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The 3rd Largest Japanese Restaurant Group is Here, But Have You Ever Been to Any of Their Restaurants

Another Restaurant Group Joining the Fray

Ramla (la’la’la’dee’da) is the parent company of Gyoro Gyoro, Oto-Oto, and Ginza Izakaya Japonaise… yea, French for flare, oooh la la.

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Konichi wa guurrrrl, Image courtesy of Ab-out CO, Santouka Ramen, Japan

Seeing such a large restaurant group come to the U.S., you just can’t help (well, I can’t) but get excited to see what they are going to do here. I think that is because if a smaller chain can deliver up such an impressive effort like Santouka ramen, what can the 3rd largest group in Japan do? Well, I went to go find that out, but first things first, this is the others they’ll be joining the ranks of.

A Few of the Biggest American Restaurant Groups Are (for the latest rankings, click here):

  • Darden Restaurants (wiki): Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Yard House, Seasons 52, LongHorn, The Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze, and Eddie V’s.
  • Dine Equity (wiki): Applebee’s and IHOP
  • Bloomin’ Brands (wiki): Outback, Fleming’s, Bonefish Grill, Carrabba’s, and Roy’s.
  • Brinker International (wiki): 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 some of the hottest emerging groups/chains like:

Some of My Favorite Emerging and Existing Restaurant Groups Here in the U.S.:

  • Take 5 Co. International (Japanese/website): Red Pepper is probably the most recognizable in Japan, but the ones you’ll know in the in SoCal are Manpuku and Izakaya Hachi.
  • Ab-out Co (Japanese/website): Hokkaido Ramen Santouka, Ramen Ezofukuro, Menya Takejiro
  • M2kgroup/Michael Kwan (American/website): 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 owner’s name on the DL/website): The Boiling Crab.
  • Kang Ho-dong Baekjeong (Korean/website): Kang Ho-dong Baekjeong

Looking over this list, these spots are gangsta AF and there’s a ton more on the rise which is why I am interested to see how Ramla will decide on how to take them on.


Does Ramla Measure Up?

  1. You’re a Big Deal (in Japan, that is): Ramla in Japan.
  2. What is Ramla All About: Ramla in the United States.
  3. Yo dawg, I hear you like brands: 32+ brands and counting.
  4. How you doin’: focus and marketing on all the wrong things.
  5. Jack of all trades, master of none: ok with being average.
  6. Finally, in conclusion: to sum it all up.

1. You’re a Big Deal (in Japan, that is)

Ramla consists of 154 restaurants which is made up of 32 brands which consist of Japanese, French, Italian, to Spanish food.

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Ginto in Japan does steaks, roast beef, pasta and a premium oyster pizza’s, somebody’s got to do it.

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 composed 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 sort of a vision statement because it alludes 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 plan on doing it.

Below are a few of pics of some of the beautiful interiors of the 150+ restaurants they own and operate in Japan.

2. What is Ramla All About?

Ramla comes off as a company that does everything by “group committee” because of their generic mission statement and silly vision statement.

I had to do some digging, but 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.

Ramla also can not do what they do in Japan (French, Italian, or Spanish food) because there is a reason why Taco Bell failed when they tried to open in  Mexico, or why Panda Express is not going to open any restaurants in China.


3. Yo Dawg, I Hear You Like Brands

32+ brands and counting. With that many brands, their brands have brands.

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Close-up of the hamachi nigirizushi

Yo dawg, I hear you like brands, so we created three of them. They will all appear to be the same experience, but we have three brands versus just one. Why? I don’t know why, but we 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? 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 it. 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 I Expect to See From a Brand

  1. The first would be to define who you are: what drives you.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 characteristic at all, and they’re all the same and that is just sad.


4. How You Doin’

One thing they have done with their marketing is to communicate how many restaurants they have, but if you can’t have one good restaurant out of one-hundred and fifty, what difference does it make to tout it?

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Not the busiest sushi bar. Taken at the Palm Springs Gyoro Gyoro.

As of 9/1/2016, there are currently five restaurants and three brands spread throughout LA with one in San Francisco, but I do not expect the vast majority of these restaurants to survive.

ramla-brands

  1. Oto-Oto Izakaya Japonaise
    1. Monrovia, CA, 3.5 stars with 504 reviews
    2. West Covina, CA, 3.5 stars with 430 reviews  – CLOSED (updated 9/13/18)
  2. Oto-Oto Express
    1. Los Angeles, CA, 4 stars with 10 reviews  – CLOSED (updated 9/13/18)
  3. Gyoro Gyoro Izakaya Japonaise
    1. Encino, CA  No longer in business
    2. Palm Springs, CA, 4 stars with 513 reviews  – CLOSED (updated 9/13/18)
  4. Ginto Izakaya Japonaise
    1. San Francisco, CA, 3.5 stars with 255 reviews (note: in SF, they have a “Poor Food Safety Score!”)

5. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

I tried out two of their restaurants, and I researched all of their restaurants on Yelp.

A). Ginto, San Francisco – 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 at the bar before I considered getting a table were lackluster for SF.

