As the Hanamaru Udon chain eyes growth beyond its home market of Japan, corporate chef Yoshihiro Maeda is charged with marrying the efficiency of a large business with the artisanal methods of its signature product.
Udon, a chewy noodle particularly enjoyed in western Japan, is traditionally made by wrapping the dough in plastic and stepping on it to flatten it out. That process is done a total of seven times, removing the air and developing the gluten.
The 269-unit Hanamaru Udon, which is a subsidiary of Yoshinoya and the only national udon chain in Japan, machine produces its noodles daily at four factories, Maeda said, but it continually adjusts its ingredients and methods to create the traditional textures and flavors udon is known for.
Title: Corporate chef, Hanamaru Udon, Tokyo, Japan
Birth Date: Nov. 20, 1976
Hometown: Kochi prefecture, Japan
Education: in-store training
Career Highlights: serving as Hanamaru Udon’s corporate chef
Did you always want to make udon?
No, I started working in the company’s apparel retail division. Once they started the udon business, I transferred to the restaurant with the title of dishwasher. They intended to make it into a big chain, and I was very excited to be involved in that.
Where did you open the first Hanamaru Udon restaurant?
Kagawa prefecture, because they love udon there. Kagawa has about 300,000 people and 900 udon restaurants. They eat udon twice a day there.
Was the idea for you to start as a dishwasher and work your way up?
My title was dishwasher, but actually I did everything. The only [other] people working there were my boss and a couple of part-time helpers.
Did your boss teach you about making udon?
No, we both learned the basics of making them from the part-time workers. That’s why we opened in Kagawa, because so many people there know how to make udon.
What makes your noodles distinct?
Ours are Sanuki-style, named after a location in Kagawa. The chewiness of the noodles is one of the key differences.
Since 2000 you have grown from one shop to 269. In that time, Japan’s economy has been fairly stagnant. How did you maintain that growth?
We were lucky: There was a big udon boom in 2002, and we opened 131 stores in that year alone. All of a sudden even people in Tokyo, who normally eat ramen and soba noodles, were eating udon.
That boom ended in 2004-2005, and our customer count went down. We learned to concentrate on what we call QSC — quality, service and cleanliness.
Do you find that some Japanese resent you and prefer to go to local udon shops instead of a chain?
I believe that every Japanese person has their own taste when it comes to udon, but price is an important part of our business. One order of our basic udon is just ¥105 [$1.26]. Probably the same quality of udon at an independent noodle shop would be around ¥280 [$3.36].
How do you keep prices down?
We follow the strategy of our parent company, Yoshinoya, which is to be very efficient.
We also buy Australian flour. ... The color, flavor and taste of Australian flour are very good for udon. We combine it with Japanese flour.
We make the noodles in our factories and then ship them to the store, which helps to lower our prices because it’s more efficient than making them in each shop.
Are there regional nuances in udon?
Yes, the broth is different. In Sanuki the broth is anchovy-based. In Osaka they use skipjack. Other places use mackerel. [But] we make the same udon everywhere. The Sanuki style is part of our identity.
What is your responsibility as corporate chef?
Part of it is corporate expansion. We plan to open another 100 restaurants in three different countries over the next five years. We plan to open a ... unit [in Shanghai, China]. We’re researching other locations as well, including Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok, [Thailand].
It’s also very challenging to make the noodles consistently. We have to adjust our processes every day based on the weather, as both the temperature and humidity affect noodle production. And, annually, after the wheat harvest, we have to reformulate the ratio of Australian and Japanese flour.