F&W Game Changers: Next-Level Noods
That America's greatest noodle maker exists today may very well be on account of youthful folly. "If I did market research, I [wouldn't have] started a business in Hawaii," Hidehito Uki, founder of Sun Noodle, says of his inauspicious start. "They have 19 noodle factories and only three or four ramen shops. Who would start a noodle business on a small island with 19 competitors already there?"
Nevertheless, in 1981, a 19-year-old Uki arrived in Honolulu with a single suitcase from Tochigi, Japan, to take over a project from his father after a business partnership went south. Uki had his work cut out for him. He took ESL classes and tracked down a flour mill that could custom-grind an especially fine flour, then unavailable in the U.S. market, while his original 1,600-square-foot factory was being built. On his first sales calls, the young noodle maker was so nervous that he was shaking, and his first customer-to-be, Ramen Ezogiku, was initially unimpressed with the noodles. But the chef there counseled him on improvements, and soon, despite the odds, Uki had a thriving business producing ramen, along with saimin, soba, udon, and more. And that early experience working with a chef would prove to be formative.
In 1987, when Uki thought that the expansion of the corporate conglomerate Ito En might threaten his small business, he went to his restaurant clients and created a specialized noodle for each of them. "Every ramen shop's soup has a different character," he says. An unsuitable noodle can dull a soup's character; the right one can bring everything into harmony. It was only a matter of time before Sun Noodle's attention to detail came to the mainland. In 2004, Uki opened a factory in California, and eight years later, he opened a New Jersey factory, with his son Kenshiro helming the operation.
As America's ramen boom exploded, Sun Noodle became the go-to purveyor for many of the country's best ramen-yas, including New York City's Ivan Ramen, Los Angeles' Tsujita LA, and Austin's Ramen Tatsu-Ya, and the company now makes more than 190 different kinds of noodles for restaurants in all 50 states-straight or wavy, thin or thick, with custom tweaks on pH levels and different blends of 13 flour varieties, all in service of achieving a desired noodle texture. The company also opened Ramen Lab in NYC a few years ago, bringing in rotating monthly chefs with a goal of showing Americans the vast diversity in the art of regional craft ramen. "Our goal," Uki says, "is to make Americanized ramen." That's easier than ever-Sun Noodle's retail ramen kits, once only available in select stores, now ship nationwide.