Remembering the Ramen King

Momofuku Ando's innovative noodle soups built Nissin into a giant whose products have sustained low-budget eaters for decades

Momofuku Ando's invention of the instant noodle had a classic discovery-by-accident moment. Just after World War II, Ando was a failed businessman experimenting at home with a newfangled idea for packaged ramen noodles. He remained an unsuccessful tinkerer until August, 1958, when he made a breakthrough while watching his wife deep-fry vegetables. Fried noodles, he realized, would turn hard yet be porous enough to soften quickly when dunked in boiling water.

That epiphany transformed Ando, who died on Jan. 5 from a heart attack at age 96, into the noodle king. More than anyone else, Ando deserves credit for creating the multibillion-dollar market for instant noodles.

When his company Nissin Food Products' first offering, Chicken Ramen, hit store shelves in 1958, it constituted a pricey alternative to fresh, handmade noodles. As Ando's noodles grew cheaper to make, they caught on with consumers, and that made the 48-year-old a rags-to-riches celebrity in Japan.

Snack in a Cup

"A lot of people say it was a late start, but in life there's no such thing," he wrote in his memoir Mahou No Ramen Hatsumei Monogatari (The Invention of the Magic Ramen).

But it was his Cup Noodle in 1971 that had the most lasting impact. The snack in a Styrofoam cup revolutionized eating habits worldwide at a time when consumers were craving speedy, ready-to-serve meals, fast food, and other mass-produced conveniences.

Cup noodles are now a staple on college campuses and homes from San Diego to Seoul, and crate-loads of instant noodles have fed thousands of victims of natural disasters, including the Asian tsunami in 2004 and Katrina in 2005. The global slurp-fest reached 86 billion instant noodle meals annually in 2005.

Defiant Detainee

Although Ando's Osaka-based company remains one of the world's biggest instant-noodle makers, a $2.7 billion operation cranking out billions of packs and cups a year, it no longer dominates. Its market share has sunk to less than 10% as new competitors catering to local tastes have entered the fray.

But Ando remained undiscouraged, never one to bow out of a fight. He had a steely determination forged early in his career as a serial entrepreneur. Over two decades, he started one business after another—selling textiles, airplane parts, and salt and establishing a food research institute—and was no stranger to misfortune and run-ins with the authorities.

During World War II, police accused him of selling goods on the black market, put him behind bars, and beat him up, but he staged a hunger strike and refused to sign a cooked-up confession. Years later, in prison again, his assets confiscated after accusations of tax evasion by U.S. occupation forces and tax officials, he hired a team of lawyers and sued the government. And in the 1950s, after a credit union he led went bankrupt and he lost his job, he made a comeback by inventing the instant ramen in a wooden shack he built in his backyard.

Steamy Allure

The instant noodle couldn't have taken off without Ando's sharp marketing instincts. Although he often called himself an amateur, he proved to be a pro at keeping Nissin ahead of rivals in a commoditized market constantly awash in new brands and flavors.

Meanwhile, he kept Nissin in the public eye with a stream of irreverent ads. In 1996, Nissin put up its now-familiar 60-foot-high (18 meters) steaming Cup Noodle in New York City's Times Square. Six years later, Nissin announced it was working on the "Space Ram," a noodle specially engineered for Japanese astronauts to gulp down in zero gravity during NASA space trips.

Noble Mission

Ando, who led Nissin's 10-person Space Ram development team, must have known he would never make a dime off the gimmick but that it would garner the company plenty of free publicity. (When the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency went looking for companies interested in filming TV ads aboard the International Space Station in late 2005, Nissin was the first taker, shooting a spot for his "Cup Noodle No Border" campaign.)

Well into his 90s and growing frail, Ando, who occupied the chairman's post until June, 2005, remained the company's ever-enthusiastic executive poster boy. At news conferences and in interviews, he declared that instant noodles represented "the most important thing for me, like life itself," and claimed he ate a bowl a day. Then, with the TV cameras rolling, he would gamely wolf down a chili-tomato-flavored Cup Noodle. Never one to miss a chance at making headlines, Ando offered a prediction at his final public appearance in August: By 2009 global instant-noodle consumption would reach 100 billion meals annually, a year ahead of his own earlier forecast.

Sadly, he won't be around to witness that milestone. And while the market continues to swell, few will forget that Ando's later years were plagued by claims that his and others' noodles contained too much sodium and too few vitamins, a recipe for malnutrition. There were also charges that toxic substances from the packaging might taint the soup. Many of those claims have been dismissed. If Ando were still with us, he would surely be looking for some clever way to turn the publicity in his favor.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.