We spoke to Ramen Burger about how it feels to see their original food concept appropriated by a big, national chain such as Red Robin.
Photo via Flickr user jpellgen
Something was in the air in 2013. That year, the two best-known food mashups of the decade—the Cronut and the ramen burger—were unleashed upon an unsuspecting public. Both came from small shops: the Cronut from Dominique Ansel's bakery in lower Manhattan; the ramen burger from the kitchen of Keizo Shimamoto. A feeding frenzy ensued, and the rest is history.
Naturally, that history has come to include many copycats. Within a year of TIME naming the Cronut one of the best 25 inventions of 2013, Dunkin' Donuts was selling its own version. And ramen burgers began showing up outside of Shimamoto's now-bicoastal food stands. Now, the casual dining chain Red Robin has just announced it is introducing a ramen burger.
Red Robin will begin selling ramen burgers on April 2, and the burger—topped with chili-infused cabbage, carrots, onions, basil, and a teriyaki aioli and sandwiched in a bun made of ramen noodles—will stay on the menu for two months. Really going for the "college kids eat ramen" thing, some Red Robin stores will be selling the ramen burger for 22 cents, what the company says is the average cost of a simple pack of ramen, on April 19, the day before every stoner's favorite holiday.
"We closely follow emerging trends, and when the ramen burger first debuted, our culinary team worked to develop Red Robin's take on the foodie favorite, enabling us to be the first to offer it nationally," said Jonathan Muhtar, Red Robin's chief marketing officer, in a statement. The company's stock, which has a market valuation of $880 million, was up more than 6 percent the day the new burger was announced.
Shimamoto's Ramen Burger—the name of his small chain of food stalls and pop-up restaurants—confirmed to MUNCHIES that Shimamoto was in no way involved with Red Robin's take on his creation, but said he was flattered that a national burger chain would imitate his noodle bun idea.
"Ramen Burger is not just a burger, it's a global brand," a representative for Ramen Burger wrote. "Many restaurants from the corner ramen shop to national burger chains have tried to imitate it, but have failed. Ramen Burger is an embodiment of Keizo's vision and passion, which can never be replicated."
But when a national brand swoops in on a great idea, it can be hard for the small shop creators who did the real R&D not to improve shareholder value, but out of passion. David Chang of Momofuku spoke out publicly against Starbucks when the megachain copied Milk Bar's "bagel bombs,", and even mused on Ezra Klein's podcast about the plausibility of patents in cooking.
"I think sometimes when I listen to music," Chang said, "and I'm like, 'Well, is that so different from coming up with a recipe?' And then I look at fashion and that's an industry where people copy left and right, and you can't really patent anything in fashion except the brand… It makes me mad sometimes."
And trying to protect the brand is often all that can be done. Shimamoto's ramen burger is sold under the name Original Ramen Burger™, and his stores go by Ramen Burger™. Ansel's cronut is sold as a Cronut®.
For now, creative small shops will have to look at imitation as the sincerest form of flattery. It will happen again, to be sure—hey Red Robin, check out this ice cream cheeseburger.