Seeing such a large restaurant group come to the U.S., you just can’t help but get excited to see what they’re going to do here. It’s exciting because if smaller chains can deliver up such impressive places like Santouka, what can the the 3rd largest in Japan do? Well, I went to go find out.
Ramla is the 3rd largest restaurant group in Japan, and now they operate 3 concepts and 5 restaurants.
After experiencing a couple of the restaurants by Ramla USA, it made me think of some of the restaurant groups here in the US in comparison:
- Darden Restaurants: Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Yard House, Seasons 52, LongHorn, The Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze, and Eddie V’s.
- Dine Equity: Applebee’s and IHOP
- Bloomin’ Brands: Outback, Fleming’s, Bonefish Grill, Carrabba’s, and Roy’s.
- Brinker International: Chili’s Grill & Bar and Maggiano’s Little Italy.
If you’re thinking “yea those spots aren’t all that great bro”. Well bro/brah, I agree with you, so how do they stack up against not only Japanese restaurant groups, but some of the hottest emerging groups/chains like:
- Take 5 Co. International (Japanese): Red Pepper is probably more recognizable in Japan, but the ones you’ll know in the U.S. are Manpuku and Izakaya Hachi.
- Ab-out Co (Japanese): Hokkaido Ramen Santouka, Ramen Ezofukuro, Menya Takejiro
- M2kgroup/Michael Kwan (American): Wokano, EMC Raw Bar, Triple 8, The Backhouse, The Big Catch, Spear, The Bunker Hill, and 3rd Generation.
- Boiling Crab/Dada Ngo (American, and shhh, keep the owners name on the DL): The Boiling Crab.
- Kang Ho-dong Baekjeong (Korean): Kang Ho-dong Baekjeong
Looking over this list, these spots are gangsta and there’s a ton more on the rise which is why I can’t imagine choosing a Ramla spot over any of these. Choosing Gyoro-Gyoro over Chili’s, yes, but not the list above. That list includes my favorites, and if I had a fantasy restaurant pool, I’d put my money on any of them.
You’re a Big Deal (in Japan, that is)
Here’s some history on Ramla straight from the umas (horses) mouth:
“Ramla Inc. Founded in Tokyo, Japan in 1980 by Akira Murakawa, Ramla has grown over the last 32 years into Tokyo’s 3rd largest restaurant operator. With 154 restaurants comprised of 32 brands Ramla’s restaurants span a spectrum of cuisines ranging from traditional Japanese, to French, to Italian, to Spanish and more. In its most current initiative, Ramla is embarking on an ambitious expansion into the U.S. with its plan to bring one hundred and fifty Ramla branded restaurants to American cities both large and small.”
That’s a not necessarily a vision statement, but it does allude to some of Ramla’s lofty goals of wanting to do 150 restaurants in the U.S. That right there is very ambitious, and I’d say scary since I don’t clearly see a solid direction on how they’re planning on doing it. To further reinforce that eerie feeling, when I combine that with my experience at their existing restaurants, it’s a bad recipe for even trying to own and operate just one business/restaurant.
Below is a gallery of some of the beautiful interiors of the 150+ restaurants they own.
What Are They All About?
After some digging I did find their Mission Statement on one of their websites for their Gyoro-Gyoro location in the U.S.:
“to never cease in the pursuit of providing its most valued customers with absolutely perfect service. each and every time they are gracious enough to offer Gyoro-Gyoro their most appreciated patronage”.
BTW, they really need a copywriter/editor just like I do.
Not much to clarify on their direction in the U.S., but their corporate website Ramla.net is a whole lot better with explaining who they are. It goes into detail about how their logo is designed to represent people, and how they value their employees which is good to hear. Hearing that, it positively reflects on how they were able to become a force to reckon with.
