Taking ramen to world is Chef Orkin’s new challenge
By Beth Ewen
Ivan Orkin, the brash, white Jewish guy from New York who made his name as one of the best ramen makers on the planet, as Netflix describes him, is taking on a much bigger challenge.
He has attracted investment from a new private equity and consulting firm called Corlex Capital, and with those backers will attempt to create a fast-casual ramen chain to expand via franchising around the United States and the globe.
That’s a stretch from his original 10-seat shop in Tokyo, where the man who considers himself “half Japanese” moved after college and taught himself to make ramen because the masters in Tokyo were too intimidating. “I didn’t have the balls to even ask. I just decided I would make it up,” he told Franchise Times after his presentation at the Restaurant Finance & Development Conference in November.
Now in his 50s, which he calls a little old for a celebrity chef, Orkin acknowledges the new plan is also a far cry from his two restaurants in Manhattan. Those are a fine-dining locale called Ivan Ramen and a quick-service spot in the Gotham West Market that sells 1,200 bowls of ramen a day out of 150 square feet, both operating since 2013.
Today, scale is top of mind for Orkin and his partners. “When I started the business I made myself a couple of promises. My first promise was I wasn’t allowed to do any cooking without a pen, paper and a scale. I had fallen into the trap of cooking like a Jewish grandmother, a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and you can’t reproduce it. I’ve stuck to that,” Orkin said.
He learned from other entrepreneurs. “I’ve read all the famous books and I’ve always been interested in business. Making a business without thinking of scale is foolish. I also made all kinds of scalable recipes. For example, my Dashi, which is the building block of Japanese cuisine—I took all those ingredients and put them in giant tea bags, and if you add that to a liter of water it makes the soup.
“The idea has been wonderful. It really helped us. If you guys come to my restaurant more than once, it will taste delicious each time, which is the difference between success and failure in this business,” he said. “I’m not overwhelmed by the need to make food for a thousand restaurants.”
Jeff Kolton is a well-known attorney and consultant in franchising who was friends with Orkin and brought the ramen chef to his partners when they formed Corlex Capital in October. “We are at a tipping point” in the restaurant investment game, he said at the conference. “You have a large supply of exceptional chefs who are facing challenges” as many fine-dining concepts decline. “You want these culinary experts to find the resources to create the scalable brands that do not sacrifice the quality that they’ve developed nor the customer service they’re provided in the fine-dining experience.”
Jake LaJoie, another Corlex partner, said their process is to start with a question. “What are you solving for?” he said. “We find out the chef’s goals and objectives, and then we put ours” on the planning chart, “and those lines should coincide and if they don’t, we shouldn’t get involved.”
Although Orkin and Co. are revealing few details at this point, the new restaurant will be a hybrid of the fine-dining and the quick-service models Orkin operates. “We started with the desired result and worked backwards,” said LaJoie, adding they’re working with multi-variant numbers but “it’s math at the end of the day … We want to build a model that’s attractive, that we would invest our own money in, and feel good that franchisees would get a good return.”
For example, they built the menu and then determined an average check. Then, “you start tweaking the build-out costs, which informs the number of seats that you have, which gets to your top line AUV,” or average unit volume, LaJoie said, then referring to contributions from Joe Remsa, another Corlex consultant.
“Joe sat down and literally scoped out a weekly labor schedule, back-of-house, front-of-house to inform our labor models,” he added.
“We had to rebuild the whole concept every time” changes were suggested, said Remsa, who was CEO of Shakey’s among other concepts. “Build your own pizza—I thought we could do that with ramen. Boy, was I wrong. Ivan informed me.”
Remsa continues about the new chain, “We all know we eat with our eyes. In a full-service restaurant the plate comes out and your experience immediately begins,” and the group wants to replicate that in the new chain, as yet unnamed.
“We were able to, through graphics and some technology, augment the plating, which you might not have to the extent in fast-casual that you do in full service. We did not end up with fast-casual in the sense of Panera, Chipotle, Noodles. We ended up in some other place,” he said.
The partners plan to continue testing and building the model over the next year, and “de-risk” the investment, as Kolton describes it, by working out the kinks before attracting a full slate of investors and doing a rollout.
Said J.B. Bedasse, another Corlex partner, “One of the biggest risks is pre-exposure. We don’t have the pressure to move ahead of time. We can take our time and get this buttoned up, and then we’ll move.”
Orkin said he’ll look at smaller cities, not big-city Manhattan, for the rollout. “We’re excited about second-tier cities,” Orkin said. “Part of my stated purpose, besides the fact that I like money just as much as anybody else, I’m really passionate about ramen and Japan, and it’s exciting to bring ramen and Japan to cities that don’t have that.”
Plenty could go wrong, Orkin concedes, but he believes the systems he’s creating will guard against missteps. “You’re right, there are going to be pitfalls,” he said. “I’ve never shied away from failure. I’ve read all the books and they’ve all had colossal failures,” he said about other entrepreneurs. “It keeps you in check. It requires you to get off your high horse.”
He says his wife keeps him humble, too. “If I come home from something and everybody says they loved me, my wife says, ‘And you believe them?’ I go back to work,” and now that work is on a grander scale.