The Ultimate Bowl: Tenkaippin, Ichiran, and Ippudo in the Rich Ramen Three Kingdoms | FRIDAY DIGITAL

The Ultimate Bowl: Tenkaippin, Ichiran, and Ippudo in the Rich Ramen Three Kingdoms

The three national chains with "ichibu" in their name have three different ways of fighting: the largest number of stores in Japan with "one and only soup," a secret sauce and a "private room counter," and overseas expansion with the hit "soft tonkotsu" (pork bone).

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Three companies are competing with each other. Let’s take a closer look at the latest situation.

I’m happy to drink all the rooibos tea I can drink while eating tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen.

Ippudo Lumine Tachikawa is located on the 8th floor of Lumine Tachikawa, adjacent to JR Tachikawa Station (Tokyo). The stylish black-based store is crowded with female customers and jazz music is playing in the background. If it were not for the sign bearing a large logo, it would look like a café.

A large monitor near the kitchen shows the business scenes of restaurants in New York, London, and other cities around the world. Food journalist Junnosuke Nagahama speaks while operating a touch panel on the table.

I can drink a lot of rooibos tea, which is rich in polyphenols, so I don’t feel like I can offset some of the calories in tonkotsu ramen (laughs). The stylish décor and background music, the creamy, odorless soup, and the attentive customer service have made the restaurant a hit not only with female customers, but with people from overseas as well.”

At the store in New York, a waiting bar is provided, and it is common for customers to enjoy drinks until a seat becomes available, then eat an appetizer and main course of ramen, and finish with dessert. Overseas, Ippudo is an upscale restaurant where the price per customer is sometimes close to 10,000 yen per person.

How has Ippudo changed the image of tonkotsu ramen, which was once considered a “greasy, fatty, peculiar, old man’s food?

The founder, Shigemi Kawahara, 71, originally ran a restaurant bar in Tenjin, Hakata. Mr. Kawahara asked female customers there, ‘Why don’t you eat tonkotsu ramen? The women replied, ‘Because Hakata ramen restaurants are dirty, smelly, and scary. Kawahara then set out to develop a “soft tonkotsu ramen” that would be as odorless as possible, with special attention to background music and décor. The catchy product names, such as ‘Akamaru’ and ‘Shiro-Maru,’ also made it easier to gain the support of female customers,” said restaurant producer Mitsuhiko Suda.

Ippudo was founded in 1985, but a turning point came in 1994. It opened a store at the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum as one of the most famous stores in the country. In 1997, Ippudo won the “TV Champion Ramen Chef Championship” (TV Tokyo). His name became famous throughout Japan. However, Mr. Kawahara did not rest on his laurels. He was determined to take on the next challenge.

In 2003, he established a joint venture with the Shanghai-based Xiaonanguo Group. The following year, in 2004, we opened ’78 Ichiban Ramen. Mr. Kawahara put in so much effort that he moved to Shanghai with his family, but not only was he unable to name the restaurant ‘Ippudo,’ but he also lost the management rights and ramen-making know-how to Konangoku. Ippudo’s official website states that “Ippudo opened its first overseas branch in New York in ’08,” but in fact, Ippudo had made a painful mistake five years before that. It was because of this experience that Ippudo was able to successfully expand overseas smoothly, including the U.S. in ’08, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and the U.K. in ’14, and France in ’16”.

Ippudo is currently expanding its stores in Asia in partnership with Maxim, the largest restaurant company in Hong Kong. The number of Ippudo stores overseas has grown to 142. This is the highest among Japanese ramen chains.

While Ippudo has expanded its presence by targeting women and foreign customers, Tenka Ippin, which originated in Kyoto, has 219 stores in Japan alone, thanks to the overwhelming strength of its products.

