Doing Business in Japan as a Foreigner

Business in Japan as a Foreigner

Ivan Orkin was born in New York in 1963. In the 1980s he earned a degree in Japanese from the University of Colorado, after which he made his first trip to Japan, where he stayed for three years. Upon returning to the United States, he decided to pursue his passion for food and enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America. He trained at some of the most renowned restaurants in New York, including Mesa Grill, owned by America’s Iron Chef Bobby Flay, and Lutece, one of the city’s most exclusive French restaurants. Eventually he returned to Japan to go into business on his own, opening the Ivan Ramen and Ivan Ramen Plus restaurants in suburban Tokyo.

In Business to Bring People Happiness

It shouldn’t be such a far-fetched idea for an American businessman to think of opening a ramen shop in Japan. After all, the Japanese love ramen, so there would already be a thriving market for his fare. Besides a ramen shop run by a “gaijin” – a foreigner – would easily garner publicity and widespread attention.

It certainly seems like a formula for business success and a path to riches.

But Ivan Orkin’s concept of a ramen shop in Japan was not a typical entrepreneurial dream. His goal from the start was not to make piles of money. He just loved ramen, almost as much as he loved Japan. So it was only natural for him to want to serve the food he loved to the people he loved. Happily for all of us, his Ivan Ramen and Ivan Ramen Plus restaurants are doing just that, and they are doing it very successfully indeed.

Meeting the Challenge

Ramen noodle at Ivan Ramen
Ramen noodle at Ivan Ramen

There are estimated around 37,000 shops in Japan offering ramen, a dish of noodles in broth that is among the country’s favorite foods. In fact, some studies show that more than 90 percent of Japanese enjoy ramen.

With such stiff competition in the ramen business, why would Ivan Orkin think he could break into the market? Why didn’t he listen to his friends, who told him he was crazy to try?

Ivan saw his plan as a challenge, and he was eager to pursue it. If you can make it in Tokyo with a ramen shop, he thought, you can make it anywhere.

“I am a chef,” says Ivan. “I know how to make delicious dishes. And I knew I could make really good ramen.”

Even with confidence in his own abilities, however, Ivan was not sure how his offerings would be accepted by the locals.

“I was a little concerned that some people might say ramen simply should not be made by foreigners,” he recalls. “Regardless of how great my ramen might be, people could have thought that ramen and a foreign chef just don’t go together well.”

But he persevered, firm in the conviction that his ramen would meet the standards of the discerning Japanese palate. “I just had to believe that a really good bowl of ramen, prepared by a dedicated chef who trained at three- and four-star restaurants, would resonate with Japanese taste buds,” he says. “Once I had opened my shop, I was delighted to hear praise from my customers, who said they thought my ramen was ‘great!’”

Ivan Ramen in Setagaya, Tokyo
Ivan Ramen in Setagaya, Tokyo

The Birth of an Idea

Inside Ivan Ramen
Inside Ivan Ramen

Ivan was just 16 when he took a part-time job at a sushi restaurant in New York. “The chefs were very nice and I liked them a lot,” he remembers. His happy experience would lead him to a university major in Japanese, after which he made his first trip to Japan. (“Since I had studied the language,” he recalls, “I thought, ‘Why not see the country?’”) It was on his initial visit to Japan that he walked into a Shinjuku ramen shop and discovered the joy that could be found in a simple bowl of noodles.

His first trip to Japan turned into a three-year stay. In fact, he insists that he never felt like a newcomer to the country, but was instead just returning home, as if he had an ancestral tie to the Japanese all along.

Ivan still recalls fondly his first ramen experience in Japan, when he fell in love with this humble but delightful dish. When he decided to go into business, he also kept in mind some less than enjoyable experiences dining at far more expensive places in New York. “One was a very pricey French restaurant,” he remembers. “The staff were snobby. They looked like they were saying, ‘We are a prestigious French restaurant. The food is good and it’s high-class.’ But I didn’t think their food was all that good. Neither was their service. This was a restaurant that was in the business of ‘appearance,’ not of serving customers.” He determined that his own restaurants would never follow the same path.

Secret Ingredient for Success

In addition to his passion for good food, Ivan has a secret ingredient for success: he builds personal relationships with the communities in which his shops are located.

“If you offer a friendly ‘Hello,’ people will respond to you with a smile,” he says. “I want to grow my businesses in communities where neighbors say ‘Hi’ to each other and offer help when it’s needed.”

Prior to opening his first ramen shop, Ivan paid his respects to small business owners in the neighborhood, pledging that he would give his best effort to become a good member of the community and vowing to purchase ingredients and supplies from local merchants whenever possible. “In response, they encouraged me to go for it,” he recalls. “And they looked after me and my shop like one of their own.”

Ivan’s ramen broth is made with fish and chicken, resulting in a light but flavorful base. The noodles – hand-made from scratch – are thin but strong, so they don’t become bloated in the broth. The recipe is traditional, but the chef’s dedication to detail still shines through.

Going Global

Different ramen recipes have become a source of pride in their respective regions. During the 1980s, when various local recipes became popular fads nationwide, ramen was used as a means of economic development by such localities as Kitakata Township in Fukushima Prefecture, which heavily promoted its distinctive ramen as a tourist attraction. In support of the promotion, townspeople even ate ramen for breakfast.

Some 70 different areas now boast their own tradition of special-style ramen. (Enthusiasm for ramen even gave birth in 1994 to the Shinyokohama Ramen Museum, which is dedicated to the ramen culture.) According to the Japan Tourism Agency, ramen is also the second-favorite Japanese food worldwide.

To help guide non-Japanese through the ever-expanding world of ramen, Ivan is in the process of writing a book on the subject in English. As for his own special brand of ramen, Ivan is now poised to take it global. He is planning to open shops in New York, Hong Kong and other locations in Asia during 2012.

“Japanese ramen is now being discovered around the world, but good bowls are still hard to come by,” he says. “I believe in my approach to making ramen, which is to apply all the training and dedication of a real chef. I want to bring my excellent dish to as many people as possible.”

Ivan Orkin, the former owner of Ivan Ramen, has returned to his hometown in the United States and is now running his own ramen restaurant, Ivan Ramen, in New York.

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