Turning a dream into reality: Making craft Ramen…
Of Chinese origin and British nationality, Mei Chan has been immersed in Japanese culture thanks to her many travels but also because of her passion for this…
My name is Mei Chan and I am the co-founder of MANZOKU. I am a Designer by trade, specialising in packaging, and have worked on numerous food & drink projects in London and Hong Kong.
Many of my culinary loves and preferences stem from my past experiences and my own cultural heritage. I’m British of Chinese origin and grew up in London, in a family of restaurateurs. I have a passion for eating and cooking Asian food, and have worked and travelled much in the Far East, particularly in Japan.
A bowl of Japanese Ramen is a heart-warming, humble dish that consists of three main components: soup broth, noodles and toppings. Ramen is the most popular comfort food in Japan and in recent years has experienced a renaissance with the craft Ramen movement, and can now be found in major cities around the world.
Our mission is to make authentic Japanese Ramen available to everyone in Luxembourg, not just through a restaurant, but also to home cooks in the form of a Ramen cooking kit.
My ambition has always been to create my own food brand. At home we really enjoy eating Asian food, but Japanese has always been a particular favorite, especially Ramen. Before forming MANZOKU we could spend whole weekends trying to make authentic Ramen noodles and soup broth from scratch. Admittedly it wasn’t easy but the end result was definitely worth it!
Coincidentally, my husband returned from a business trip to Japan and brought home a semi-fresh Ramen kit. It was a revelation – so simple yet delicious – and took only minutes instead of days!
After some research, we realised that there was nothing else like this available in Europe. This lead me to think more about this as a future business idea and to dream of what could be possible.
Once we had the intention to offer fresh craft Ramen to everyone, we set out to find out how to make this possible. We first wrote a business plan to see if this idea could be made viable. It all looked good on paper but we needed the confidence to be able to deliver the product, so I took a Ramen-making course with a Japanese company and learned the essential skills of craft Ramen.
Creating a new business from scratch requires a lot of discipline and determination. I had to learn many new skill sets to make this dream a reality. Not to mention having to also juggle a family, whilst being a new entrepreneur. Thankfully my husband is 100% behind the idea and has been heavily involved in making it a success, as have my kids, which makes this feel very much like a family business.
In September 2019 we launched the MANZOKU fresh Ramen cooking kits in the Pall Center (Strassen) and also in our own ‘pop-up’ shop in Howald, next to our noodle production facility.
The cooking kit consists of locally-made fresh Ramen noodles and a flavoursome soup stock imported from Japan. They are available in three flavors (Tokyo, Sapporo, Hakata), matching the best noodles with the corresponding broth from the same region of Japan.
I had certain values when creating our MANZOKU fresh Ramen cooking kits – especially concerning the impact on the environment – and tried as best as (scientifically and commercially) possible to do that. The packaging was designed to use the least amount of materials and still keep our premium product fresh and protected. Similarly, we only use local flours and have been blessed with support from Moulins de Kleinbettingen.
In order to educate the market and promote Ramen, we started holding regular pop-up restaurant events. This proved to be hugely popular and all events were completely sold out. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic further events had to be cancelled and so we needed to adapt our business quickly to survive.
We started a joint venture with GroupLunch (Foozo), to deliver a ready-meal version of our Ramen to homes and businesses, which proved particularly popular during the period of confinement.
We continued with our pop-up shop and found that there was an interest in more Japanese products. So we started also importing Japanese rice, premium soy sauces, sake, tableware, etc. However, as our pop-up shop was only open on Saturdays, our revenue potential was very limited.
It was time to make a big decision. Do we continue to struggle in our present shape, give up or head in a new direction?
As there was demand for Japanese products and Luxembourg does not have a dedicated Japanese shop, we decided to create the first “Épicerie Japonaise”, together with a small Ramen Bar.
The biggest challenge we faced was to find the right space in the right location, with a landlord that would allow a restaurant business. We walked around town and various neighbourhoods, looking for potential available spaces. We finally got lucky and found a property on Place de France, ideally situated on the crossroads between Belair, Merl and Hollerich
The project required more finances than we had available but we were determined to make our dream become a reality. As designers we had a clear vision of what we wanted to achieve and took a minimalistic and phased approach. Due to the pandemic it proved particularly difficult to find companies that were available. Costs also increased due to a shortage of materials and there were many delays. It was a very stressful time and it required a lot of resilience to work through the obstacles.
We were finally able to open the shop in May 2021 and were also very lucky to find some amazing Japanese staff to join the team.
Meanwhile, works were continuing to finalise the Ramen Bar. The kitchen proved to be a serious challenge, as it took more than six months to receive all the equipment and there was not enough power coming into the building. Thankfully our landlord was able to work out a solution together with Creos and after a few months of struggling, we finally had a working kitchen.
We started offering takeaways and deliveries from January 2022 and in February started holding lunch and dinner pop-up events. Our staff have been fantastic in offering great service.
A Ramen Bar is not a fancy place - it's usually noisy, busy and fast. Customers can be merry and enjoy happiness in a bowl.
So far the customer feedback has been overly positive and we are beginning to see regulars. When the Ramen Bar is full, there is an amazing buzz, and there is this feeling of being transported back to Japan, at least for a few moments.
While making money is essential for any business to survive and thrive - it should not be the main motivator when starting a business. As an entrepreneur, you will be spending so many hours on the business, that it is essential to choose a subject which you have a deep interest and passion for. You must believe in it wholeheartedly, because there will be many difficult challenges and sacrifices to make along the way, that will make you question yourself. Having a clear purpose that you believe is worthwhile helps you get through this stage.
Nyuko has signed a partnership with Spuerkeess, in order to foster entrepreneurial spirit and strengthening the bank's position with company founders from the start of their businesses. More info in our article: https://www.spuerkeess.lu/en/blog/experts-corner/nyuko-fostering-entrepreneurial-spirit/.