“I was greedy,” the 69-year-old recalls. “The food was low quality. It was all made with the ready-to-use stuff I was importing. We made very little ourselves. Even back then, if food tasted cheap people didn’t buy it. The restaurant failed after a few months and I sold it to Mr Yoshino (of Yoshino fame). I saw how he made it work by focusing on the quality of his ingredients. My mistake taught me an important lesson.”
Born in Japan, Tokumine arrived in London in 1975 having fallen for an English girl in Hong Kong. The son of a successful businessman, he immediately saw a gap in the market for a Japanese bookshop and opened concessions in a number of Japanese restaurants before launching the business that would eventually become the Japan Centre.
A one-stop shop for Japanese products – selling everything from food and tableware to origami kits and make-up – the Japan Centre has moved around the spokes of Piccadilly Circus over the years and is now, for the moment at least, located on Shaftesbury Avenue.
Some 20 years after the closure of his first restaurant, Tokumine opened Toku on Lower Regent Street. “It faired much better,” he beams. “We offered a wide-ranging Japanese menu. I suppose it was a bit like Wagamama. But we had a tough time with landlords. Leases ran out. Buildings got redeveloped. We had to move the site a number of times.”
Things came to head in early 2012 when the lease for Toku ran out yet again. Tokumine was heavily indebted to the point that he was considering throwing in the towel and could barely afford to move the business. But his luck changed when a tapas restaurant opposite Toku, then on the southern end of Regent Street, came onto the market.
“It was a complicated and risky deal. The site was perfect, but the only way I could get it was to buy the whole business,” says Tokumine. “It was going very cheap, but only because it was heavily in debt – around £300,000. I knew I’d have to pay that off eventually but I took a gamble and bought the restaurant anyway. As the deal was going through, the debt was written off, so I ended up getting the site very cheaply.” Thus ramen restaurant brand Shoryu was born.
Ramen revolution: Shoryu's tonkotsu
The Shoryu story
Tokumine had dabbled with ramen before at Toku and at the Japan Centre but had never focused on the ramen of his home city of Fukuoka, the birthplace of Hakata-style ramen (it takes its name from one of the city’s districts). The hallmarks of Hakata-style ramen are a rich, milky pork-bone tonkotsu broth and thin, al dente noodles.
“Ramen didn’t originate in Fukuoka but it’s where it was perfected. Fukuoka is to ramen as Naples is to pizza. As such, Hakata-style ramen is widely available across Japan,” he says.
Shoryu opened in late 2012 just as London was going crazy for authentic ramen. The business has now grown to 10 sites with two more set to open soon. Earlier this year, Tokumine sold a 40% stake in the chain to Japan-based restaurant group Toridoll Holdings Corporation for £7m. The deal valued Shoryu at nearly £20m – not bad going for a restaurant business that almost called in the administrators some five years previously.
“Fortune comes and goes,” says Tokumine, who now oversees both Shoryu and the Japan Centre as CEO. “Five years ago finding £10,000 was a problem, now I’m dealing with millions. Success comes suddenly and usually because you have taken a risk.”
Shoryu is now the biggest player in the ramen space in terms of site numbers, but the brand is not short of competition. Tonkotsu and Bone Daddies – its main ramen rivals – also launched in 2012 and have since expanded to six and five sites respectively. Newcomers have also entered the market, most notably Kanada-Ya and Japanese-owned chain Ippudo.
There are now close to 30 branded ramen restaurants in central London. Does Tokumine think the market is becoming saturated? “Not at all. Look at sushi. When I first started out in the UK there were hardly any sushi restaurants, now there are hundreds,” he says. “Fukuoka is a city of 1.5 million people and has 6,000 ramen joints. I think we have some way to go.”
Like other operators in the ramen space, Tokumine has had to adapt the no-frills ramen bars of Japan into a concept that’s more suited to the UK market. “Ramen is not a restaurant experience in Japan. Ramen bars are closer to cafés. You sit at the bar and eat it very quickly. There are no side dishes. It’s good fast food for students and workers,” he says.
“But we made Shoryu into a place you could come for a date. We serve other dishes and have a large range of drinks. We also spend proper money on shop fitting and branding.” The menu varies a little from location to location, with some restaurants offering a greater variety of sides. These include chicken karaage, tiger prawn tempura and hirata buns filled with char siu pork.
