Inside the high points and growing pains of scaling an emerging NextGen Casual brand to 60 locations and beyond and becoming 'the fastest-growing ramen concept in the country.'

Cai Palmiter’s journey to JINYA began several years prior to actually joining the company; she had just moved to downtown Los Angeles when she discovered the restaurant concept that places ramen at the center of the plate (or bowl, in this case). And this isn’t your 25-cent college-dorm ramen. JINYA’s kind of ramen has six signature broths, prepared with FIJI Water (because it’s 99.9 percent free from impurities) and whole pork bones that slowly simmer to perfection within 20 hours. The mazesoba noodles are handmade from scratch and then specially aged before cooking and serving. Chicken and vegetables have just the right amount of bonito, dashi, miso, kombu, and other classic Japanese ingredients.

“Three months into being in LA, I thought of it as an emerging brand at the time. It got me curious, because if they’ve been in the business for 12 years and still haven’t sustained the market, that was a challenge I wanted to take on,” she says. 

When Palmiter said yes to becoming JINYA’s vice president of marketing in October 2022, the upscale ramen concept had 45 locations. In just a year, the emerging brand has grown to 60 units with an impressive future pipeline of 24 more stores opening in 2024, despite industry-wide construction delays and hiccups in new stores receiving liquor licenses. 

Because authenticity is at the heart of JINYA, importing top-notch ingredients from Japan has always been a priority, even when supply chain issues have arisen. Despite the challenge, the brand’s commitment to quality has always remained strong, she says. 

“The next 50 going to 100 is always the painful part. It seems like that’s the hardest hump, crossing to 100 units,” Palmiter says. 

To give some context to the brand’s meteoric rise in recent years, let’s take a look at the numbers. JINYA ended 2019 with 36 locations and $88 million in systemwide sales. Now, that’s nearly doubled; as of press time, the company projected $170 million in systemwide sales by year-end 2023. Systemwide AUV has reached $2.85 million, with the top one-third earning $4 million, FSR previously reported.

“Over the next decade we have hopes to quadruple our size and expand into several new markets, both across the country and internationally,” says founder and CEO Tomo Takahashi, who initially started the concept in Japan before bringing JINYA stateside to Hollywood, California, in 2010. His father was a successful owner of an Izakaya-style eatery called Jinya in Japan, which was renowned for its trio of values: delicious food at reasonable prices that’s accessible to all. 

Named for a Samurai soldier known for their community ties, “JINYA” was the perfect name for Takahashi to carry forward when he moved to California to continue his family’s legacy and vision.

“I set out to create authentic recipes that I could share with customers here in America—focusing on deep, rich flavors of broth which is simmered in-house for over 20 hours, authentic noodles, and ingredients sourced directly from Japan,” Takahashi says. 

And from tender pork chasu to a perfectly cooked and seasoned poached egg to fresh garlic, JINYA’s offerings indeed elevate ramen to the next level.

“Providing tradition and innovation is something JINYA aims to do flawlessly, offering staple classics like tonkotsu ramen, and creating new specials throughout the year to excite guests and keep the menu fresh,” he adds. “Guests in the U.S. have welcomed our traditions with open arms and have helped us become the fastest-growing ramen concept in the country.”

Palmiter has played a key role in bringing JINYA’s brand awareness to a new level as it expands across the U.S. and Canada.

Industry-leading culinary innovation and value

Kazuya (Kazu) Takebe began cooking for his siblings at 12 years old before becoming a professional sushi chef in Nagoya, Japan. Now vice president and corporate executive chef of JINYA Holdings, Takebe wants to keep “the Japanese tradition at the heart of all of our dishes, while updating them or complementing them with an American style,” he says. “We also offer traditional sushi, Yakitori skewers, and Japanese tapas at our Robata JINYA restaurant”—the brand’s izakaya-style spinoff concept.

When it comes to culinary innovation, Takebe describes the process as “very collaborative,” which deeply involves Takahashi. “We’ll both bring ideas to the table, and then I test recipes and we’ll taste several versions together. Eventually, we land on a great product that we’re both proud to serve,” he says. 

Staying in tune with current trends and incorporating those into traditional dishes has been crucial to JINYA’s success, he adds. “Creating beautiful dishes that look as appealing as they taste is another focus of ours that we feel has added to our brand’s appeal.”

JINYA Chef Kazu and founder Tomo.
Chef Kazuya Takebe (left) incorporates Japanese tradition at the heart of every dish at JINYA. Founder and CEO Tomo Takahashi (right) envisions expanding into several new markets across the country and internationally, with the goal to quadruple in size.

For Palmiter, the dedication from both Takebe and Takahashi to constantly be innovating and trying new recipes to delight guests is part of Bar & Lounge, a trendy outdoor bar located next to JINYA Ramen Bar in Honolulu; and Saijo, which focuses on hand-rolled dishes like sushi.

LBD also offers a variety of Japanese alcoholic beverages and signature cocktails, like the Frozen Spicy Toki with Japanese Whisky, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, ginger syrup, passionfruit syrup, grapefruit juice, and lime juice; and the Lelelele Sour with Akashi Japanese Whiskey blend, Disaronno Originale, pineapple juice, and cinnamon syrup. 

