A daruma is a Japanese figure without limbs, as it represents a teacher who sat for years in a cave meditating and whose legs became dry from not using them. He has two empty eyes that serve as an amulet: when one has a goal, he paints one eye, and if he manages to achieve it in the time set, he can paint the other. This figure, as widespread in Japan as the lucky cat, is very common to find in business environments as a motivation to achieve results. Jordi Vidal and Jordi Pascual, founders of the Asian food chain Udon, have one in their Barcelona offices. “We paint the first eye during the pandemic and we will paint the other when the year ends if we have succeeded,” explains Pascual. The forecast they have is to meet the objective with ease, because they do not only hope to get out of the crisis, which they have weathered successfully, but to carry out their international expansion plan, which has already begun: the restaurant chain, which was born in Barcelona In 2004, it will open its first location in the United States, in Miami, and will open another two in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
Udon was born as an idea of collaboration between the two families. One day Jordi Pascual’s father, importer and distributor of Honda’s technological products, was returning from a business trip to Japan and called his son. Spontaneously, he explains, he told her that, instead of looking for work, what he had to do was open a noodle restaurant, the Japanese noodles that are found in every corner of the street, to take away or quickly take at a bar. Pascual’s father had a promotion friend from the Esade business school, whose son worked in the hotel business. The four of them met for dinner together. “We decided that it was worth studying it, and Jordi and I started to make a business plan. We always think of it as a chain of restaurants, not just one. Jordi always said that he would never open a restaurant because of how sacrificed it is, and look, he has ended up setting up a chain ”, explains Pascual.
After studying the market and the viability of the business, they opened the first restaurant in the Born district of Barcelona in 2004. In the following years, they opened five more of their own stores and in 2010 they signed the first franchise. Currently, the chain consists of 67 restaurants, 6 of them owned and the rest franchised. In total there are 850 employees. “We need some of our own premises because they are like laboratories of ideas, where we test whether new products work. But we work very well with franchisees ”, explains Pascual.
The franchise model is precisely the one that will be used in international expansion. Udon has restaurants in the main Spanish cities, and also in Portugal and Andorra. But it is the jump to America that, according to Pascual, motivates them and, at the same time, gives them vertigo. “In the future we will see if we have been visionaries or kamikazes,” he says, although the planned franchises in some countries began to take shape before the pandemic. The company’s strategic plan focuses on international growth in the United States, Mexico, Panama, Colombia and Chile, with the goal of reaching 100 stores worldwide by 2024.
The internationalization that the company undertakes is a “blank page” that they open with the ultimate goal of “being a benchmark in the field of Asian-themed restaurants.” The great asset of Udon is the product, focused on the noodles and their variants. Pascual insists that it is not traditional Japanese cuisine, although it is inspired by it, but that they build a menu based on various elements of Asian cuisine. “It is very recognizable in all cuisines. Asian cuisine is the new Italian, it is very easy to export ”, he explains. The advantage over its competitors is, according to Pascual, the innovation and sustainability of its kitchen. However, he admits that two clichés weigh on Udon: the first is that the concept of a chain or franchise is less valued than that of a restaurant; the second, that by having many stores in shopping centers, it is perceived as a fast food chain, despite having an average ticket on the menu of about 18 euros per person (the daily menu is 10.95). “We are working to better transmit our values and get away from these prejudices,” adds Pascual.
Despite the new stage, they rule out changing the composition of the shareholders or selling the business, which is equally between the two families. They also do not plan to go into debt. “We have endured without debt for the product, which resists everything, and for our network of multi-franchisees, which is very solid,” explains Pascual. Udon had a notorious labor dispute in 2015, when workers demanded compliance with the agreement and encouraged boycotts of restaurants. “It was much less than the impact it had,” he highlights. Since then, they assure that they have not had new conflicts.
Pascual is very proud that in the midst of a pandemic he can give good news of growth. The health crisis and restrictions have greatly affected restaurants, closed tight or with limited hours for months in many cities. In 2019, Udon had a turnover of 40.5 million euros, and in 2020, the year of the pandemic, sales fell to 24.5 million euros. “It has been a very difficult year and, although our product is perfect for home delivery, which has grown a lot, global turnover has been greatly affected. The key element for survival has been financial capacity, because public aid has been very scarce ”, reasons the founder. Their forecast for this year is to slowly recover sales: “It is not very complicated, because we come from where we come from, but it is a very slow process. Little by little the restrictions are being opened, and the arrival of tourism and vaccination will help ”.