They're comfortable and familiar, yet international and exotic. Noodles play a role in the cuisine of cultures worldwide and can range from the simplistic to the divine, making this little starch a great foundation for a variety of restaurant chains, including Mama Fu's Noodle House, Wild Noodles and Zyng Noodlery.
"Noodles work on a range of levels," says Marian Salzman, chief strategy officer with Euro RSCG Worldwide, a New York City-based integrated marketing communications agency. "There is a feeling that a noodle shop is no brow--neither high or low brow--and therefore OK for anyone of any ilk to visit."
While noodles, and restaurants serving noodles, are nothing new, national noodle chains are just emerging. These concepts are in their franchising infancy, some having fewer than 10 operating units. "A lot of cities and markets around the country have never seen a noodle concept. The trend is just beginning, and we're on the forefront of it," says George Krotonsky, president of Wild Noodles, a fast-casual chain serving up noodle dishes from around the world.
Zyng Noodlery, operated by franchise development company Fransmart, is a full-service Pan Asian grill that allows customers to create their own dishes. The concept was founded in 1997 and began franchising two years later. Most dishes are noodle-based, with customers adding in vegetables, protein (meat, chicken, fish or tofu) and sauces, cooked up in one the restaurant's exhibition kitchens for all patrons to see.
While providing different experiences to customers, noodles also have a benefit for the chains that promote them. "Noodles are great from a business perspective, because it's a cheap starch; it's a cheap way to fill a bowl," says Dan Rowe, CEO of Zyng Noodlery.
There are endless possibilities for what to throw into that bowl. Wild Noodles, a concept that was founded in 2001 and began franchising this year, specializes in international noodle dishes. "If I go in with my family and I'm in the mood for an Italian pasta dish and my wife's in the mood for an Asian dish and my kids want macaroni and cheese, I can get all those things at one time," Krotonsky says.
All that variety provides customers with a welcome change from the more traditional full-service and fast-casual fare. "It's not hamburgers or sandwiches--noodles are something different," Krotonsky says.
And noodles have mass appeal. "Noodles appeal to all ages and genders, because noodles somehow feel fun," Salzman says.
Fun is an angle being played up by fast-casual Pan Asian chain Mama Fu's Noodle House, a company that has the word "laughter" written in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai and Vietnamese in each of its restaurants. "Our theme is '70s and '80s and disco music. [Employees] yell, 'Come to Mama' when you walk in," says Martin Sprock, president and CEO of Mama Fu's, which made its debut in June and is part of the Wow! Brands family of restaurants.
Though the chain does call itself a noodle house, it's more about an attitude than a serious commitment to noodle dishes. It takes its cues from bohemian noodle houses in places like San Francisco. "We wanted to call it a noodle house because of the feel, not necessarily because we sell more noodle dishes than rice dishes and salads or anything like that," says Sprock, whose Wow! Brands also operates Moe's Southwest Grill and Planet Smoothie.
Regardless of whether noodles are a menu cornerstone or general theme, these concepts appeal to customers looking for something a little healthier to eat while remaining in familiar territory. "Noodles are comfort food to the max, without being decadent and without leaving the diner feeling like they overindulged," Salzman says.
Zyng Noodlery feels it can appeal to a wide range of dieting interests and health needs because of the ability customers have to customize their dishes. "If somebody decides they want no carbs or more veggies, they can do that with our concept," Rowe says. "We have a lot of vegetarian options."
Even though they are highlighting a starchy food, these chains aren't afraid of being negatively impacted by low-carb trends. "You make food that tastes great, that's lower in fat and a little healthier for everyone no matter what diet they're on," says Mama Fu's Sprock.
In fact, the industry is proving its strength and flexibility despite the potential threat of the low-carb diet craze. Noodle chains have a lot more to offer their customers than just noodles. "Most of our dishes are available carb-free, with just protein and vegetables and sauce, no noodles," says Wild Noodles' Krotonsky. "We certainly haven't seen any resistance to our menu, and we have a lot of salads. We provide lots of options."