Sun Noodle, and the Carlstadt factory churning out half of the company’s revered ramen noodles, has earned a reputation among owners of the growing number of ramen shops serving up bowls nationwide: If you want fresh noodles, everyone knows it as the first, best option.
The company’s president, Kenshiro Uki, isn’t afraid to admit that wasn’t always the case.
When Uki took an invitation to an East Coast ramen event as a chance to tour the area for the first time in 2009, the then-24-year-old was excited to hear from restaurants in the region what they thought of the noodles arriving from the Hawaii and California factories his father built.
The impression restaurateurs had was far from the esteem the market-leading Sun Noodle stirs up in chefs today, or in the Pacific-linked markets in years prior. At the time, the 3,000-mile freezer-truck journey eastward the products had to make was leaving a bad taste in the mouths of chefs.
“What I found was the perception of what Sun Noodle was, was at an all-time low,” he said. “Products weren’t being handled properly. They were melted, damaged, stuck together. When chefs got them, they just weren’t usable.”
That experience led to him speaking with his father, Hidehito Uki, who started the noodle-making enterprise in Hawaii several decades before, about the possibility of opening up a factory on the East Coast.
“None of our competition in the market was coming in locally, either; everyone was shipping from the West Coast,” he said. “So, I asked my father: ‘Hey, can we build something to make our craft specialty today the same way we did in Hawaii? Let’s get more people excited about this food category and let’s do it in New Jersey, where the distributors are.’”
Before the company built a 42,000-square-foot ramen noodle stronghold in Carlstadt, a veritable mecca of ramen noodle production and the largest of Sun Noodle’s four factories, it got established regionally with an about six times smaller Teterboro factory in 2012.
The small production center allowed the company to finally serve its growing New York City ramen shop clientele the same way Uki’s father had when he immigrated from Japan — not knowing how to speak English, but well-versed in the art of making noodles.
“In Hawaii, I grew up with Sun Noodle being known as a really premier noodle supplier,” he said. “A lot of it was because we were so experienced with making noodles that would be delivered fresh that afternoon or (a day later).”
Even if there was a desire to have fresh noodles in the region, there was some risk involved in investing in a New Jersey operation, Uki said. There wasn’t a gigantic market for the company’s products a decade ago, and the company didn’t have more than a 10% share of the business that did exist.
At the few ramen shops there were in the Garden State, Uki had to work hard to rehabilitate Sun Noodle’s image and pitch its custom-made products to chefs and restaurant owners.
“They took a chance on me,” he said. “They said that they know what we do, that our products are amazing and that they trusted it’d be different from years past. … At the same time, being so close to all the region’s chefs and media, we invited them into Teterboro to see what we were doing for themselves. We made a test kitchen there where chefs and media could taste fresh noodles off the (production) line. And the vision was to really share our craft.”
The operation courted the attention of food magazine Bon Appétit and was featured on the New Jersey episode of “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.” Especially important to its success was earning praise from celebrity chefs, including Momofuku’s David Chang, one of the popularizers of the country’s ramen scene.
If the acclaim alone wasn’t enough reason to upgrade from its small Teterboro noodle factory, the business category’s sudden explosion certainly was.
Uki noted that, during his first visit to the East Coast, New York City and the area surrounding it might have housed 15 restaurants focused just on ramen. There are more than 200 of these businesses in the region today, a significant number of them served by the Carlstadt factory the company moved into five years ago.
The 110-employee New Jersey operation also serves Korean, Filipino and other Asian restaurants that are following a regional trend of adding ramen to menus or offering the noodles as a substitute in dishes.
The company’s original markets have been heating up, too. California, where Los Angeles boasts one of the most robust ramen scenes, has more than 400 of these restaurants. There are 100-plus in Hawaii, where Uki’s father only had a handful to work with when he got his start.
“It seems like every city, every neighborhood now has, if not one ramen shop, multiple ramen shops,” Uki said. “And you have places, such as in Texas, where there’s a restaurant group with seven locations bridging traditional ramen with local flavor profiles — the barbecue culture.”
Moving forward, Uki expects the interest in fresh noodles among home chefs to continue to fuel Sun Noodle’s growth.
Aside from finding placement in all of Whole Foods’ stores, the company’s products can be found in boxes delivered by meal kit service Blue Apron. Carlstadt is where the products come from for both of those at-home segments of the business.
“Whether at home or in restaurants, we’re making a lot of innovative products, some of which can only be produced in New Jersey,” Uki said. “So, we’re excited about our work here and the category. We want more people, on more occasions, to get an opportunity to eat fresh noodles.”