The menu pales in comparison to the other choices I have in the city such as Kusakabe nearby (kaiseki/sushi), 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 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 (if they manage, pay, or hire like in Japan, they will fail).

B). Gyoro Gyoro, 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 in Palm Springs because my other option was a three-star Japanese-Filipino restaurant forty-five minutes away in the Yucca Valley.

Not only was Gyoro Gyoro 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 like most of their other locations.

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Teba (chicken wings) $4.50

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 pm 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.

C). West Covina/Encino (random Yelpers): 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 in complaints, and if I constantly see the same gripe, there’s a high probability that it is a legitimate issue. 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”.


6. Jack of All Trades, Master of None

Going through their menu, I wondered if they have any focus, or are they just cool at being average at everything. The answer is that they are cool with being average.

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Japanese eggplant with dengaku miso $4.95

You would think either pricing (fast casual to fine dining), atmosphere (modern to Japanese themed), or the type of food (only yakitori/sushi to an izakaya) 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, and they only have slight variations:

  1. Starters,  11 items
  2. Salads, 2 items
  3. Grilled, 7 items
  4. Fried, 8 items
  5. Ramen noodles, 2 items
  6. Sashimi, 2 items
  7. Yakitori, 21 items
  8. Kobe beef, 6 items
  9. Rice clay pot, 2 items
  10. Signature rolls, 9 items
  11. Speciality rolls, 12 items
  12. Sushi bowls, 6 items
  13. Dinner sets (includes kids menu), 12 items
  14. 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:

Gyoro Gyoro Image gallery

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Most American’s are sauce queens so a basic teba (chicken wings) might not be as appealing $4.50
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Even though the chicken meatball is tasty ($4.25), doesn’t always seem more expensive in the U.S.
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First off, most Americans don’t eat tongue (gyutan), and almost $8 (7.5) for a couple pieces, it is not going to happen.
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Engawa (hirame fin) $8.50, hamachi (yellowtail) $6.25, and maguro (tuna) $6.95
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In Murica, $5 fries come in a bucket vs. a tiny handful of aonori fries.
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Togarashi (7-spice) and soy sauce
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Chicken meatball $4.25 and heart $2.95, not so cheap at all.
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Yea right, try getting your average American to want to pay $2.95 for a skewer of chicken skin is not going to happen, unless it’s under $2.
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Another round of chicken meatball (tsukune).
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Not only do they have a lot of brands, but they have a lot of menus.
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Sapparo draft is a mainstay in any Japanese restaurant.
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Requested that it be cooked medium rare and it came out perfect.
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Seafood ceviche off of the specials menu is a hot mess of sauce.

7. Finally, in Conclusion

I love to eat, and I love Japanese food which is why I would like to see more restaurant groups with roots from Japan open up shop here.

I was excited to see Ramla USA and their brands here, but after experiencing a couple of them first-hand, I am not so excited anymore although I think they can do better with the right resources in place.

They have the expertise of running and operating 150+ restaurants in Japan, so they should be able to deliver once they get more focused.

What Ramla needs to do to succeed in the U.S.
In order for Ramla to ever survive in the U.S., they will need to have a sound strategy and direction versus the ridiculous manifesto of:

  1. The goal of “one-fifty restaurants in the U.S.” because at the rate they are going, they should be happy with just one good one. Toyota went down this path of “being the biggest,” and it blew up in their face because quality went downhill.
  2. Research and develop a more focused menu because as of now, they are just like Sony with a million and one products that nobody buys because they leave it up to the market to find out about the products and choose (did you know Sony had two tablets? No, yea, bad marketing).
  3. The venues are too big and creatively they are poorly executed. The two locations I had been to have been massive, empty, and generic looking. Ginto had the most generic look, especially the chairs/tables, and the overall look of the interior in one of the most design centric cities. Gyoro Gyoro in Palm Springs is even bigger, and I have no idea how they planned on even coming close to even partially filling the space which is a huge mistake because nobody in the U.S. wants to be in a empty/dead restaurant.

Ramla Restaurants in the United States

Oto-Oto Izakaya Japonaise
929 W. Huntington Dr., Monrovia, CA
(626) 359-3000
www.otootorestaurant.com

Oto-Oto Izakaya Japonaise – CLOSED (updated 9/13/18)
2686 E. Garvey Ave. S, West Covina, CA
(626) 966-8300
www.otootorestaurant.com

Oto-Oto Express – CLOSED (updated 9/13/18)
800 N. Alameda St., Los Angeles, CA
(626) 966-8300
www.otootorestaurant.com

Gyoro Gyoro Izakaya Japonaise – CLOSED (updated 9/13/18)
105 S. Palm Canyon Dr., Palm Springs, CA
(760) 327-5858
www.gyoro-gyoro.com

Ginto Izakaya Japonaise
658 Market St., San Francisco, CA
(415) 530-2466
www.gintosf.com


Corporate Information for Ramla
4F Takitomi Building
10-8 Nihombashi Odemma-cho
Chuo-Ku, 103-0011
Japan
www.ramla.net

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