Noodle makeover: How one Japanese migrant made it in the US

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Media caption"Everything started from scratch," says Hidehito Uki about the early days of his noodle-making business

Hidehito Uki was just 20 years old when he decided to leave Japan to start a small noodle company in Honolulu on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. More than 30 years later, his family business has expanded massively with factories in the east and west of the United States.

The company's first noodle factory is tucked away on a narrow street in an industrial part of Honolulu. Its modest exterior belies the extent of what is going on inside, but some say this humble factory has fuelled the love affair with ramen noodles that is sweeping the US.

The family-run Sun Noodle company has been in business for more than three decades, since 1981, and the man behind the business is thought by many to be responsible for America's ramen craze.

Today, Mr Uki's custom-made ramen noodles are sold all over the US and shipped as far as Europe.

A simple aim

Renowned ramen chefs swear by his noodles, and the once niche dish has become and staple for foodies the world over.

But he says he's just doing what he's always done.

"We feel really lucky, but we're just doing whatever we need to do for the noodles."

Mr Uki's first job was as a noodle maker in Japan, working under his father. In 1980 he was sent to Hawaii to sell machines and to teach the customers how to make noodles.

Image copyright Sun Noodle

What is Ramen?

  • A Japanese noodle soup dish
  • The noodles are immersed in meat-based or fish-based broth
  • Commonly garnished with pork slices and seaweed

He came to love the place. And Mr Uki discovered that in Hawaii, the restaurants were using only one type of noodle for their ramen dish. This was in contrast to his own experience growing up in Japan where different regions have various types of ramen, and therefore would have specific noodles to match their various types of broth.

His aim was simple: to make specialty ramen noodles.

"I didn't know anything about business other than making noodles," he says.

"I didn't have any confidence but it was a great opportunity for me to start a business. To come to Hawaii in the 1980s it wasn't easy even for tourism. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity."

Image copyright Sun Noodle
Image caption Sun Noodle opened its first factory in Honolulu in 1981
Image caption Mr Uki didn't speak a word of English when he first arrived in Hawaii

When Mr Uki arrived in the US, he didn't speak any English. He took language classes while scouting a location and started setting up the factory.

He encountered difficulties in securing financing from banks to start the business. He turned to close friends and relatives to help secure the money needed to start his noodle venture.

Early struggles

But Mr Uki quickly reached a stumbling block when he discovered that although there was plenty of good-quality flour produced in the US in the early 1980s, none of it was suitable for his trade.

"Most flour produced in the US then was designed for bread or pastry so there was no flour available to make noodles."

Image copyright Sun Noodle
Image caption The noodle-making machine which first brought Mr Uki to Honolulu

Undeterred, he sought out what was the only flourmill in Hawaii - the now defunct Hawaiian Flour Mills. He convinced them to produce a special type of flour he needed to make his noodles.

Next he had to find the ramen shops to buy his product.

At the time, there were only a handful of ramen shops in Oahu. These shops were all importing their noodles from Japan, and they turned their noses up at the locally made noodles Mr Uki was offering them.

They told him his product was unusable.

Special order

But one ramen shop owner agreed to work with him to improve on the quality of his noodles, and placed an order for ramen to be used for his restaurant.

And this customisation process became the ethos of Sun Noodle - and the thing that sets the firm apart.

"We worked together to create his own noodles, so from the beginning I experienced how important it is to make custom noodles for individual customers, " says Mr Uki.

He points out that this is especially important with ramen noodles because every ramen shop has its own distinct style and flavour of soup and they need a unique noodle to match.

Image copyright Sun Noodle
Image caption One of the first ramen shops in Hawaii to purchase noodles from Mr Uki

Ten years into the venture, the company expanded its factory space and installed an automatic production line for fresh noodles and pre-cooked noodles.

Mr Uki said he had identified a gap in the market - custom-made fresh noodles. And that is what he was trying to provide.

In 2004, Sun Noodle opened its second factory in Los Angeles, California, which is managed by Mr Uki's daughter.

Fresh not frozen

The expansion came at the urging of customers who were growing their own businesses and wanted fresh rather than frozen noodles available to them. Its California plant also ships fresh noodles to customers in Canada and South America.

Several years on, as demand continued to grow, Mr Uki realised he needed to open a factory on the US east coast to keep pace with the orders coming in from across the country.

"In 2010 a lot of Americans started talking about ramen and a lot of the famous Japanese ramen shops started opening in New York. From that time a lot of people started talking about ramen," he says.

Image caption Mr Uki revamped his business to deliver fresh noodles to customers

Instead of shipping frozen noodles, he decided he needed to be able to offer his customers fresh noodles - making proximity paramount to delivering a good product.

To meet all of its customers' orders, in 2012 Sun Noodle set up a factory in New Jersey, which is run by Mr Uki's son. It also handles shipping to customers in France, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Image caption Sun Noodle ships its noodles to UK, France and Brazil

Today in the US, Sun Noodle makes hundreds of different kinds of noodles for its customers all over the country. The company also supplies cold noodles to catering companies which provide in-flight meals.

Mr Uki maintains the increase in demand for his noodles, and rapid growth of the business were never part of his plan.

A very modest man, he won't claim responsibility for ramen's huge popularity in the US in recent years.

He says all he has done is work with his customers to create custom noodles made to match each style of broth.

"When people eat our ramen noodles, they feel satisfied, happy - and that's how the ramen shops have expanded."

Noodle school

But he does concede that he has always wanted to bring more knowledge about ramen to the US.

Sun Noodle recently opened a ramen lab in Manhattan.

Image copyright Sun Noodle
Image caption Sun Noodle opened a ramen lab in New York to educate the public about the dish

Designed like a bar, the space can accommodate up to 10 people, and Mr Uki says the idea came from wanting "to provide very basic ramen education".

The company has flown in its own ramen chef from Japan - who will cook and serve the ramen, as well as teach customers how to prepare the noodle and broth dish.

He says he feels lucky to be where he is today and he's glad that Americans are enjoying more and more ramen. But his 20-year-old self never saw this coming.

"When I started I didn't expect ramen to become this popular. I didn't expect anything like this."

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