Ramen isn’t a religion. But for “Zen” Yoshida, it’s the next best thing.
Zen Yoshida, 36, is the owner of Fujiya Ramen, a Japanese noodle shop that opened recently in Montclair, a bustling commuter town about an hour’s drive from New York City in the suburban checkerboard of northern New Jersey.
There are plenty of Asian noodle eateries in this corner of the US. But Tokyo-born Yoshida’s doing everything to pull away from the pack. And for him, the art of making Ramen is serious business.
His triumphs and travails in the month since Fujiya Ramen’s launch offers a microcosm of what new entrants face in the US’ fiercely competitive Asian restaurant business. If Yoshida succeeds in Montclair, he hopes it will provide the kernel of a ramen franchise that spreads to other parts of the US.
Ramen is “soul food”
Ramen has a long history in Asian culture. It was created by the Chinese centuries ago as a quick, inexpensive food for the masses. Versions spread to Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. It became a staple in Japan in the lean years immediately after WWII when thousands would queue in bombed-out cities like Tokyo and Osaka for a nutritious bowl of noodles.
The invention of instant ramen, the ancestor of today’s Cup Noodles in US supermarkets, dates from this Japan post-war period. Instant ramen was invented by Momofuku Ando, the Taiwanese-Japanese businessman who founded multinational Nissin Foods.
“Ramen is Japanese soul food,” Yoshida told Asia Times in an interview in his modestly decorated but busy restaurant on Bloomfield Ave. His Japanese chefs churn out steaming bowls of pork broth-based (Tonkotsu) ramen. Their Tonkotsu broth-based Spicy Miso Ramen, Chashu Ramen, and Shoyu Ramen are already popular among patrons from NJ and NY.
Fried karaage chicken nuggets, beef bowls and chicken curry also are on the menu. And they’re giving away edamame and takoyaki broiled octopus balls as free appetizers to whet customer pallets.
Low-key though it may be, the key point about Yoshida’s eatery is that the dishes are surprisingly authentic in a market where Asian food is typically over-salted and loaded with sugar and flavor enhancers.
Case in point, Fujiya doesn’t use monosodium glutamate (aka MSG), a taste-bud driver that makes some diners thirsty and gives others headaches.
Fujiya’s head chef, Junichiro Hioki, puts his full faith in the restaurant’s Tonkotsu pork broth. He notes it’s made from premium Berkshire pork. The secret lies in cooking it for hours until it acquires a deep, milky, rich taste they call “koku.” Koku is what Japanese call a complex harmony or balance achieved by the right amount of “sweetness, umami, bitterness, saltiness, and acidity” in cooking.
“It’s also low-fat,” says Hioki. Traditional Tonkotsu ramen tends to be fatty because it uses pork belly. But at Fujiya Ramen, they wanted to make the “simpler, low-fat ramen that’s also deep in taste and flavor.” So their Tonkotsu broth is low-fat, healthier and yet rich, making you sip to the bottom of the bowl.
“We want people outside Japan to have the true taste of Japanese ramen,” Hioki told Asia Times. “We want to make people happy when they eat our ramen,” added Yoshida.
In college, Zen’s father, Minoru Yoshida, was fascinated by franchise business models and became a ramen entrepreneur after graduating from Waseda, one of Japan’s elite universities. Minoru launched the first Fujiya ramen restaurant with his wife, Mieko, in Tokyo back in 1978. Two years later, their son was born. They named him “Zen” because they thought it would be a catchy, easy-to-remember name outside Japan.
The mom-and-pop noodle shop soon grew into a franchise with restaurants in Japan. Minoru looked beyond Japan for business opportunities: in the Philippines and Taiwan. Years later, his mother came up with the game-changing idea of building a “central kitchen” for the business. It eventually became a factory that produced Fujiya Ramen’s original noodles. Zen recalls “that was a turning point in our lives.” The Yoshidas lived in the upper floor of the factory. The ramen business became closely intertwined with their lives. Today, they supply Fujiya Ramen noodles to all their franchises in Tokyo.
Like his father, Zen Yoshida isn’t your typical Japanese business owner. He’s an adventurous, outward-looking entrepreneur with global ambitions. He wants to expand his ramen franchise which already boasts 30 stores in Japan, to the US and Asia. He learned Chinese in college, backpacked in Asian countries such as India and Nepal, and worked in Fujiya’s Taiwan ramen shop.
Yoshida studied law at Tokyo’s prestigious Aoyama University and chose to take over the family business soon after graduation. His father died earlier this year, but like his father, Yoshida looks beyond Japan. His father gave his blessings when younger Yoshida decided to open a ramen shop in the US. The head chef from the Taiwan shop, Hioki, joined him. He was also accompanied by 25-year-old Hiroaki Sagisaka, a Tokyo college grad looking for a chance to work abroad and get business experiences.
“It was fate,” said Hiroaki, who is excited about helping Yoshida start the brand new ramen business in the US.
Why did they choose a town in New Jersey and not New York for their first US foray? “We’ve considered many factors. But in the end, it was safer and cheaper to start business here in Montclair,” says chef Hioki. “It’s next to New York City,” said Yoshida who sees the current site as a base for future expansion.
Setting up shop in Jersey wasn’t easy. They worked mightily to meet local restaurant ordinances and initially faced a roller coaster of good and a few bad Yelp reviews. Fortunately, most of the reviews these days are good and getting better.
Will local Americans appreciate Fujiya Ramen’s authentic taste? Time will tell.
What are Yoshida’s dreams for the future? “I want to make Fujiya Ramen well-known internationally. I’d like to see it become the “go-to” place to eat your favorite ramen,” he says unabashedly. “This is only the beginning.”
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