Yo Dawg, I Hear You Like Brands
Yo dawg, I hear you like brands, so we created three of them. They all appear to be the same experience, but we have three brands now versus just one. Why? I don’t know why, but I thought three “brands” is better than one for the same product/service cuz we cool like that.
It almost only appears as though they only have the three brands and five locations, so that they can report back to corporate that they have multiple brands, haha. It may look good on paper, but as a customer/diner, it clearly makes no sense at all.
The reasons why it makes no sense is because brands are typically meant to manage expectations so that you’re able to make a discernible distinction from one product or service from another. Except in the case of Ramla, they have decided to go with the “mattress sales” route where they give the mattresses a different name for different vendors, but they’re all the same. They do that so that it’ll make it harder for you to shop around and to make direct comparisons. That way you’re not able to compare things solely on price, but I doubt that’s what Ramla USA is doing. So if it’s not a corporate numbers game, maybe they’re hoping a three rating for one location won’t affect their other locations although that didn’t work since almost all their restaurants have three stars on Yelp.
WHAT THEY CAN DO TO MAKE IT LESS CONFUSING
- The first would be to define who you are: what drives you.
- What you stand for: win by any means necessary, or stop to help a little old lady cross the street without taking the $10 she offered you for helping her.
- The strategy of how you are planning on going about your business: do you target rural, suburban areas with less potential competition or go for the dog eat dog urban centers.
- The next step is to communicate all of the above: yay, this is the part where you finally get to do your social media post (I’m saying this all in my sarcastic tone because this is the step that most start with) or contact all the brand influencers and the press.
- The last part is to live and breathe your brand: the biggest part is staying true to your brand by not straying from your path. Of course, you can tweak it, but that’s a topic for another day.
Unfortunately, most businesses don’t do this, and they “wing it” as they go. They shoot from the hip when making major decisions which often leads to a convoluted brand with a mixed message that often contradict itself.
In the case of Ramla, are they a “one type of concept fits all (izakaya chain)”, or are they going to tailor their restaurants (brands) to fit particular market segments? They could potentially do this by neighborhood such as developing their menu to compliment the existing businesses in Encino on Ventura Blvd with all the struggling actors, West Covina and suburban life with the current Filipino and the newly emerging Chinese population and biker gangs… well maybe not the gangs, to Palm Springs, and well, you know, the Palm Springs crowd. All three of these areas are very distinct from one another, and that could be a major consideration with their approach. Unfortunately, their multiple brands don’t reflect any distinctive character at all, and they’re all the same.
How You Doin’
One thing they have done with their marketing is communicated how many restaurants they have, but you can’t have one-hundred and fifty restaurants till you have one good one.
As of 9/1/2016, there are currently five restaurants and three brands spread throughout LA with one in San Francisco.
- Oto-Oto Izakaya Japonaise
- Monrovia, CA, 3.5 stars with 504 reviews
- West Covina, CA, 3.5 stars with 430 reviews
- Oto-Oto Express
- Los Angeles, CA, 4 stars with 10 reviews
- Gyoro Gyoro Izakaya Japonaise
Encino, CANo longer in business
- Palm Springs, CA, 4 stars with 513 reviews
- Ginto Izakaya Japonaise
- San Francisco, CA, 3.5 stars with 255 reviews (note: in SF, they have a “Poor Food Safety Score!”)
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
FIRST-HAND EXPERIENCE | SAN FRANCISO – I’ve been to Ginto on Market on a couple of occasions, but the majority of the time I stuck with only drinking because the few items I had tried were lackluster for SF.
The menu pales in comparison to the other choices I have in the city such as Kusakabe nearby (kaiseki), Maruya in the Mission (sushi), Rintaro in the Mission (izakaya), or Mensho nearby in lower Nob Hill (ramen). Not to mention, not only am I passing up on these spots, but I’m also passing up on eating at Shalimar (Pakistani food, unfortunately, the quality has dramatically slipped) or even R&G Lounge (Chinese).
