Marugame Seimen vs. Hanamaru Udon: The Full of Firmness! Summit Battle | FRIDAY DIGITAL

Marugame Seimen vs. Hanamaru Udon: The Full of Firmness! Summit Battle

The key to victory is either branding power or respect for Sanuki, the home of udon noodles.

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The one appearing in Marugame Seimen’s commercials is Ueto Aya (38). She also participated in last month’s “Noodle Artisan All Store Placement Commemorative Event”.

“The kettle-cooked udon will be ready shortly!”

The lively voice echoes through the Marugame Seimen Kanda Ogawamachi store. At the end of March, a special business operation called the “Noodle Artisan All Store Placement Commemorative Event” took place at this store located in Tokyo. Food journalist Junnosuke Nagahama, who visited the store with reporters, speaks.

“At Marugame Seimen, udon is made from scratch at all their stores. This event celebrates the birth of ‘noodle artisans’ who passed the rigorous noodle-making test, known to have a passing rate of only 30%, and have been placed in all 838 stores nationwide. The staff of 12 today are all selected noodle artisans.”

Indeed, the ones kneading the noodles, boiling them, frying tempura, and operating the cash register are all wearing navy blue uniforms—these are the noodle artisans. The menu for the day consists of only three items: kettle-cooked udon, cold soy sauce udon, and hot plain udon set as “Three Kinds of Udon Tasting” (500 yen). With simple seasoning, each dish allows you to fully enjoy the fresh texture and aroma of the udon. While slurping the soy sauce udon contentedly, Mr. Nagahama continues.

“Toridoll, which operates Marugame Seimen, originally opened as a yakitori restaurant in Kakogawa City, Hyogo Prefecture, in 1985. It wasn’t a Kagawa-based company, nor was it exclusively dedicated to udon or noodle-making. However, the founder, Taku Arata (62), had a significant experience. It was the astonishing deliciousness of freshly made udon he tasted at a small, inconspicuous shop in Marugame City, Kagawa Prefecture, which was his father’s hometown. Based on this experience, he created an udon chain with the concept of ‘having customers eat handmade noodles on the spot.'”

At that time, there were no large chain stores in the udon industry. Arata aimed to spread that original experience nationwide. So, in November 2000, the first store, “Marugame Seimen Kakogawa Store,” was opened, marking their entry into the udon industry. Subsequently, they expanded their presence with roadside stores in suburban areas, food courts in shopping malls, and building-based stores in urban centers. In 2004, due to the avian influenza outbreak, Toridoll’s main business transitioned completely from yakitori to udon.

“Marugame Seimen emerged as the top in terms of store numbers in 2009 and continued to lead the industry. However, in the latter half of 2017, sales at existing stores began to decline, and the number of customers started to decrease, repeatedly falling below the previous year’s figures. Similar businesses proliferated, intensifying competition. Although Arata sought a breakthrough, there were limits. So, he enlisted the help of genius marketer Takeshi Morioka (51), who had gained fame for his role in the reconstruction of Universal Studios Japan,” (ibid.).

The marketing group “Katana,” led by Morioka, focused on Arata’s original experience of freshly made udon. They revamped the layout from the previous one, which emphasized the behind-the-scenes noodle-making efforts that customers couldn’t see.

Upon entering the store, customers would immediately see the noodle-making machine and the large pot boiling noodles, creating a sense of udon is alive. This strategy paid off, and just four months after Katana took over marketing, customer numbers recorded a positive growth compared to the same month of the previous year.

The founder’s passion and outstanding marketing prowess combined, Marugame Seimen now firmly holds its position as the overwhelming champion in the industry.

Chasing after this champion is Hanamaru Udon, powered by an extraordinary respect for the authentic Sanuki udon. Founded in 2000, the same year as Marugame Seimen, this once industry-leading company’s inception coincides curiously. Mitsuhiko Suda, a food and beverage industry producer who was involved in designing Hanamaru Udon, explains.

“While Marugame Seimen originated from Hyogo, Hanamaru Udon began in Kagawa Prefecture. In Kagawa, the founder, Hideto Maeda, aimed to spread the standard format of self-service udon restaurants nationwide. In the third year since its founding, with only a few stores in western Japan, we suddenly opened a store right in the heart of Tokyo, on Shibuya Park Street. This bold move turned out to be a big success. At that time, there were few authentic Sanuki udon restaurants in Tokyo, and the sensational nature of self-service added to its popularity. At that time, monthly revenue was around 20 to 30 million yen. Encouraged by this success, we began franchising in the Kanto region.”

The Kanda Ogawamachi branch during the special opening at the beginning of the article. The noodle craftsmen’s handiwork was more refined than that of the regular staff.
In contrast to Hanamaru Udon, which has not been successful in its overseas expansion, Marugame Seimen has 264 stores outside of Japan. Spreading Japanese udon throughout the world

Hanamaru’s Miscalculation

However, Hanamaru Udon struggled with this franchise expansion. The rapid expansion outpaced the development of operations.

“In recent years, we saw the rapid expansion and subsequent failure of Ikinari Steak, and Hanamaru Udon faced a similar situation in the past. Insufficient training led to delays in serving, lax temperature control, and numerous complaints. With conditions like these, the company faced a crisis to the point of collapse. Maeda sold his stake to the Yoshinoya Group, a gyudon (beef bowl) chain, and chose to become a wholly-owned subsidiary in 2012,” (ibid.).

Another reason for Hanamaru Udon’s decline was their insistence on “Sanuki Udon.” As mentioned earlier, Marugame Seimen didn’t originate from Marugame City, Kagawa Prefecture, and its seasoning differed from Sanuki Udon, often drawing negative attention from authentic Kagawa residents. However, Hanamaru Udon remained committed to the authentic taste.

“The definition of Sanuki Udon is ‘udon made in Sanuki (Kagawa Prefecture).’ Therefore, Hanamaru Udon was shipping noodles made in Kagawa to their Kanto stores. However, due to the long journey, the noodles, which should have had a chewy and springy texture, often dried out and deteriorated. This resulted in a far cry from the true taste of Sanuki Udon, unable to guarantee satisfactory quality for customers. When I was involved in designing Hanamaru Udon in the past, an employee told me, ‘Our essence is to make it in Kagawa.’ That’s how strong the respect for the authentic region is,” (ibid.).

Since joining Yoshinoya, Hanamaru Udon has expanded its noodle production bases to five locations nationwide, aiming to improve the quality of its noodles. However, they haven’t been able to shake off the image that Marugame Seimen has higher-quality noodles, putting them at a significant disadvantage. In an effort to break through, they’ve collaborated with popular content such as “Precure,” “Pokemon,” and “Shin Kamen Rider” in recent years, but the effectiveness remains unclear. In the face of numerous challenges, is there a point where Hanamaru Udon can outshine Marugame Seimen? B-class gourmet explorer Kyubei Yagyu shares his thoughts.

“Marugame’s broth is sweet with a strong soy sauce flavor, whereas Hanamaru highlights the natural taste of the broth, which suits my preference. Additionally, many of their stores allow customers to pour their own broth, and it’s delightful to be able to top the fried bits separately from the tempura. I believe there are many Hanamaru fans like me who appreciate the abundant toppings and high degree of freedom for customization,” (ibid.).

Is it marketing prowess or authentic taste? In the inflationary era of 2024, the summit battle of udon chains seems to be a more substantial struggle than we might have imagined.

Hanamaru Udon has been trying to open new stores overseas but has been unable to make a go of it and has had to pull out of the market. We are hoping for a turnaround.

From the April 26, 2024 issue of FRIDAY

  • PHOTO AFLO (Hanamaru stores)

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