Japanese ramen outfit enters Malaysian market in big way to woo foodies

At THE Ippudo restaurant, one gets not only ramen (Japanese noodles), but also an exquisite dining experience with hospitable service and attention to detail.

Ippudo was founded in 1985 in Japan’s ramen capital, Hakata, in Kyushu, Japan by Shigemi Kawahara, aka The Ramen King, who is also the founder and president of Chikaranomoto Holdings Co Ltd, Ippudo’s parent company.

Nothing is taken lightly when it comes to the restaurant’s operations, whether is the location or ingredients used.

Chikaranomoto Holdings corporate strategy executive officer Tomo Yamane said they look into 30 to 40 sites before deciding on the right location to open an outlet.

“We are very strict about it. We take pride in offering quality, service, execution and design. We like to be in charge, with the help of our local partners.”

(L-R) Gan Mei Yan, myFM's DJ, Phoebe Yap, Melody FM's DJ & <a href='/business/marketwatch/stocks/?qcounter=ASTRO' target='_blank'>Astro</a><a href='http://charts.thestar.com.my/?s=ASTRO' target='_blank'><img class='go-chart' src='https://cdn.thestar.com.my/Themes/img/chart.png' /></a>'s TV Host, Shigemi Kawahara, Founder of IPPUDO chain of restaurants and Jentzen Lim, Astro's TV Host (Launch of Ippudo's third outlet in BSC, March 28)
(From left) Local celebrities Gan Mei Yan, Phoebe Yap and Jentzen Lim with Ippudo founder Shigemi Kawahara (second from the right).

The restaurant adheres to the genki concept, which means energetic or liveliness.

“Kitchen staff may seem like they are shouting, but they are communicating, telling each other what they are doing. It is a noisy kitchen because we consider a restaurant to be a stage,” he said.

He added that dining out is not just about the food but also about what you see.

“We have nothing to hide, we want to show people. If we are not proud of what goes on behind the walls, we would not have the open kitchen,” he said.

Anticipating needs

Ippudo strives to anticipate the needs and tastes of customers.

“You have to really observe the customers. For example, a customer who was looking at the menu and has closed it indicates he or she is ready to order.

WORLD-FAMOUS: One of the three Ippudo Ramen restaurant in Kuala Lumpur is located in Pavillion shopping mall.
One of the three Ippudo Ramen restaurants in Kuala Lumpur is located in Pavilion Kuala Lumpur.

“It’s about serving customers before they voice their wants. But of course, I’m talking about an ideal situation; it is not easy,” he said.

The restaurant’s signature Tonkatsu ramen is a testament to Ippudo’s attention to detail.

The success of Ippudo’s ramen is in the detailed preparation involved and the ability of the customer to taste and see every ingredient in the bowl of noodles served.

“It is cooked for over 15 hours using different types of bones that require different times. If you are not careful, the white silky soup may turn dark,” Yamane said.

He said, unlike the Japanese and South Koreans, who prefer their soup saltier, they have to tailor their taste to suit the taste buds of people in other regions.

“We adjust our cooking methods and procedures to be able to achieve a very high quality product that we are proud to serve,” he said, adding that 70% of the ingredients used in the restaurant is sourced locally.

However, he said one of the challenges in sourcing local products is to get the right vegetable.

Expansion plans

Ippudo started its international operations in New York in 2008.

“When we wanted to start outside of Japan, we wanted to take on one of the most difficult markets and chose New York as there were already so many restaurants and different types of cuisine there.

“However, it is also a centre of culture. Everyone goes there for new trends and fashion. That’s why we targeted New York,” he said.

They then moved to Europe before considering countries like Hong Kong and Singapore. In 2009, they set up a location in Singapore.

“At that point, we were still testing the waters on how to run an an international business because the company was and still is very small. In 2011, we started our rapid expansion, branching out to South Korea and Hong Kong,” he said.

At that point, they were already getting many requests from surrounding countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam because they saw the Ippudo outlet in Singapore and wanted to bring it to their countries.

“Our marketing approach was a success. We made a big bang in Singapore and it rippled around the region.”

Malaysia was naturally the next market.

“We know that it will not be an easy market as about 70% of the population is Muslim and we are a non-halal restaurant.

“However, there is also a large number of pork lovers here and they are so avid about ramen and noodles as it is part of their diet. So we knew there was a market in Malaysia,”

Big investment

Ippudo Catering Sdn Bhd director Ng Yin Ching said the company invested about RM5mil into the business, including store opening and operational matters such as marketing, as well as further expansion of the business into new markets.

“We are on the lookout for opportunities and potential locations. But we want to be choosy about where we set up,” she said.

The company also has an expatriate in Malaysia to oversee their business.

Yamane said they send their senior people from time to time to visit outlets and share their expertise and product knowledge with local partners.

“It took about two and a half months to train the Malaysian staff. It is a big investment in terms of people and time but we need to maintain quality,” he said.

As for expansion plans in Malaysia, he said there is no concrete plan, although he does not rule out another five or six restaurants over the next three years.

“What is important to us is not the number of locations but the number of visitors and returning customers per location.

“It makes no sense to have many restaurants but not many customers. I’d rather have just one location that is lively and has many returning customers,” he said.

He feels that setting up a restaurant is relatively easy; the real challenge lies in the day to day operations.

“We will continue to increase the number of restaurants in more countries. At the same time, we have a team working on continuously improving our existing locations.

“Changes in trends happen quickly and as a business, we have to always be on the lookout for new things and know what people want so we can stay ahead,” he said.

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