Will udon become the new ramen?

Marugame Udon dominates in Japan and has successfully cracked America. Now, the quick-service restaurant is looking for franchise partners to bring its concept to the UK and Europe.

17 January 2019
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With around 800 locations, Marugame Udon is one of the largest chains dedicated to udon in Japan. Since 2011, the brand has been expanding its reach across the globe, opening a further 200 spots in places like Australia and China, as well as throughout Southeast Asia.

But the country where the company’s wheat flour noodles have had the most success thus far has been the US, where outlets in Hawaii and California are among the top performing for the company – in large part because average spend is double that in Japan. The Waikiki spot, for instance, turns over $5.2m a year.

Hoping to capture more Western diners, Marugame Udon has recently partnered with Seeds Consulting to bring the concept to Europe, with the UK one of the prime targets.

“Japanese food has now become mainstream,” Matteo Frigeri, Seeds Consulting director, tells Food Spark. He believes it’s time to introduce a sequel to ramen, which has already become fairly established in Britain, as evidenced by the success of brands like Shoryu, which Seeds Consulting helped to roll out in London, Manchester and Oxford.

“We know how well Shoryu is doing in the UK. We know also that udon is present, but there is no brand that has really said, ‘We are specialists in that area.’ So there’s potential from that point of view. And if there is potential in London and the UK, then generally the rest of Europe is about 12 months behind.”

The current goal is to find a franchisee to open one or two sites – ideally late this year or early next year – to assess the market, before rapidly rolling out more if Brits take to the chain.

So what exactly is the appeal of udon?

Using your noodle

Named after a former prefecture of Japan’s Shikoku island, sanuki udon is the nation’s quintessential thick-cut, wheat-flour noodle. Normally cooked to an al dente texture, at its most basic, udon consists simply of noodles, dashi (a savoury broth) and a sprinkling of spring onion. However, there are many variations, from toppings like tofu or thin strips of beef, to serving the dish chilled on a bamboo mat or with a concentrated pot of dashi.

Marugame prepares its udon from scratch every day in an open kitchen, using just three ingredients: wheat flour, water and salt.

Based on a QSR model, the cafeteria-style outlets aim to optimise efficiency.

“Don’t think you are waiting for your noodles,” says Frigeri. “When you order, you will immediately be served the food in a matter of seconds. The actual total process shouldn’t take more than 30 seconds from when you join the queue to when you come to the pay point.”

After selecting from a choice of udon, customers can then opt to customise their bowl with its classic accompaniment: a selection of tempura.

Convenience and transparent ingredients are key to the concept, which will target lunchtime and evening trade. Above all, however, Frigeri believes that the authenticity of the product will attract consumers.

“When you see Marugame, you should immediately be able to see that it’s a genuine, authentic Japanese concept,” he explains. “The udon noodle you’re going to eat is the same udon noodle you’re going to eat in Tokyo. There’s the value of authenticity that comes with the concept, which is important according to research. That’s what people want to see when they’re eating exotic foods; they want it to be authentic.”

Udon know me

Udon is already making a splash in London. Koya, for instance, has had the Times food critics in ecstasy, and recently opened a stall in the flashy, freshly christened Market Hall Victoria food court.

Marugame hopes to build upon these roots to create a following in the UK.

“Marugame is the leader in udon worldwide,” says Frigeri. “There’s no other brand that has the presence.”

The next couple of years are going to put Japan firmly in the spotlight, at least from a sports perspective. Later this year, the country will host the Rugby World Cup – a first for an Asian nation – while 2020 will see the Olympics touch down in Tokyo. As the British public come face to face with Japanese culture, there couldn’t be a better time for new Nipponese concepts to set up shop.

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