The meltdown

This was a trying week, but lately it seems like they all are. Between employees trying to hold the company hostage to events being canceled due to extreme heat, this is life. So why not enjoy the view?

View from Randall’s Island looking towards Manhattan.

I should be panicking but how can I when there’s still hope of the next bowl being better than the last.

Duck Tsukemen from Shuya Cafe de Ramen and Josh Reisner pop up featuring Shimamoto Noodle.

Now that was amazing!

The conundrum

Imagine a ramen shop with 10 seats that sells 100 bowls a day. 100 bowls of ramen equates to roughly 35 liters (9.2 gallons) of soup. To make and yield this amount of soup we would need one stock pot burner range and one 80L (21.1 gal) stock pot. For simplicity, we will be making chintan and our recipe takes a total of 8 hours from start to finish. Of course, there is much more prep involved than just soup but for now let’s not worry about it.

Your shop opens at 11am but you start prepping your soup for tomorrow at 8am. (Today’s soup was prepped yesterday.) Let’s say your shop closes at 5pm so you have 6 hours to sell 100 bowls at an average of 15 bowls an hour (1.5 turns in your 10 seat shop). It doesn’t seem like a lot but now imagine you are doing this all by yourself without any help. The soup will finish around 4pm and the last hour of business will allow for cooling. At 6pm you are done cleaning up the shop and an extra hour would be for finishing up any miscellaneous prep required for the next day and/or admin work. You just worked an 11-hour day. And it wasn’t easy.

Without getting too much into the numbers ($), if this same size setup was put into a food hall where (including take out orders) there could be an infinite number of seats, how do you scale the business? Let’s say you now sell 500 bowls a day. Sure you can buy a bigger pot, but with the same equipment setup you are limited to making only double the amount you started with. You can also make 2 batches in one day, but that means you’ll be working more than 16 hours. And what if on a holiday you get a spike in business and somehow sell 1000 bowls? Do you hire a team to work all night long until morning to keep up? Or do you just buy some concentrated soup base and get a good nights rest?

In a big city where it is considered restaurant death when having to close early for running out of food, these shortcuts are often the only way to cope. In itself, it is not necessarily a bad thing if you still care about the food and maintain most of your intended integrity. But where it gets shady is when the customer doesn’t care too much about quality as much as they do status. If owners can get away with selling a lesser product at a cheaper overall cost without losing customers, they will most definitely do it.

So back to my point. The “golden age of ramen” in Japan led to many shops expanding and franchising and becoming more “manufactured” in the process. Tenka-Ippin is one example. Although these franchised shops would never be as good as the original, they came up with a system to consistently keep the same recognizable taste that customers grew to love. Ippudo and Ichiran are some more examples. The Japanese really became great at solving the issue of scalability, which in turn blew up the ramen scene even more. Nowadays, even the most popular shops in Tokyo will take these “manufactured secrets” and enhance what seems to be the next trend in the never-ending ramen boom.

For America, which is usually about a decade behind when Japanese trends cross over the Pacific Ocean, I feel like the “golden age of ramen” may never happen. Instead, these companies that have obtained huge success in Japan have already started to plant the seeds of manufactured growth. America is the best business model for it. It’s like injecting steroids into the ramen industry when it hasn’t even had a chance to grow and fully mature. Maybe nothing will happen. Maybe this will prevent the ramen industry from ever reaching it’s full potential. I don’t know. But somehow, someway, something inside of me feels unsettled.

The reboot

Every minute, I think about ramen. It doesn’t stop. So I need to get a few things off my chest.

Ramen in America is booming, so they say. But is it really? With any type of “boom”, business takes precedence. The business of making money.

The current commercialization of ramen in America is essentially the gourmet version of instant ramen. Frozen stock, manufactured tare, generic noodles.

Running a ramen shop is grueling. Not only is it 10x more difficult than cooking a burger, the prep leading up to a bowl can be infinitely harder as well. So it’s hard to blame a shop for wanting to take shortcuts if it means more money.

To be continued.

The burnout

It’s real. As of this writing, I don’t know if I’ll ever own a ramen shop again. It’s not that I don’t want to. It’s just that I don’t think I have the heart to do it anymore.

The evolution of Ramen Shack was such a precious thing. The magic I discovered throughout the process will never be duplicated. And not to toot my own horn, but there will never be another ramen shop like it in America.

Ramen Shack did not fail. It did not close because it was losing money. It failed because it was losing me.

Failure is sometimes inevitable. My critics will say that I was destined for it. But they will never be able to stand in my shoes.

Thank you to all my fans and followers for keeping my dream alive for so long. It’s not the end. It just feels like it is.

What now?

They warned me. I didn’t listen. Ten years. Pure passion. Epic success. Intolerable failure.

This blog needs more content.

We used to be so pure.

I wrote this on the plane back from San Francisco:

Unfinished. When will it ever end? When should it end?

Not today.

Ramen Shack – THE END

In the beginning, there was a yearning need to output my growing frustrations on being solely known as the creator of the Ramen Burger. Or so I thought.

Instinctively, I always just wanted to be a ramen freak. Then, with Ramen Burger at its prime, I chose to follow my heart, like I always have.

July 11, 2015 –Opening Day at the now defunct Queens Smorgasburg. Photo by Georgia Frierson.

What began as a pop up idea that never materialized at my friend Neil Syham’s Lumpia Shack on the days he didn’t open (hence the name Ramen Shack), the concept of Ramen Shack 屋台 started gaining momentum. For several months, I envisioned a ramen shop that could finally portray the joys of my passion. For several months, it remained just a figment of my imagination.

Classic Shoyu. Photo by Akira Hiratsuka.

Then, in the summer of 2015, through the power of Smorgasburg I was able to translate imagination to fascination as Ramen Shack took shape in unfamiliar territory. Although the Queens Smorgasburg only lasted half a season, I became infected with the pure joy of being able to serve delicate bowls of evolving ramen every week to those who embraced a simple comfort.

Ramen Shack Pop Up at Lumpia Shack in the West Village. Photo by Akiro Hiratsuka.

After a successful move to Winter Smorgasburg at Industry City in the Winter of 2015, we finally landed at Lumpia Shack in the West Village, carrying out the intended concept of popping up every Sunday and Monday. But that didn’t last very long and for months the pop up went dormant, giving way to another concept called Tsukemen NYC. Ramen Shack was over. Or was it?

Ramen Shack at Go Ramen Go Life, Inc. in Long Island City, NY. Photo by Michael Marquand.

Sixteen months after our last pop up, Ramen Shack was reopened as a “permanent pop up” in Long Island City on September 27, 2016. It was a dream come true. For the next two and a half years it became my creative outlet. My ramen force. My ramen reckoning. If you had the chance to experience it evolve throughout those years, you’ve probably never seen a ramen shop like it. I was possessed!

Pop Up Sign. Photo by Michael Marquand.

When is this pop up going to end?” has been the question almost everyone has asked. In my mind…it was never going to end. In my mind…it was going to last forever. But in the end, I chose to follow my heart…

A sober 2018…

On December 31, 2017, 11 minutes before midnight, with one can of Sapporo left in the fridge, I decided to quit drinking alcohol for one year. Why, you ask? Well I’ll get to that, but first let me tell you about my addiction.

I have one addiction. To ramen. No surprise there right? But for most of my adult life, I also enjoyed drinking a few (to many) beers after work to de-stress from my busy workload, even if it meant just zoning out with a six-pack alone on the couch at the end of a long day. It sort of kept me alive.

In all those years, never did I imagine I would (or could for that matter) give up drinking. The cycle was always work hard, drink beer, sleep it off, work hard, drink beer, forget to sleep, work hard, drink shochu–day after day after day. 

Then, a few things happened on that New Year’s Eve. While watching the events leading up to the countdown on television, my 3-year-old daughter slipped while dancing around the living room and fell face-flat onto the hardwood floor, resulting in cuts on both lips. Her face bloodied and screaming uncontrollably, my wife and I panicked. At this time I was already 6 or 7 beers in and even if I felt sober there was no way for me to get in a car and drive her to the emergency room. Fortunately, the cuts were minor and she was able to fall asleep that night without any long-lasting injuries.

For me, I felt useless. I needed to be more responsible as a parent. I needed to be more responsible as a husband. I needed to be more responsible as a friend, as well as, a boss. So I accepted the challenge and left that last can of Sapporo in the fridge.

At first, my friends thought I was crazy. They knew me and they all thought it was some kind of joke. But I’m a pretty stubborn scorpio/snake so I knew, and they soon realized, that this was a serious goal. Another motivational force, was trying to operate and manage three different businesses primarily on my own. I felt that 2018 would be the year that needed 100% of my focus: Full control of my vision and a level-headed direction of resources.

All this said, 2018 was filled with never-ending drama. If there was ever a year that I should have been drinking, this was the year. I resisted.

For the most part, I navigated and parsed out all of the negativity and fought each battle one day at a time. Then September came and October-November became almost unbearable. Honestly, it was a struggle. After deciding to apply for life insurance, a routine blood test resulted in an abnormality in my liver. 

At first, my doctor brushed it off as maybe too much alcohol intake in recent days, but NO! I hadn’t had a drop of alcohol in nine months! So she ordered a bunch of tests and I spent the majority of October and November trying to juggle work, family, doctor visits, and more work, including spending a majority of my 41st birthday (one day before the start of Rajuku NY) in an exam room being prodded and pricked like an expectant mother.

As of this writing, every other test has come back normal and it is still a mystery as to why the abnormality still exists. It could be a myriad of things and we’ll just have to keep checking one test at a time, one day at a time. For now, I feel as healthy as a 20-year-old and I can’t wait to keep building my ramen dream.

My decision to quit drinking was never for health reasons, but ironically maybe it really was. If I hadn’t have quit, perhaps my health could have gotten a lot worse. One year without drinking may have been the best decision of my life. One year to get more years. It sort of kept me alive.

And here we are today, December 31, 2018. I’ve accomplished my goal: One year without any alcohol. I’ve worked harder than I’ve ever worked this year and there will be no slowing down from here on out. In 2019, I will need to work even harder. Many of you, including myself, were looking forward to raising a glass together, but it looks like I’ll be keeping that last can of Sapporo in the fridge a little bit longer. One addiction is more than enough. Cheers to 2019. Let’s make it a good one.