Stripped back chic: Shoryu's Covent Garden restaurant
In keeping with Hakata tradition, the ramen served at Shoryu is mainly made with tonkotsu broth, but some have miso as well as soy-based broths. Ramen is priced from £10 to £13 and options include the Signature Tonkotsu, 12-hour pork broth topped with char siu pork, nitamago egg, kikurage mushrooms, spring onion, sesame, ginger and nori seaweed; the White Natural, made with tonyu soy milk, miso, konbu and shiitake broth and fried tofu; and the Karaka Neapolitan, which involves spicy tomato sauce, smoked salmon, nitamago egg and Parmesan cheese. The latter is more authentic than it might sound – ramen shops in Japan often serve wacky, internationally inspired varieties.
Not just big in Japan
Shoryu was among the first to bring ramen to the regions (the group was narrowly beaten by Tonkotsu, which opened a concession in Selfridges Birmingham last year). Shoryu Manchester opened a few months afterwards and is said to be trading well. Later this year, a second regional Shoryu will open in Oxford’s new Westgate shopping centre.
According to Tokumine, the essential ingredient for a successful ramen restaurant in the UK isn’t nearby office blocks or high-footfall locations (although these clearly help), but a large population of Chinese people.
“The first group of customers to all our sites has been Chinese people. They bring their western friends, the site looks busy and it grows from there. This made Manchester an obvious choice for our first site outside London. Oxford also has a large Chinese population, lots of Chinese tourists and lots of students, which also helps.”
It’s a sound strategy, but what about the towns and cities in the UK that aren’t home to large Chinese populations? “That’s a big problem. We can’t go everywhere yet,” he concedes. “But soon we’ll be able to. Liverpool and Birmingham are the next targets because they have big Chinese populations, and then to Edinburgh and Glasgow.”
Toridoll now provides the majority of the capital for Shoryu’s expansion. “With 1,000 restaurants and a turnover of £1bn it is a cash-rich company and it also has access to very cheap debt. In Japan, rates are as low as 0.5%. The expansion of Shoryu is going to pick up next year and the deal will eventually see the brand go across the world,” he says. Tokumine has already taken Shoryu abroad with an opening in Fukuoka. With some 6,000 competitors, it was the group’s most challenging launch yet but a year or two later, the restaurant, which doubles as a training hub for UK staff, is “doing OK”.
Centres of excellence
Not content with running a group of successful ramen restaurant brands, Tokumine has been keen to spread his wings – with varying degrees of success. Last year he launched a second branded noodle concept on New Oxford Street called Ichiryu, which was designed to be a more virtuous counterpart to Shoryu with a focus on udon noodles.
“It was busy. But the problem with a healthy food restaurant is that people don’t order many sides or drinks. The menu pricing was comparable to Shoryu but the spend per head was £5 lower. We broke even, but it wasn’t a viable business model,” says Tokumine, who has since converted it to a Shoryu that is doing “very well”.
In 2016, Tokumine also found time to open his first fine-dining restaurant, a four-way collaboration with the Toridoll Corporation, sake brewer Gekkeikan and Mitsuhiro Araki, the chef behind two-Michelin star Mayfair sushi restaurant The Araki.
Sakaguru – which specialises in wagyu but offers a fairly wide-ranging top-end Japanese menu – has apparently needed a fair amount of tweaking and is described by Tokumine as a “slow burn”. He’s bullish about the £1.2m Mayfair restaurant’s prospects, but one gets the feeling the transition from casual to fine dining has not been straightforward.
Four way collaboration: Tokumine's Sakaguru
Much of the £7m from Toridoll deal will be pumped into the Japan Centre. Tokumine and his managing director daughter Hannah have ambitious plans for the brand. The lease at the Shaftesbury Avenue location is coming to an end and the pair has secured a larger site of around 6,000sq ft on Panton Street just down the road.
Expected to open next month, the new location will have sake, miso and tea rooms, a Japanese bakery, a fresh produce store, a homewares department and a 70-cover restaurant. Tokumine also lets slip that there is an even more ambitious plan afoot to create a Japanese answer to Eataly, the international chain of Italian marketplaces and food halls.
The location is under wraps, but a 14,000sq ft space has apparently been secured with the venue – which may or may not be branded Japan Centre – expected to open early next year. It will comprise a large retail offering and a huge food court with multiple styles of Japanese cuisine on offer.
Some four decades on from opening his first business, Tokumine can now actually afford to take a risk or two. His willingness to live life on the edge spills over into his leisure time. He is a fully trained pilot and, in later life, has developed a penchant for vintage motorbikes. His pride and joy is a 1947 Harley Davidson ‘Knucklehead’.
“The shock absorbing system is terrible but the bike makes a wonderful noise,” he says. “They call it a suicide bike because the gear controls are on the side of the petrol tank. It’s just as well it only gets up to 55 miles per hour.