Ramen is one of Japan’s most basic meals, and in the United States it is widely known as a quick and cheap dish perfect for a college student between classes. Yet a Burbank-based company has enhanced this humble meal and created a ramen chain that has grown so much it just opened its 50th restaurant.
How did it do it?
Jinya Ramen Bar’s founder and chief executive, Tomo Takahashi, said it happened because the company strives to elevate ramen beyond just a fast, hot and inexpensive meal. For example, its broth is simmered for 20 hours, Takahashi said, speaking through an interpreter. The chain even imports its serving bowls from Japan “in order to make our ramen special,” Takahashi said. The red and black bowls match the restaurants’ colors.
Another strategy the company uses is to select locations carefully. Takahashi likes to be close to mixed-use developments featuring residential, office and retail so that the brand can attract workers and shoppers for weekday lunches, plus residential neighbors.
In fact, Jinya Ramen Bar opened that 50th location, in Long Beach, in just such a setting.
“It is in a mall that was developed recently, and in the surrounding area there are restaurants, condos and offices,” Takahashi said.
In the Valley, Jinya Ramen Bar locations are in Burbank and Studio City.
Takahashi’s company, Jinya Holdings Inc., owns six brands with locations across the country, from Hawaii to Washington, D.C., and everywhere in between.
The new Long Beach location, like many of the Jinya Ramen Bar restaurants, is franchised. Jinya was No. 6 on the San Fernando Valley Business Journal’s top franchisers (ranked by the number of franchised units) list, which was published in January.
Franchisees pay $45,000 as the initial fee and generally invest between $1 million and $2 million, depending on the size of the restaurant, Takahashi said.
The royalty taken by the company is 5% of sales, he added.
In addition to Jinya Ramen Bar, Takahashi owns Robata Jinya, with locations on Third Street near The Grove and in Honolulu, with a third to open soon in Hollywood; LBD Japanese Bar and Lounge, with a single location in Honolulu; Saijo, a handroll and skewered-meat restaurant that will open a location in Houston this year; Bushi by Jinya, with locations in Glendora and Rancho Cucamonga, which opened in January; and Shirogane, a Japanese-style bakery for which the company is seeking locations.
Takahashi’s growth plans for the brands are ambitious but steady.
He said the idea for Jinya Ramen Bar was to have 100 locations in the next two to three years, while with Saijo it is to open in Houston and then expand to Washington, D.C., and Vancouver.
Bushi by Jinya is looking to grow as well.
“We are trying to expand locations, for example such as an airport, and we are in discussions to find those locations,” Takahashi said.
But not all Jinya restaurants are franchise operations.
There are six corporate-owned locations, including the Jinya Ramen Bar in Studio City; Robata Jinya on Third Street in the Beverly Grove neighborhood of Los Angeles; Bushi by Jinya Glendora; and the three locations in Honolulu of Jinya Ramen Bar, Robata Jinya, and LBD.
With two more corporate locations coming online this year — Robata Jinya in Hollywood and a Jinya Ramen Bar in Topanga — that number will increase to eight.
Takahashi also owns two restaurants in Japan – Robata Jinya and Setouchi Suigun, both in Tokyo.
It was while growing up in the Asian country that Takahashi learned to appreciate the food his father made at their family-owned restaurant. He also learned to appreciate “the philosophy of kaizen – the Japanese practice of continuous improvement and the bedrock of hospitality,” according to the company’s website.
After a number of years learning about the restaurant industry, Takahashi opened his first eatery in 2000, in central Tokyo. He would go on to open seven more in Japan, all featuring different kinds of food. In 2010, he came to California and opened his first Robata Jinya restaurant.
“Playing to the traditional robatayaki service of slow charcoal-grilled skewered meats and vegetables served on large wooden paddles, or shamoji, (Takahashi) aims to provide a lively space where the sharing of small plates, as well as conversation, is encouraged,” the brand’s website said.
Also contributing to the ability to share and converse are the outdoor patios and the fire pits, which are found at about 20% to 30% of the Jinya Ramen Bar locations.
“The customers can surround the fire pit and enjoy our food, which helps make the Jinya Ramen Bar brand so popular,” Takahashi said.