The conundrum

Imagine a ramen shop with 10 seats that sells 100 bowls a day. 100 bowls of ramen equates to roughly 35 liters (9.2 gallons) of soup. To make and yield this amount of soup we would need one stock pot burner range and one 80L (21.1 gal) stock pot. For simplicity, we will be making chintan and our recipe takes a total of 8 hours from start to finish. Of course, there is much more prep involved than just soup but for now let’s not worry about it.

Your shop opens at 11am but you start prepping your soup for tomorrow at 8am. (Today’s soup was prepped yesterday.) Let’s say your shop closes at 5pm so you have 6 hours to sell 100 bowls at an average of 15 bowls an hour (1.5 turns in your 10 seat shop). It doesn’t seem like a lot but now imagine you are doing this all by yourself without any help. The soup will finish around 4pm and the last hour of business will allow for cooling. At 6pm you are done cleaning up the shop and an extra hour would be for finishing up any miscellaneous prep required for the next day and/or admin work. You just worked an 11-hour day. And it wasn’t easy.

Without getting too much into the numbers ($), if this same size setup was put into a food hall where (including take out orders) there could be an infinite number of seats, how do you scale the business? Let’s say you now sell 500 bowls a day. Sure you can buy a bigger pot, but with the same equipment setup you are limited to making only double the amount you started with. You can also make 2 batches in one day, but that means you’ll be working more than 16 hours. And what if on a holiday you get a spike in business and somehow sell 1000 bowls? Do you hire a team to work all night long until morning to keep up? Or do you just buy some concentrated soup base and get a good nights rest?

In a big city where it is considered restaurant death when having to close early for running out of food, these shortcuts are often the only way to cope. In itself, it is not necessarily a bad thing if you still care about the food and maintain most of your intended integrity. But where it gets shady is when the customer doesn’t care too much about quality as much as they do status. If owners can get away with selling a lesser product at a cheaper overall cost without losing customers, they will most definitely do it.

So back to my point. The “golden age of ramen” in Japan led to many shops expanding and franchising and becoming more “manufactured” in the process. Tenka-Ippin is one example. Although these franchised shops would never be as good as the original, they came up with a system to consistently keep the same recognizable taste that customers grew to love. Ippudo and Ichiran are some more examples. The Japanese really became great at solving the issue of scalability, which in turn blew up the ramen scene even more. Nowadays, even the most popular shops in Tokyo will take these “manufactured secrets” and enhance what seems to be the next trend in the never-ending ramen boom.

For America, which is usually about a decade behind when Japanese trends cross over the Pacific Ocean, I feel like the “golden age of ramen” may never happen. Instead, these companies that have obtained huge success in Japan have already started to plant the seeds of manufactured growth. America is the best business model for it. It’s like injecting steroids into the ramen industry when it hasn’t even had a chance to grow and fully mature. Maybe nothing will happen. Maybe this will prevent the ramen industry from ever reaching it’s full potential. I don’t know. But somehow, someway, something inside of me feels unsettled.

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