UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman (far right) poses with students as he hands out free ramen at the UCI ANTrepreneur Center's booth on Ring RoadInstant ramen is synonymous with the college experience. Given its ease, affordability, and accessibility, it’s no wonder that hungry college students have been relying on the delicious packets of noodles for decades. At the UCI ANTrepreneur Center, the love for ramen is stronger than ever thanks to generous donations from Carol and Eugene Choi, business owners, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, and founders of Tapatio Ramen, Sriracha Rooster Ramen, and now Choi Premium Ramen. Since founding the successful United Exchange Corporation (UEC) in 1993, the Chois have continued to diversify their ventures, and the launch of Choi Premium Ramen is their latest endeavor.

As alumni and long-time supporters of UCI, the Chois have been involved with the ANTrepreneur Center since the very start. Since Fall 2022, the ANTrepreneur Center has received over 9,000 units of free ramen to use in its student outreach, promotional strategy, and other initiatives. Currently, all UCI students are welcome to stop by and enjoy a free packet of ramen; all you need to do is scan the QR code on the pouch and that ramen brand on Instagram.

But what does it take to create a new food brand? To gather insight into the development and launch of Choi Premium Ramen, Ryan Foland, Director of the ANTrepreneur Center, met with Carol for a behind-the-scenes look at what went into the new brand.

Ryan: Hi Carol! Thank you so much for sitting down with me to talk about the development of Choi Premium Ramen and share your professional insights with our ANTrepreneurs. To kick things off, can you explain what inspired you to launch your ramen brand?

Carol: Thanks for having me, Ryan! We actually launched Choi Premium Ramen this year (2023) because we wanted to create ramen that would provide a delicious, comforting, and non-spicy bowl for the entire family to enjoy. It is truly our family’s quick and easy comfort meal. 

Food is a fast-growing category at UEC, and we’ve had great success in the ramen industry during the past five years. So it was natural for me to focus on ramen. I wanted to shake up the ramen industry and do something totally different. We launched Tapatio Ramen in 2018 because we noticed that consumers were eating generic ramen brands and adding different hot sauces such as Tapatio and Sriracha to spice up the flavor. I wanted to create a product that was convenient and new to the market. Using my business degree and knowledge of ramen, I noticed trends changing along with the growing Hispanic market and determined that Tapatio Ramen was a great choice. I ended up reaching out to Tapatio’s Saavedra family to see if they would partner up with UEC to create our Tapatio Ramen. It was a match made in heaven! Our second partnership with Sriracha Ramen was launched with the same idea but targeted the growing Asian communities and trends. 

After the success of the Tapatio and Sriracha Ramen noodle brands, we decided to launch our own brand, a premium Korean ramen that is non-spicy and comforting for the entire family. I wanted to use the “Choi” name to start building a family ramen brand to stand apart from the conglomerate factory ramen brands such as Ottogi and Nongshim.

Ryan: What were some of the key challenges you faced while building your various ramen brands, and how did you overcome them?

Carol: Perfecting the Tapatio broth was crucial for the launch of our food category. It took almost one year to find the right balance of authenticity for both Tapatio Hot Sauce and the practice of ramen in Asian cultures. There were many trial-and-error tastings to perfect the palate that consumers were craving. 

Once the flavor was approved by both parties, we had customers ordering in bulk. We had ten truckloads ready to be sent out when a new buyer left the order incomplete. I was stuck. They wanted to take it for a significant reduction in price, and I knew that was not an option. After analyzing my choices, I made an executive decision to give the excess inventory to churches, homeless shelters, and colleges. This ended up being the best option and performed well as a marketing strategy because it helped spread brand awareness and grow our presence and sales more than I could have hoped for. 

Ryan: That’s a really great lesson in being adaptable and resilient when faced with adversity. How do you stay motivated and resilient during times of uncertainty or when facing setbacks?

Carol: As an entrepreneur, I’ve experienced many minor and major setbacks. It is important to analyze the reason behind the issues and then evaluate your options to make the best decision based on internal factors. 

As the founder of a corporation, it is essential to remain positive and motivated. I’ve found that acknowledging the good and celebrating even the smallest achievements helps you stay focused and open-minded to all possibilities. I strongly believe in “where there is a will, there is a way”—so if you set your mind on something, you can make it happen. There will always be things that are completely outside of your control: take COVID, for example. All you can do is adapt and move forward. Sometimes plans change and things won’t always go the way you want, but fostering your adaptability and resilience will make your entrepreneurship journey a much smoother ride.

Ryan: In addition to adaptability and resilience, creativity plays an important role in becoming a successful entrepreneur—particularly in the food industry. How has creativity influenced the development of your ramen brands?

Carol: When we entered the ramen market and proposed the idea of Tapatio Ramen, we wanted to be different from the other offers the Saavedra Family received. For example, previous ramen brands had proposed attaching Tapatio packets to the ramen. No one thought of incorporating Tapatio Hot Sauce into the broth flavoring packet until I proposed it, and they loved the idea. Our creativity and ability to think outside the box is what ultimately allowed us to secure the partnership with Tapatio. 

