My wife, our two kids and I were starving after a long afternoon of shopping on Takeshita street market in Harajuku, Tokyo. As tourists, we had no clues whatsoever where to eat.
We turned to Google, our reliable unofficial tour guide. Google map showed several options for the best places to eat ramen in town. There was one with fantastic reviews albeit it was a bit far from Takeshita street.
So we walked, and walked, and walked, but for some reason, we could not find this place.
Getting a bit desperate we were ready to walk into a 7-Eleven shop to grab a couple of pre-packaged meal boxes.
And that was when a smallish ramen place caught our eyes. It looked like it was squeezed in-between two buildings.
We decided to give it a try.
“Just One Type of Ramen”
We realised there were limited type of ramens. There were only four of them. Inside there was a machine for ordering and payment. Each of us chose a different type of ramen. Mine was called a winter special with chillies, yummy.
It is different, unique, and most importantly it caters for certain diners who keep coming back for more.
“Ahh welcome, welcome,” the owner (and head chef) said with a big smile.
The owner was amicable. His name was Jun. We called him ‘Uncle Jun’. He prepared the foods swiftly and within 15 minutes we were enjoying great tasting ramens.
“Uncle Jun, can I ask you a question?” I asked.
“Ahh of course, of course,” he replied.
“Why do you only have four types of ramen?”
Uncle Jun smiled and fixed his headband. “Ahhh good question. You see, ramen is a simple dish. It mainly comprises of noodle, broth, flavouring, and toppings (egg, meat, onion, etc.). There are not many types of ramens we can do with such a small number of core ingredients.”
“Ok, but surely you can make more than four types?” I was not satisfied with his answers.
“I like your enthusiasm but let me tell you a secret. In this place, there is only one type of ramen.” He smiled as his eyes twinkled. “I put four on the machine, so people have choices. In reality, they are just slightly different combinations of the core ingredients.”
“Only one?” I wondered even more.
Uncle Jun realised my confusion. “My motto is: ‘Focus before Quality’. We only have limited resources at our disposals. If I try to have a big range of ramens, then we will not be able to cope. So instead I focus all my efforts into one exceptional dish. It is different, unique, and most importantly it caters for certain diners who keep coming back for more.”
“Your ramen is delicious indeed. The noodle is springy and tasty. And wow, I have never tasted such a delicate combination of pork and soy sauce.” I slurped the broth with delight.
“Hmm .. maybe I should try to focus all of my efforts into one special service or product too,” I was thinking in my head. “I also have limited resources like uncle Jun.”
“Sweet Spot for Special Customers”
“Uncle Jun, can I ask one more question?” I said.
“Yes of course, what do you want to know?” Uncle Jun replied.
“Umm, I realise some ramen places use machines to take orders, including yours,” I said. “Isn’t it better to take orders yourself?”
It is about making sure that our unique ramen is consistently perfect for certain diners. All they have to do is come and eat.
Uncle Jun smiled again. “You are very observant. The main purpose of using a machine is to eliminate mundane tasks so I can focus more on making great tasting ramen.” He stopped a bit to catch his breath. “You see, taking orders is more than just taking notes. It also involves handling cash which can be deceptively time-consuming. Using a machine eliminate all the extra tasks.”
“But what if customers want extra salt, a different type of noodles or more meat?”
“Ahhh, yes, yes, some ramen places do give those options. For us, it is about making sure that our unique ramen is consistently perfect for certain diners. All they have to do is come and eat. Trust me, when you have achieved that ‘sweet spot’ for your customers, they will come back again and again. No need for extra meat or salt.”
“How do you figure out this ‘sweet spot’?”
“It will take a while with a lot of trials and errors but be persistent. And above all, always do it with love for your customers. Never stop asking them for feedback and suggestion. Ultimately, their satisfaction is your success.”
“I never thought about this. Maybe I should find this ‘sweet spot’ too for my own customers.” I was again thinking in my head. “What a great idea, the sweet spot for special customers.”
“Seasonal Ramens for Special Experiences”
“I have one more thing to tell you,” Uncle Jun said to me.
”Great, tell me, tell me,” I was too eager to learn more.
”There is an addition to the sweet spot.”
”Yup I call it the ‘Seasonal Spot’.”
”Ok, please tell me more.”
”Well, the basic idea is to create a special type of ramen with a certain season.” Uncle Jun poured green tea to my cup. “Think of it as a sweet spot with a theme for your customers. Got it?”
”For example, now it is winter, and I offer spicy ramen with Japanese chillies. That is the one you are eating now.”
”Oooh I have the seasonal spot ramen,” I said smiling.
”They taste the same as our unique ramen, only spicier. The whole idea is to add certain interesting elements without sacrificing the uniqueness of your products. And then use it as a seasonal promotion.”
”And what is the purpose of doing that?”
”So your customers have something to talk about every season. They are your best marketers. You need to give them reasons to tell their friends about your products. Talking about the same thing for a whole year is boring. But talking about a different thing every season is not. The product is the same, just altered slightly for effect.”
“Wow, that is an excellent idea.”
“I am glad you like it.”
“I should be doing something like this,” I thought to myself. “It’s true, my customers are my best marketer, and they need help in spreading the words.”
We were all delighted with Uncle Jun’s ramens. My kids and I practically fought for every last bit of noodles and pork meat. My wife was sitting quietly while guarding her bowl of ramen.
“Thank you, Uncle Jun,” I said to him. “It was ‘oishii’.”
(oishii = really good-tasting)
“Arigatou,” my kids said to uncle Jun.
“Arigatou gozaimashita, Uncle Jun,” my wife also said.
“Ahhh no problem, no problem, come back anytime,” Uncle Jun said with a big smile.
“What great lessons from a humble bowl of ramen,” my thought was swirling again in my head. “Focus before Quality, Sweet Spot, and Seasonal Spot. I will remember these lessons every time I eat a bowl of ramen.”
As previously published in The Ascent: A Humble Ramen Is What I Need For My Business.