Ramen has spread to major cities across the U.S., mostly in mom-and-pop restaurants. But a Los Angeles operator is growing his concept as a fully franchised, national brand.
Tomonori Takahashi founded Jinya Ramen Bar in 2010, in the Studio City neighborhood of Los Angeles. The chain now has 12 franchised restaurants in California, Texas, Washington, Chicago and Las Vegas, as well as Canada.
Before the end of the year, 10 Jinya restaurants are expected to open in markets including Houston and Austin, Texas; Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; Salt Lake City; San Jose, Calif.; and Vancouver.
Takahashi, speaking through a Japanese translator, said he also plans to multiply an express version of the concept. The chain includes one fast-casual variation in Hollywood called Jinya Ramen Express that serves customizable ramen bowls.
The core Jinya brand is full service, and is known for its signature black tonkotsu bowl with pork, fried onion and garlic oil. The menu also includes other versions of the dish, including a spicy, creamy, vegan ramen with a vegetable broth, tofu, chili oil and thicker noodles.
As is traditional, Jinya’s “secret recipe” broth is simmered for 10 hours and made in restaurants. Noodles, available in both thick and thin versions, are a private brand made for the chain and shipped to restaurants where they are cooked.
Takahashi said the flavors are authentic, although he has Americanized the concept somewhat.
“Ramen in Japan is supposed to be really cheap, and it’s not a fancy restaurant. It can be kind of dirty. I want to make ramen hip and trendy,” he said. “We provide a really nice atmosphere and great service, and we care about the image of the ramen restaurant.”
The menu at Jinya goes beyond simply ramen and noodles. Takahashi has added tapas-style dishes, as well as craft beers and sake.
At the original Studio City location, for example, the menu includes pork gyoza and California rolls, as well as Tokyo curry rice.
But the stars of the show are the ramen dishes, onto which customers are invited to choose toppings ranging from butter or nori (dried seaweed), to spicy ground chicken or a poached egg.
Takahashi noted that cities like Los Angeles are chock full of ramen spots, but moving into markets like Texas has brought the dish to new audiences.
“People know of it, but they haven’t tried it,” he said. The company is focusing on “creating a unique menu to introduce ramen really well to get people to try it.”
Takahashi said Jinya restaurants are averaging about $2.5 million in sales, with some reaching $4 million in annual sales. Units are typically 2,000 square feet to 4,000 square feet, he said.
The son of a restaurateur, Takahashi is also a restaurant operator in Japan. His first restaurant, Sabakuro Ebisu, opened in 2000, in Tokyo, and he has several izakaya, or pub-style, restaurants there. He often travels between the U.S. and Japan.
Americans, he contends, are ready for ramen.
“It’s an exciting time for ramen lovers,” he said.