culinary and hospitality industries. How do you think you can establish IPPUDO as you mentioned before, as a world standard? The sort of “Starbucks of ramen”?
I believe that we need to reorganize our packaging and the quality and atmosphere as well. If we continue with our current ways, I believe that we will reach a limit. We need to nurture human resources. It might sound contradictory, but at the same time I believe that there’s a limit to the extent that we can rely on individuals. I believe that we need a stringent structure, and that reorganizing each packaging and each storefront is what we need to work on. This is the greatest challenge that we are confronting at the moment.
What would you like to highlight about what you’ve created, and about Japan, in a few words?
I want people to be interested in Japanese food and in Japan as a country. In order to accomplish this, I believe that there will be many different companies and restaurants who will be envisioning these goals, so I hope that people will have the opportunity to try out these different places in the future. Maybe sushi or maybe something else. Japanese food isn’t intimidating. It’s fun food. This is what I want people to feel. So I’m sure that IPPUDO is going to be introduced in your town very soon in the near future. Don’t hesitate and please come try our ramen.