The company was founded in 1971 by Tsutomu Kimura, 88, the current chairman. The reason for this was the bankruptcy of the company I was working for. I had 37,000 yen in my pocket at the time. He had a friend who was a sheet metal worker assemble a food cart from scrap wood he had found. After starting with soy sauce ramen, he began to develop his own original soup, aiming for a “taste that makes you want to eat it again. He created Tenka Ippin’s eponymous “kottori” soup, which combines the same chicken stock and vegetables as today’s ramen,” said economic journalist Takai Naoyuki.

Ippudo has also opened a branch in Harajuku’s new Harakado commercial complex. Ippudo’s popularity among women and inbound customers has made it possible to open new stores.

Tenka Ippin with a focus on efficiency, Ichiran with a focus on efficiency

However, Tenka Ippin’s road to nationwide expansion was a difficult one. Even in 2000, some 30 years after its establishment, there were only two or three Tenka Ippin restaurants in Tokyo. However, a tailwind was blowing for Tenka Ippin.

In the 2000s, consumers began to demand thick tsukemen (thick tsukemen) such as Rokurinsha, followed by the rise of ike-kei and jiro-kei styles of noodles. Against this backdrop, Tenichi’s “kottori,” which is neither tonkotsu-style nor back fat-style, attracted attention as a one-of-a-kind product. Although the soup is so thick that the lenggae stands on end, the true substance of the sludge is collagen from chicken bones, and it does not upset the stomach. It can be enjoyed for a long time by everyone from the young to the middle-aged. Unlike Ippudo, which is a marketing slick and dexterous company, Tenka Ippin, with its “kottori” (thick soup) and the support of enthusiasts, is not pandering to anyone and is moving forward in a foolish manner,” said ramen researcher Hayato Ishiyama.

Tenka Ippin, which has made ramen fans addicted to its one-of-a-kind soup, is moving slowly but strongly.

Ippudo and Tenka Ippin, both with over 200 outlets, have rivals that are far ahead of them in annual sales. Ippudo’s sales last year were up 26% from the previous year, while Tenka Ippin’s sales were down 26%. While Ippudo’s sales last year were 26.1 billion yen and Tenka Ippin’s 11.5 billion yen, Ichiran’s sales were a whopping 35.5 billion yen. The sales per store are simply calculated to be about 413 million yen. This is an overwhelming figure, even with sales of cup noodles, ramen sticks, and other merchandising. What is the reason for this strong performance?

The “Natural Tonkotsu Ramen,” in which the “red secret sauce,” made by mixing and aging more than 30 different ingredients based on chili peppers, floats in the center of the soup, costs 980 yen per bowl. The “ICHIRAN 5 selections” with toppings are priced at 1,620 yen, and a doubledama is 210 yen, which is more expensive than at most chain restaurants. By focusing only on ramen, both the cost of cooking and the time spent at the restaurant can be reduced. In addition, customers sit at a “private room counter” with a partition called a “taste-concentration counter,” so even if they come with friends, they cannot waste time talking after eating,” says Takero Kanda, a ramen researcher who makes his own ramen.

It is true that the customer turnover rate must be high. However, if the side menu is poor and the conversation during the meal is not enjoyable, it is likely that customers would normally stay away. ……

Ichiran’s presentation is positive. The menu says ‘natural tonkotsu (pork bone),’ but no restaurant uses wild pigs (laughs).
By claiming that it is natural and that they don’t use instant tonkotsu extract, they can make people think, ‘Something different. Saying ‘single ramen’ instead of ‘no sides’ will make people feel that you are committed.
The style of writing on the order form makes it easy for shy young people and inbound customers with limited language skills to place their orders. With the hardware in place to generate high profits, the positive presentation that sublimates this into a commitment has enabled management with little waste.

Looking at sales alone, Ichiran has the upper hand, but each of the three has its own strengths. Is the opponent domestic, global, ramen mania, or youth? The three kingdoms of the ramen industry will not end easily.

Ichiran’s “Taste Concentration Counter. A water dispenser is often provided on the table. The average length of stay for a customer is about 20 minutes.

From the May 24, 2024 issue of FRIDAY

  • PHOTO AFLO Jiji Press

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