JINYA’s other expanding fast-casual spinoff brand, bushi by Jinya, specializes in ramen and karaage (Japanese fried chicken). Featuring chicken, tonkotsu, and vegan broth accompanied by three-day, dry-aged Mazesoba noodles, bushi also offers hand rolls with nori sourced straight from the Ariake Sea in Japan.

Then there’s the build-your-own JINYA Ramen Express, which offers the brand’s signature customizable diverse selection of broths, noodles, proteins, sauces, and toppings along an ordering line.

“At first, there was some brokenhearted thinking and so many challenges and barriers, but now, it’s all coming together—all his (Takahashi’s) visions of bringing Japanese ramen culture to the Western palate—it’s paying off,” Palmiter says.

A JINYA Ramen Bar in North Carolina opened recently in Charlotte’s South Park, which is the brand’s biggest location to date with a max occupancy of 200 people. The typical JINYA can host 50 to 60, keeping in style with the typical nook-and-cranny Japanese ramen bar. “But there’s a need and request for bigger locations,” Palmiter notes. 

“Currently, full-service restaurants are having a difficult time in the United States, with the news of Michelin-star restaurants closing due to the effects of inflation,” Takahashi explains. But JINYA’s “price range is affordable for families. A bowl of ramen is hearty enough to fill your stomach, so I think we’re a restaurant that will satisfy customers even at a lower price point.”

From refining operating systems and its loyalty program to continuous menu innovation, JINYA is poised for future growth and success as it aims to give guests the best experience possible.

Partnerships are paramount

From teaming up with HBO Max for a “Tokyo Vice” promotion to partnering with NASCAR and No. 5 Hendricks Chevrolet Camaro driver Kyle Miyata Larson, JINYA also believes in the power of partnerships to reach new fan bases, including younger customers.

“We hope that our food speaks for itself, and that our authentic flavors and passion for our product is enticing to any guest,” Takahashi says. “Our restaurants are lively and beautiful, so we hope to create an environment that draws people in, as well as offering a delicious and comforting meal.”

Palmiter has played a key role in bringing JINYA’s brand awareness to a new level as it expands across the U.S. and Canada. In the past, the concept has struggled with some people thinking JINYA was targeting an Asian-majority audience, when it’s actually aiming for the greater Western population. It was that exact challenge that initially attracted Palmiter to the role, in fact. “I knew already what we were going to do and how we were going to approach it leading to 2023,” she says. 

Part of her marketing strategy was getting a foot in the door at NASCAR. “Everyone was looking at me like, ‘you’re crazy,’ but it does make sense—what better way to introduce your brand [to Americans] than to partner with the great American race?”

That particular strategy also came from looking at a specific statistic: 78 percent of NASCAR fans are loyal to the sponsor of their favorite driver. In fact, NASCAR ranks No. 1 in fan loyalty to sponsors, beating out the NHL, NBA, MLB, and NFL, according to independent research conducted by MarketCast. 

As far as why she and the team chose to team up with Larson, Palmiter says his dedication to constantly improving his craft reminded her of Takahashi, as well as his excellence in his field (or driving lane). The choice has already paid off; JINYA’s parternship with Larson has resulted in a reach of nearly 148 million UMVs (unique monthly visitors). 

Other significant partnerships in the past couple years include Olo; Hyperlocology; software program, which aids in real estate selection by identifying areas with JINYA’s core customer base; and Impossible Foods. In November, JINYA offered customers a free order of vegan tacos on World Vegan Day in partnership with Impossible Foods with the purchase of any plant-based ramen or rice bowl. Adding vegan options has increased sales and resulted in additional partnership opportunities, Palmiter says.  

Then there was DoorDash’s impact on the brand. The partnership with the third-party delivery platform helped increase revenue by $3.1 million year over year, a jump of 57 percent. Doordash even highlighted JINYA in the company’s Q2 business review, Palmiter says. 

Looking at JINYA’s franchising growth strategy, “we’re sticking to partnering with the right people,” Palmiter notes. “Tomo doesn’t like the word franchisee, because it leads to the connotation of a chain. People think once you’re a chain, you take a shortcut when it comes to the quality of your food and restaurant and ingredients.”

From refining operating systems and its loyalty program to continuous menu innovation, JINYA is poised for future growth and success as it aims to give guests the best experience possible.

“Growing pains we’ve been experiencing (include) supply chain and getting to the next location, opening it up—that’s always the challenge. And right now, there’s high requests and demand in the Midwest for us—Chicago, Michigan; people requesting for us to open there. You wouldn’t believe the messages we get almost daily,” Palmiter says.

The first location in New Jersey will open fall of 2024, which will be owned and operated by large Applebee’s franchisee group Doherty Enterprises, who will also develop the rest of the Tri-state area. Plus, a partnership with one of the biggest Buffalo Wild Wings operators will bring JINYA to the Midwest in the near future. 

“It’s just how eager each partner is to follow through and deliver,” she adds. “It’s just a matter of how quick they respond to the market and if they’re really able to sustain that momentum.”

Future goals include hitting the 100-unit benchmark, expanding internationally, developing a new brand (details to come), and perhaps someday bringing Takahashi’s dream of opening a Japanese bakery to fruition. 

“This year has been monumental for us,” Takahashi adds.”It feels like 2024 is our year to really showcase all we’ve accomplished so far, and are setting out to accomplish in the year to come. 

Chain Restaurants, Feature, Franchising, Growth, Marketing & Promotions, Menu Innovations, NextGen Casual