Ramen’s Big Potential for Fast-Casual Success

Ramen Noodles  | Brian Murphy for FoodableTV

Ramen Noodles | Brian Murphy for FoodableTV

By Brian Murphy, Foodable Contributor

The popularity of ramen continues to climb while ramen houses continue to get creative with the noodles. A perfect combination for fans of the delicious alkaline noodle and all that comes along with it. Forget the instant product that is so often associated with the quintessential college student and enter the world of “real” ramen. It is no surprise that fans of the “instant” version with that magical packet of flavor are leading the charge to a more refined, authentic ramen.

It’s All About the Broth

The broth in an authentic bowl of ramen is extremely important. Ramen places that are doing it right are not using a base flavor agent like the ones found in packets of the instant product. Ramen and noodle houses doing it right are bringing in fresh bones, and lots of them. Chicken bones and pork trotters, for instance, are the keys to a delicious Tonkotsu broth. The key to extract every bit of flavor out of these bones to offer an unctuously rich product is to boil these bones for a long, long time. There are different schools of thought on this process, and these are some of the variables of what makes this “simple” dish not-so-simple. Pressure cooker? Sure, the use of a pressure cooker can be employed, but the emulsification of the fat, calcium, etc., may not be as great as if it were boiled. Sous vide is a method that can be employed for some of the clearer ramen broths. Otherwise, a long, fierce boil is the way to go. Like, 20 hours long. Some authentic broths can be prepared in less time, and the variations of ramen broth are vast. Soy, Miso, Seafood (think a saltier, umami-rich dashi), and Vegetarian are a few other styles that can be found at ramen establishments.

Customization Confusion

Customization is the factor that makes ramen so attractive to many Millennials amongst other demographics. Someone who did not grow up eating authentic Japanese cuisine may not know exactly what all of the ingredients are in ramen, making an authentic establishment unapproachable. “What if the order gets mixed up?” “Is there a vegetarian broth?” “What is this stuff sprinkled on top?” “How do I eat this?” The importance of educating customers while giving an authentic experience is critical for a traditional ramen offering to be successful. There is only a certain portion of the population that will blindly order something and hope they enjoy it. The daredevils amongst self-proclaimed foodies may even raise an eyebrow at the often dizzying variety of ramen variations. The broth, the noodles, the proteins, and the various other toppings are simultaneously confusing and exciting for some guests. Putting forth the effort to educate guests on these options alone will make ramen more approachable and the experience more desirable for potential guests.

Underbelly's Ajitama  | Yelp, Fia R.

Underbelly's Ajitama | Yelp, Fia R.

Millennials want options and customization. Soft-boiled egg? Hard-boiled egg? Sous vide 62-degree egg? Just the yolk? Is the egg in the broth? Is there a fried egg on top? You can see where the options become out of hand quickly. Factor in the other important components to satisfying ramen meal and the font size suddenly needs to be seven points in order to list the options.

Consider the proteins; what meat is being used? Is it cooked in the broth? Sous vide? Grilled and added to the bowl? The possibilities and combinations are endless. Again, too MANY options and the menu becomes confusing again. An example of a manageable amount of options for a straightforward yet redefined ramen joint can be found at Consortium Holdings’ “tribute to a traditional ramen house,” Underbelly in San Diego. Five bowls, fifteen additions.

The Business Side of Ramen

Evidence of ramen popularity can be seen all over social media, and much like sushi, is being adorned with ingredients true to Japanese taste profiles and some that are completely American. The creativity doesn’t stop there. Ramen noodles themselves, with that addictive alkaline flavor, are being griddled and used as the bun at places like San Diego’s RakiRaki for the California Ramen Burger.

Ramen bowls look amazing on social media with steam, contrasting colors, and textures. The variety of ingredients that adorn the already comforting images of noodle soup only make it more desirable and intriguing. Over two million posts on Instagram with the hashtag #ramen showing different but delicious looking versions demonstrate the point that people are eating it and sharing. To compare, #burrito yields just over 738k. Clearly ramen can help market itself.

Good thing, because time will be spent in putting together and managing the broth! Developing a signature broth is no easy feat when the cook time is nearly a day. Large pots of bones and broth take up precious space in the kitchen, so managing the logistics of running a ramen shop is key. Makes sense to boil the broth all night, but then labor becomes a concern. Depending on the footprint of the kitchen, boiling the bones during service may not be an option since the burners will potentially need to be used for a variety of other things.

Combi ovens can be an option for safe, efficient, all-night cooking, but are costly upfront. Definitely a way to scale up, however, and when the broth is not cooking, they can provide a wealth of higher-end proteins to mix and match with ramen bowls. That feature also affords a potential ramen fast-casual concept to offer a range in quality; an inexpensive chashu pork shoulder can be offered in a tonkatsu ramen, but can easily be subbed for a more expensive, locally sourced braised pork belly. Both delicious, but different price points and a different customer experience for sure. The customer experience piece is what makes ramen fast-casual concepts a prime candidate to be more popular than they already are.