When Japanese Udon meets Tam's Mixian

May 15, 2017 16:14
A Tam Chai Yunnan noodle outlet and a bowl of the chain's signature rice noodles (inset top). The other image inset shows a bowl of Marugame Seimen udon noodles. Photos: https://www.toridoll.com, Facebook/Jointedheart

Can a wasabi fan take on the challenge of hot and spicy noodle?

That is something we are going to find out given reports that Japanese noodle maker Toridoll has made a 15 billion yen (HK$1.03 billion) offer to acquire Hong Kong's popular Tam Chai Yunnan noodle restaurant chain. 

According to Japan Economic News, Toridoll will make its first overseas investment by acquiring Jointed-Heart Catering Holdings, which owns 48 Yunnan Mixian (rice noodle) shops in Hong Kong.

The cross-border acquisition, if consummated, underlines the growing appeal of a healthy style of eating that the Japanese might want introduce to their home turf.

In addition, Toridoll, which operates 890 restaurants in Japan and 340 overseas eateries under the chain name Marugame Seimen, can use the new mixian operator to penetrate into China.

The acquisition by Japanese, who have captured the hearts of many Hong Kong diners, vindicates the special appeal of mixian -- a quick, delicious and simple-to-make offering that stands to become more popular among Asians, just like Udon.

What is Tam’s Yunnan rice noodle? The franchise has a colourful history dating back to a rich Hunan family whose assets were confiscated during the Cultural Revolution.

The family moved to Hong Kong where it started a metallurgy business.

In 1996, three brothers of the Tam family started their first noodle shop -- Tam Chai Yunnan noodles -- at a location on Wing Lung Street, Cheung Sha Wan, combining the spicy Sichuan style with Yunnan mixian.

It took four years for Tam Chai to become hugely popular, which happened after endorsements by a famous food writer and some celebrities.

The eatery became so popular that there used to be long queues, forcing the management to put off the staff lunch until as late as 5pm.

But success begat its own problems. The third brother left the group to establish his own Tam Jai Sam Gor Mixian, while the fifth brother joined in the original group.

Tam Chai is reported to have made a profit of HK$140 million on turnover of HK$700 million in the year to March 2016, according to some local media reports.

As mixian became more popular, Tam Chai has had more competitors. One example is Mixian Sense, owned by Café de Coral, which quickly became the fast-food version of the noodle shop.

Jointed-Heart did not respond to media inquiries, but Toridoll -- whose chairman has in the past outlined a vision to operate more than 6,000 outlets by 2025 -- confirmed that it is indeed mulling a Hong Kong investment.

The acquisition is still under discussion, it said, adding that it will make an announcement if a deal is struck.

The challenge goes on. But if one can stand a lot of wasabi, it is only expected that moving to the next level in terms of chili and spice won't be too difficult.

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EJ Insight writer