Also to kickstart things, I typically start my night off with a drink. Unfortunately, my visit during the initial opening months, I had one of the worst bartenders I have had to contend with in a long time. It’s as if she had never worked a day in her life in the service industry, and this was my initial experience with the brand – all it takes is one bad employee to kill all your branding efforts.
SHELLY | PALM SPRINGS – Being in Palm Springs and looking over the pics of Gyoro-Gyoro on their yelp profile, I was hesitant because I immediately sensed the connection with Ginto (the hannya masks gave that away).
Seeing that it was only a block away from where I was staying (the Hyatt), I couldn’t help to think of their menu being like an oasis having being located in Palm Springs, so I was more than up to try them again. Especially since in contrast, the other option was a three star Japanese-Filipino restaurant forty-five minutes away in the Yucca Valley.
Not only was it close by, but the service started off friendly. I was also relieved to find out that the pricing was also the same moderate pricing they had in SF and most likely their other locations too.
The biggest redeeming quality of the night was the server, Shelly. She was on it even though it was probably one of their slower nights, a Monday night at around 7 which was still moderately busy.
She was extremely attentive throughout the night, and that combined with the majority of the food being properly prepared made for a solid experience. My only gripe was with the nigirizushi which could have been better.
RANDOM YELPERS | WEST COVINA AND ENCINO: When going through Yelp, the first thing I do is check out the random haters to see if any of their 1 to 2 stars have any weight to them. The one thing I look for is consistency, and if I constantly see the same gripe, there’s a high probability that there are legitimate issues.
The most common complaints were “bad management and slow or inattentive service”. The rest of them were along the lines of “not able to order, food came out of sequence, booth seating is too reclusive, the restaurant was empty on a Friday night, roll falls apart, servers not trained properly, servers don’t know the menu, not really Japanese food, but American-Japanese food, unprofessional, foul-mouthed staff, bad sushi, weak drinks, overcharged, didn’t get correct change, nasty sushi” to “poor quality ingredients”.
Jack of All Trades, Master of None
Going through their menu, I wonder what exactly are they the best at, or are they just hoping to be average at all of them. It’s this reason why I consider their menu to be extremely ambitious.
You would think either pricing, atmosphere, or the type of food would dictate the varying brands, but in the case of Ramla’s restaurants, all of the menus appear to be the same regardless of the brand. They only have slight variations:
- Starters, 11 items
- Salads, 2 items
- Grilled, 7 items
- Fried, 8 items
- Ramen noodles, 2 items
- Sashimi, 2 items
- Yakitori, 21 items
- Kobe beef, 6 items
- Rice clay pot, 2 items
- Signature rolls, 9 items
- Speciality rolls, 12 items
- Sushi bowls, 6 items
- Dinner sets (includes kids menu), 12 items
- Desserts, 10 items
So how many items total is that, time to bust out the calculator. Lets see, that’s about 110 items on the menu. Not totally outrageous since some items share common ingredients such as the rolls/sushi, but it’s still a very ambitious menu.
Care to see for yourself, you can view their PDF menu below:
Finally, in Conclusion
I love to eat, and I love Japanese food which is some of the reasons why I like to see more restaurant groups with roots from Japan open up shop here. It’s why I was excited to see RamlaUSA and their brands here, but after experiencing a couple of them first-hand I’m not so excited anymore. Although I think they can do better, and I hope they do by find some sort of direction versus just trying to have one-fifty restaurants in the U.S. because I’ll be happy with just one good one.
Oto-Oto Izakaya Japonaise
929 W. Huntington Dr., Monrovia, CA
Oto-Oto Izakaya Japonaise
2686 E. Garvey Ave. S, West Covina, CA
800 N. Alameda St., Los Angeles, CA
Gyoro Gyoro Izakaya Japonaise
105 S. Palm Canyon Dr., Palm Springs, CA
Ginto Izakaya Japonaise
658 Market St., San Francisco, CA