The Tonkotsu Model for Success

This article was written for Stone and River by me, Lucy Orr-Ewing

I recently caught up with Rob Palmer-Williams, one of the two operations managers at Tonkotsu, in their flagship branch in Dean Street. Over some delicious Japanese small plates, we discussed the challenges that Tonkotsu seem to not only be managing but taking in their stride.

Tonkotsu is, first and foremost, a ramen restaurant; one of the many one-dish restaurants that herald simplicity as a key value driver. With only 6 ramen dishes on a clear and simple menu, no time is wasted in choosing, no money is wasted on stock, and no space is wasted on elaborate kitchens and too many chefs. The sites are therefore compact, which only adds to the buzzing atmosphere and creates the sense of a Japanese ‘izakaya’-style restaurant. As Rob says “our very diverse customer base is due to this simplicity, who doesn’t love simple, easy, good food?”.

The Tonkotsu model for success

Founders Ken Yamada and Emma Reynolds have come a long way from boiling pork stock in their flat back in 2012 and now have 10 sites (1 in Birmingham, 9 in London), with plans to open 2-3 restaurants a year to achieve their vision of ‘bringing modern ramen to the heart & soul of every British city’. Tonkotsu are proving immune to the turbulence in the restaurant industry which we see displacing many of the larger, more established brands. Rob put it down to 3 key growth drivers: creating a brand which people are proud to work for, making operations as slick and simple as possible and developing a proposition that keeps people coming back for more.

1. Creating a brand which people are proud to work for

In the year that Rob has been there, they have undergone a massive rebranding: their “DNA Launch”, which kicked off in February of last year. From redesigning their menus and logo right down to remapping the customer journey, the head office (of 6 people) have been working hard to keep their branding and operations as simple as possible, while never sacrificing the quality of product or attention to people.

Their approach to people is refreshing, including a very generous benefits package: a great friends and family scheme to attract and retain the best people, an extensive ‘perkbox’, £450 to the GM per quarter to spend on having fun with the team, a 2 week sabbatical after 5 years, and (my favourite) a job swap, where members of the team are encouraged to try their hand at something they’re interested in in Head Office, while HQ come down and cover for them behind the bar or waiting tables. All the General Managers have progressed through the business from the bottom-up, and this year, for the first time, they were given their own budgets to set, driving clear accountability and engagement.

“We’re particularly proud of the work we’ve done to reposition our focus on people”, Rob says. “Last year, we rallied all the General Managers and asked them to write down what was and wasn’t working well in their restaurants, and these ideas fed straight into our new values, a new vision, a new purpose and a new operating model”. He added that their 4 values are Japanese words (which he enjoys testing employees on in their Ops audits!) centred around being perfectionists, enthusiasts, and team players. It’s no wonder their staff turnover is around 9% across their restaurants from the last 12 months.

2. Making operations as slick and simple as possible

Operationally, they’re very slick. With such a simple menu, all their food (including 2500 litres of home-made broth) and cocktails are made off site at a central kitchen fresh every day. Rob also worked with the team to limit their customer journey points from 16 down to 5. They removed the robotic ‘Say ‘Hello, how are you today?’’ and now focus on simply Welcome, Approach, Deliver, Check and Goodbye, giving them more flexibility for interaction with customers. This makes for a very quick and painless experience in the restaurants, and GMs and their teams can focus on delivering great customer satisfaction, excellent service and short waiting times.

3. Developing a proposition that keeps people coming back for more

They used the space of their previous restaurant venture, Tsuru, to launch pop-up events on Saturdays to try out the appetite for ramen and their home-brewed broth, charging £10 for a ticket for a bowl of ramen and a beer. Tickets sold out in 5 minutes, and they launched Tonkotsu in 2012 in Dean Street, Soho. News got out of their 16-hour brewed pork broth and people came flocking, and they haven’t stopped since.

Their product is ramen, and this is proper ramen. They boil 40kg of pig bones and trotters to make their famous pork broth each day. Their tagline is “if you don’t make your own noodles, you’re just a soup shop”, and sure enough their noodles are made fresh daily and cooked for just 32 seconds for maximum freshness. They also manufacture their own product line: their “Eat the Bits” chilli oil which is available in 3 variations from their restaurants and online.

The Tonkotsu model for success

Rob says they’re making conscious efforts to drive in-store footfall, such as drag queen bingo, whiskey and sake tasting sessions, or a ‘lady in the tramp’ style Valentine’s initiative. According to Rob, “we really do our due diligence on every site we open and tailor the new site’s feel and experience to the location they’re in, without altering the quality of the product”. Each restaurant is littered with charming quirks, such as making their bars out of old recycled chopsticks from their restaurants. Rob prides the brand on its intricacies and says “the homemade aspect of our proposition makes for a great brand differentiator”.

It’ll be interesting to see how this homemade, start-up feel evolves as it scales up. Rob knows all his restaurant staff by name, but as is common for all growing businesses in the industry there will be a challenge for a brand of 20-30 to maintain the heart and energy that is so clearly visible today. Customers may be fickle and trends are often unpredictable, but if Tonkotsu continues to keep a close eye on their customer and maintains its impressive focus on driving engagement, alongside its distinctive proposition, it will be well-placed to meet this challenge head on.

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