Creativity is also crucial in food marketing. Finding ways to stand out from the competition is important, especially when it comes to competing in the ramen market. To become a recognizable brand in the instant ramen industry, one needs to boost creative marketing campaigns that can lead to an increase in brand awareness and customer loyalty.

Thanks to the influence of social media, we are always looking for the next viral content. A creative marketing campaign must try new things to find what works for their specific brand! There needs to be an emotional connection that taps into a story or cultural trend. And the best way to share this content with your followers is through social media. Organic, authentic content goes a long way with consumers. 

We are excited to see how our partnership with the ANTrepreneur Center is also spreading brand awareness through social media. As students follow our brand in exchange for the free ramen and share our brand on social media, it has a compounding network effect. It’s great to have a partner at UCI where we can support student success through free on-the-go ramen meals—all while getting creative and organic exposure to the college demographic. We are very excited to have ping pong paddles at the ANTrepreneur Center with our ramen brands. We were happy to support this innovative idea, and each paddle has the brand’s Instagram QR code on it so that they can easily scan and follow!

close-up picture of ping pong paddles with the Choi Premium Ramen logo prrinted on them

And I love how the ramen helps bring new students to the Center, exposing them to the value of learning about entrepreneurship. Who knows, maybe it will inspire more innovative food ideas in the future. 

Ryan: What are some of the other key steps or strategies that you’ve tapped into when creating your various products?

Carol: Our team spends a lot of time with research and development and product testing to ensure that our products are exactly the way we want them to be. We conduct extensive research on the type of broth, flavor, and noodles we want to create. This includes product sampling with groups across different ages, ethnicities, and genders. Trial and error is extremely important in finding the common preferences and aversions amongst changing palates and trends. Understanding the reasons behind dissatisfied consumers assisted us in developing the perfect flavor solution.

Exploring the market through trial and error has helped us immensely with launching Choi Ramen. For instance, after the launch of our first Choi Ramen product, I noticed the trends of consumers were not matching the intentions behind our 80g Choi Premium Ramen Pouch. Originally, I wanted a smaller portion of ramen because I could never finish an entire pouch by myself. However, it was too small for the likings of most ramen eaters. Typically, the average size of a ramen packet is 110g, and this is often not enough for most people. When combined with the fact that consumers liked the convenience of bowl ramen, launching the larger Choi Bowl was our obvious next move. 

Ryan: I think our students can learn a lot from your experience with launching your various ramen brands. Speaking of our ANTrepreneurs, can you share more about your partnership with the ANTrepreneur Center and how it has helped get your ramen in front of students?

Carol: My husband Eugene and I are both UCI alumni. We have also had the honor of serving as UCI Foundation Trustees. When we had the opportunity to support the UCI ANTrepreneur Center, we were happy to do so. We wanted to create a safe space where students felt free to come and share ideas. There are no wrong answers or bad ideas, and we wanted students to be able to explore their entrepreneurial sides. We donated ramen to the ANTrepreneur Center to provide an affordable, convenient meal that students could access when participating in activities. It’s perfect for late-night study sessions or cooking a delicious meal on the spot. 

Ryan: What advice do you have for college entrepreneurs looking to build their own companies and brands from scratch?

Carol: I would say: start with a clear vision and determine your target market, short-term goals, and long-term goals. Be ambitious—but have a plan! It’s also important to build a strong team and look for passionate people who can provide the skills you lack. Network and build relationships. Attend events and connect with people who can help you grow. When developing your product or business idea, make sure you focus on your customers and understand their needs. Developing a customer-centric mindset will help you stand out from the competition. I would also like to emphasize the importance of being adaptable—the world is constantly changing, so stay up to date with the latest trends and be ready to pivot.

I want to remind students that it’s okay to fail. This is a natural part of our journey. Don’t let this stop you from moving forward. Knowing your likes and dislikes and hard and soft skills is an asset. It helps you understand negative feedback and why a particular venture might be failing. 

I would advise students to absorb the information and obtain as much business guidance and knowledge from the ANTrepreneur Center as possible. They are experienced individuals who are eager and willing to help you along your entrepreneurial path. Building a company and brand takes time and effort. But it is very possible!

Ryan: Thank you so much for meeting with me and sharing your experiences. Let’s finish by looking to the future. What do you have in store for Choi Premium Ramen?

Carol: Thank you for letting me share our story! We have so many exciting plans for Choi Premium Ramen. We are ramping up our social media presence on Instagram, Tik Tok, and Facebook for brand awareness. Our content provides delicious recipes that can be made with our ramen. We also have plans to collaborate with local food trucks and chefs to share our ramen and give people ideas on how they can create different dishes with our ramen. 

Our goal is to make our ramen as accessible as possible for students, families, and anyone who needs an easy, affordable, and comforting snack or meal. If you are interested in ordering our ramen, please visit our website. We also welcome new ideas, so please contact us if you would like to share!

Visit the FREE Ramen page to learn more about the collaboration between Choi Premium Ramen and the ANTrepreneur Center. Check out the Choi Premium Ramen website to learn more about the brand and order their products. Finally, for more information about the ANTrepreneur Center and how it can support your entrepreneurial journey, visit our website or follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn.