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Sizzle or fizzle? Yet another Japanese ramen chain bets on Big Apple

People lined up for Ichiran's debut in New York Wednesday.

NEW YORK -- Ramen shops are ubiquitous in New York -- some say the market is already saturated --  but this has not kept new players from trying their luck, the latest of which is Ichiran from Fukuoka, a southern Japanese city known for the noodle.

Hundreds of people lined up for the Japanese ramen chain's debut in New York Wednesday.

"I didn't think there was going to be that many people. I thought it'd be like, maybe 10 people, but I was pretty surprised how long the line was," said Hanson Nguyen, 23, who arrived at the restaurant at 10:30 in the morning hoping to get a quick bite before a returning flight to California.

Two hours later and with only two hours left before boarding time, Nguyen was able to say the trip out to Bushwick in Brooklyn -- where Ichiran's new U.S. flagship restaurant and factory are located -- was worth it. "I've tried a lot of ramen places before and I think this would have to be one of the top ramens that I've ever tried. It's really flavorful, really rich, and the meat quality is really delicious." 

Capitalizing on the ramen boom

Ramen has come a long way since it first entered the American consciousness as snack food -- a five-minute cup of noodles beloved by the time-pressed and the cash-strapped. Thanks to trend-setting New York noodle joints like Momofuku Noodle Bar and Ippudo, the so-called ramen boom took off within the past decade, making a Japanese fast food staple into the next big thing.

Despite its humble fast-food origins, the ramen being served at New York restaurants often goes for double the price of a bowl in Tokyo, where a bowl of the noodles rarely exceeds 1,000 yen ($9.60).

At Ichiran in Brooklyn, one bowl of the slurpable stuff will set customers back $18.90. The price hike -- up from 790 yen at Ichiran stores in Japan -- is meant to take into account the cost of labor since the restaurant does not require tipping. Even so, a number of customers were disappointed when the bill came around.

At the Ichiran shop, booths meant to let solo diners focus solely on the food are flanked by partitions.

"The food was good, but not worth the price," one customer lamented, pointing out that with only a few extra add-ons, including a $4 bowl of white rice, the cost of a meal for two reached $70. "The staff were very polite, but slightly overly polite," she said, adding, "It was a little bit overbearing."

To emulate the Japanese experience, staff are trained to say a number of Japanese phrases when interacting with customers. The shop's interior design and architecture also reflects the original restaurants in Japan.

Hana Isoda, spokesperson for Ichiran's New York operation, noted that special care was taken to preserve the quality of the dining experience. Two key components -- Ichiran's broth and special spicy red sauce -- are imported directly from Japan.

Authenticity is key for Ichiran, and according to Isoda, "this is what makes us stand out compared to any other ramen restaurant." By bringing in key specialists directly from Japan and securing long-term work visas for them, the company is heavily invested in ensuring that Ichiran's signature tonkotsu, or pork broth, ramen is as close to the original as possible.

A major feature of that authentic experience is the "Aji Shuchu," or Flavor Concentration booths. A concept directly adapted from Ichiran restaurants in Japan, these seats, flanked by partitions and equipped with a privacy curtain and call button, are meant for solo diners to block out distractions and focus solely on the food.

Frequent ramen-goer Robert Sietsema, 65, described the experience as "very strange," and "mildly embarrassing," after trying the booths.

"It suggests that people are afraid to interact with serving staff. It's funny that they're segregated," he said. For Sietsema, the 20 minutes it took to actually eat a "perfectly okay" bowl of ramen, an extra side of pork belly with a drink and dessert was not quite enough to recoup a $63 tab and two-hour wait.

"I don't really understand quite what all the fuss is about, other than that New Yorkers want to try every new thing," he said.

Make-or-break New York

Bogged down by regulations and logistical challenges, Ichiran struggled to open in New York for 10 years, abandoning an earlier plan to debut in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.

Ultimately the company, well-established in Japan and endowed with the funding and brand value to persist in its endeavor for so long, was able to succeed in setting up shop, but has now joined the competitive ranks of the hundreds of restaurants in New York serving ramen.

In the noodle-saturated market, each new opening has to offer something unique to its customers in order to stay afloat, and even a restaurant with Ichiran's reputation is not guaranteed to succeed.

Taking advantage of the popularity of the Japan brand, Japanese chains with global ambitions have set authenticity at the very heart of their branding campaigns. Ichiran's decision to carry over so much of the dining experience from its Japan-based counterparts stands out from other such Japanese chains in New York, like Gyu-Kaku and Ootoya, where slight menu changes have been made to appeal to local tastes.

TsuruTonTan, the upscale udon noodle restaurant from Osaka, also recently debuted its first international branch in New York, amending its name to "TsuruTonTan Udon Noodle Brasserie," and rebranding many of its menu items to cater to an American audience.

Even for the noodle brasserie, however, staying true to its authentic Japanese roots is a major factor in its operational decisions, with both the salt and flour used in noodle-making directly imported from Japan.

TsuruTonTan Udon Noodle Brasserie, an upscale udon noodle restaurant, recently opened in Manhattan.

For Japanese chain businesses, the "if you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere" image of New York continues to drive ambitions, and a successful New York venture is considered the first steppingstone for further global expansion, says Joji Uematsu, vice president of Dining Innovation, the company operating TsuruTonTan.

Much like Ichiran, the grand opening of TsuruTonTan in Manhattan in late August this year was met with two-hour waits. As one of only a few udon specialty restaurants in New York -- versus the hundreds of ramen shops -- TsuruTonTan is hoping to set up more stores in New York, and eventually has its sights set on other global cities.

Ramen bubble?

No other restaurant has been more acknowledged to be behind ramen's rapid ascent in New York than Ippudo, which opened in 2008 to rave reviews -- sparking a chain reaction of like-minded Japanese businesses hoping to capitalize on the New York market as an entry point into the rest of the U.S.

"Ippudo really started the New York ramen scene," says Masaru Takaku, the president of upcoming ramen consulting service Brooklyn Ramen and co-founder of Ichicoro in Tampa, Florida. "There were already restaurants like Minka and Rai Rai Ken, but nobody cared. What Ippudo did was completely change the way ramen was presented, a full 180-degree change."

According to Takaku, however, the ramen boom in New York has already passed its peak, and it would be difficult for smaller shops without the resources and reputation of Ichiran to make a name for themselves in New York or Los Angeles now.

Not unlike Ippudo or Ichiran, Ichicoro also aspired to gain some attention in the Big Apple before moving on elsewhere -- becoming the first featured guest at Ramen Lab, a restaurant that opened in New York last year that sponsors a revolving cast of chefs.

Ichicoro's second location is set to open in Alabama, where the ramen boom has yet to reach.

Whether the bubble is ready to burst or not, it may be too soon to say as there appears to be no shortage of demand for a hot bowl of noodles in New York.

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