As the recent B.C. launches of two international chains show, there’s more than one way to open a restaurant
The night before Jollibee opened its first Vancouver location in February, a line had already formed on Granville Street. On opening day, an estimated 5,000 customers filed in to order the emblematic fast food of the Philippines.
That’s about 4,940 more than the lucky few served several weeks later at the opening of Menya Itto. But the ramen restaurant at 1479 Robson Street has also become something of a sensation back home in Japan.
Imagine if doughnuts were something that you could only get at Tim Hortons, and you have some sense of the importance of Jollibee to Filipino expats. The fast-food chain serves fast food with a local twist that has made it a culinary symbol of its homeland.
Menya Itto doesn’t carry that sort of patriotic burden. But it, too, has been a hit back home, regularly placing at or near the top of the ramen ratings at Tabelog.com. And like Jollibee, it offers a particular national variation on some well-known comfort food.
In addition to the traditional ramen familiar to local diners, Menya Itto specializes in tsukemen, a dish where the broth and ingredients are served in separate bowls for dipping. According to founder and chef Yukihiko Sakamoto, that’s the primary reason for the restaurant’s unusual soft launch, when only 30 bowls of ramen were promised to early birds (although eventually about 60 were served). “Our staff here are mostly Canadian,” Sakamoto says through a translator. “For both customers and staff, tsukemen takes some time to learn.”
The soft opening was a bit like baseball’s spring training, Sakamoto says—a way to work out the bugs and make sure everyone was ready for the regular season.
This is Menya Itto’s first North American location, joining shops in locations in Taiwan, Vietnam and Bangkok, in addition to the original poll-topping restaurant in Tokyo’s Katsushika district. The 54-year-old Sakamoto, who originally trained in French cuisine, arrived in Vancouver two months before the opening to supervise. Although possible expansion to Toronto and Montreal has been discussed, Sakamoto is leery of overextending the operation and sacrificing quality control. “Companies that go up fast often go down fast,” he says.
Sakamoto is also not fond of another recent industry trend—delivery services like DoorDash and Uber Eats. “It doesn’t work well for tsukemen,” he maintains. “Broth gets cold; noodles get cold.”
As an alternative, Sakamoto is developing a different marketing strategy: frozen ramen, with broth and noodles packaged separately for home use. For now, that’s a Japan-only project—perhaps another learning curve for BCers to tackle down the road.
In the meantime, the new local comfort food options might save Manila and Tokyo expats some airfare.