TOKYO (TR) – The success of Ivan Ramen, a noodle shop founded in 2007 by U.S.-born chef Ivan Orkin, has been well documented in the press over the past year. Indeed, it is not unusual for the 10-seat restaurant in Minami Karasuyama, Setagaya Ward, to have dozens of people waiting outside its doors to try the handmade shio (salt) and shoyu (soy) specialties.
It might seem odd then that Orkin would now be endorsing an instant-ramen product at Circle K Sunkus convenience stores.
Not so, Orkin says, reasoning that the just-add-hot-water venture will expose more people to his philosophy of serving the best possible noodles, fast.
“There is a huge number of people who love instant ramen,” explains the bespectacled 45-year-old chef, who can be seen before the 5:30 p.m. opening time checking his shop’s upstairs noodle maker or accepting deliveries of fresh garlic. “I am not a guy who will get on a soapbox and preach what people should eat or do. But as a shop owner, this is a great opportunity to show people just what it is I am doing.”
The 250-yen instant Ivan Ramen, which is modeled after the shop’s shio bowl, has been a smash success, with the 6,135-outlet Circle K Sunkus convenience-store chain having shipped all 200,000 units of the first run within weeks of its Jan. 7 nationwide release.
The project’s origin goes back to an inquiry from Sanyo Foods in the middle of last year. Company representatives subsequently ate at Orkin’s shop several times and provided him with a sample serving in a blank container that they thought approximated his ramen. Orkin wasn’t naive enough to think that it would be possible to replicate his shop’s carefully prepared dishes, but he did want something palatable.
“So I tasted it and I said, ‘This is terrible. This is garbage,'” remembers the native of Syosett, New York.
The company made over a half dozen trips to Ivan Ramen with subsequent variations, each time imploring that they would not begin production until Orkin granted his backing. He remembers that problems revolved around things such as the soup having too fatty of a feel or the noodles being yellow and unappealing. The approved version, which contains whole-wheat noodles in a seafood- and chicken-flavored soup, has been well received by his regulars, one of whom is said to have bought an entire case.
The design of the brown and white package was also important. Orkin believes that typical instant-noodle wrappers are too complicated and ostentatious, with very little pertinent information conveyed to the potential buyer.
“I wanted to attract the eye of the customer and make it clear what is inside,” says Orkin of the container, which features his mug shot and a rendering of noodles in soup next to a spoon.
Instant ramen dates back to 1958, when Momofuku Ando created a chicken- noodle product after recalling long lines of people waiting in the cold for fresh noodles in the meager days following the end of World War II. Nissin Food Products, later founded by Ando, released its now globally popular Cup Noodle creation in a polystyrene dish in 1971.
Orkin does not have such grand aspirations. But a second run of the instant noodles is in the works, likely to be released this spring.
“When a ramen-shop owner is asked to put his own instant ramen on store shelves after only being open for a year, it is a huge compliment and a huge vote of confidence for your success,” he says.
Note: This report originally appeared in the Japan Times on February 27, 2009.