Uptown Charlotte's newest ramen bar offers what the owner calls 'Japanese soul food'
Walking into Jinya Ramen Bar in uptown Charlotte, the lively, eclectic atmosphere of the Japanese scratch kitchen will immediately encapsulate you. The space is extensive but cozy.
“At the entrance, we have our Japanese whiskey display,” said one of the owners, Jahzmin French, as she led a tour of the restaurant. “A lot of people want to take pictures in front of the Japanese whiskey display. They think it's just really cool, and so do we.”
Behind the whiskey wall is the low-lit bar and lounge area.
“We're walking through our tunnel, which is our hallway, and it's going to lead us into our main dining room,” French said. “Of course, as soon as you leave the tunnel, we have our main focus that comes in all the Jinya’s actually which is our Geisha girl mural. She's like our little centerpiece.”
Look left and you’ll see the actual ramen bar, located right behind the community table, where you can sit and dine with strangers. French says these two features really bring the authenticity of Japan to the restaurant.
She and her business partner, Brad Phelps, considered different types of restaurants to open. Ultimately, they chose Asian cuisine because she recognized the growing love for some, and reconnection for others, to ramen. Now, French is a Black, woman restaurant owner in uptown Charlotte, bringing what she calls “Japanese soul food” to the city.
“I think sometimes people like to see faces they can relate to,” she said. “But then to be able to hold the door open for them to walk through and try something like Japanese cuisine is fantastic. I just see it as a gateway for me to introduce people of brown and Black descent to Japanese ramen.”
Ramen can be nostalgic of times past for many.
“I think people just love ramen because one, a lot of us kind of grew up on ramen a little bit. A lot of us survived on ramen in college,” French said. “So, you have different people that like ramen for different reasons. And I think that people have now learned that there's a ramen past the 18-cent pack. There's a ramen that can just soothe your soul.”
The Jinya franchise began in California a little over 10 years ago. French and Phelps decided to open the 40th location in uptown two months ago.
Before Jinya, French and Phelps owned a Louisiana barbecue-style restaurant in Florida. But French was ready to spread her wings. She and Phelps wanted to build on a reputable brand that couldn’t easily be duplicated. And they wanted it in a place experiencing a lot of growth.
“Charlotte is one of the fastest growing cities in the nation right now. So, you kind of want to bring great things into a city that is healthy and growing," French said. "This was just a prime spot that the brand chose to tap next, and we just showed up to the table just in time to claim it as our own.”
But it didn’t come without its obstacles, especially since the restaurant opened in the midst of the pandemic. Two of the biggest challenges French says they still face is importing food from Japan and finding and keeping the right people on her team. But it’s French’s love for food and community that gets her through the tough moments.
Becoming a restaurateur wasn’t the plan when she got her first job as a cashier at Steak 'nShake. Eighteen years and numerous industry jobs later and she's found a new cuisine.
With vegan options and a focus on “clean eating,” Jinya’s got something for everyone. In addition to ramen, they have rice bowls, salads, desert, and cocktails. They already have menu favorites, like the Spicy Chicken Ramen bowl, and the Sun Goddess cocktail.
French says the ride to owning a restaurant has been a wild and exhausting one. She says no two days are the same, but that’s what brings the most excitement to her day.