Space Design: Getting Our Act Together

Here's the part of the Shiba Ramen project we'd been waiting for: trying to design a great-looking space that projects the look and feel we want to establish for our business.  This is our prototype location.  It's our first experiment in using space design to help shape Shiba Ramen's image.  We get a chance to have fun with building materials, colors, and design motifs and we're forced to think about how image flows from those elements both individually and used in combination.  Even if I didn't love this stuff (I do), it would still be a lot more enjoyable (read: less ulcer-inducing) than getting permits, finding contractors, and funding construction!

Shiba Ramen Signage Diagram.  Let's design a restaurant to go with it.

But to say we can be creative is not to say that we are unconstrained: in fact, we have very few degrees of design freedom compared to your average free-standing restaurant.  We don’t have a dining room or a true exterior, and most of our sub-400 square foot space is dedicated to the food prep essentials.  On top of this, the finishes for the façade of our kiosk are mandated by Public Market as part of their holistic design scheme for the food hall.  Like I said, this is a prototype and it's a good starter project (not to mention a lot cheaper than building out a full space).  But we want to design bigger spaces down the line, so we're looking at this as a training exercise of sorts.  

Even with our constraints, I think we're making the most of our limited design opportunity now that we have a final design on paper.  So long as the regulators don't muck it up with tight-fisted and meddlesome nitpicking over code technicalities, that is (more on regulators later, once that story is fully and finally resolved). 

Public Market Finishes.   The Public Market mandates these finishes in our area of the food hall.  Other areas employ a similar neutral color palette, but materials include reclaimed wood and glass tile.  We will use a dual-height bar, but without any seating.  Thanks, regulators!

Public Market Finishes.  The Public Market mandates these finishes in our area of the food hall.  Other areas employ a similar neutral color palette, but materials include reclaimed wood and glass tile.  We will use a dual-height bar, but without any seating.  Thanks, regulators!

Not Nearly Do-It-Yourself

Now when it came to designing improvements to our house, we selected the materials and put something on paper ourselves.  But even though our Shiba Ramen space is small, it was not an option to go solo on this project. The landlords required us to submit a detailed package of technical space design drawings (“SDDs”), and we needed a trained professional to put those together.  We also wanted somebody with great design sense to partner with us and ultimately take ownership over the process.   

Wood and Geometry.  These wooden structural elements and geometric patterns influenced our thinking, as you'll see in the next post.

Beyond this project just being way, way more technical than even sophisticated DYI projects, we don't have the luxury to spend time going painstakingly through the weeds on this.  By day I have to think about the billable hour (gross), and there still has to be time to experiment with ramen, taste beers, run down the ever-expanding list of startup tasks.  And did I mention there's a small child running amok over here at Shiba Ramen HQ?  We have to water our tomatoes, play Candy Land, eat.  Life.  That sort of thing.  We obviously needed help.

We brought on ramen-loving Japan enthusiast and fellow Oaklander Misa Grannis to work with us.  Misa had done a fantastic job on our logo last fall, and we thought the space design was a great opportunity to get her more involved with our project.  After working with her on the logo, we understood her that aesthetic sense was totally aligned with ours.  Modern design, Japanese influences.  We also trusted that she'd do a great job as a design professional, so she was definitely the partner we wanted on this project with us.

Gathering and Sorting  

We have precious few opportunities in this small space to realize our design goals, so it's critical that we select the right materials and structural elements.  And it's just as critical that we don't overreach and try to do to much.  So we spent several months just thinking about our options.  Our approach, at Misa's suggestion, was to use a shared board on Pinterest.  This allowed any of the three of us to pin images of restaurant designs, lamps, tiles, design motifs, etc., that we we found on the web.  And we could have an informal dialogue by leaving comments for one another on the pins. This was actually a really useful way of aggregating ideas, filtering them, and coming to a consensus on our design direction.

Pendant Light Runners-Up.  Here are some lamps that we seriously considered, but in the end decided against.  Click for links to the products: left, middle, right. and are great places to shop for cool lighting.

I Love Tile. The availability of colors, patterns, and shapes is nearly limitless. The one on the left from Popham Design (which sells truly stunning cement tiles, by the way) uses a traditional Japanese "asanoha" pattern.  As I'll explain in a future post, we are using an asanoha tile mosaic in Shiba Ramen, although with a different tile.  

It was important to us that four elements were deployed in the design: wood, tile, lighting, and color.  And we needed to incorporate these elements in a tight physical structure that maximized the overall appearance without compromising the function of our restaurant.  We had to consider what kind of window our bar and point of sale space would provide into the food prep going on in the kitchen.  

In a perfect world, we would have used wood or tile as the surface facade under the bar and point of sale.  But because we were locked into using the landlord's pre-selected finishes (see renderings above), we had to find a way to implement these elements behind the counter.  And everything had to be executed in a way so as to complement and not compete with the landlord's finishes (fortunately, those finishes create a foreground that fits well with the aesthetic we're looking for).  The ultimate point was to be thoughtful and balanced as we put the pieces together.

In the next posts, I'll show our our final design: the materials we selected and how we're putting them together.  I'll also take detours into a couple of the really cool Japanese design elements we thought about using along the way.

Space Design Back Story: Oakland's Most Dangerous Garden

We've been waiting to get into the design piece of the Shiba Ramen project since we decided to open a restaurant a year ago.  The chance to work on design projects helped push us toward starting this kind of business in the first place.  But this week, when I sat down to write about our design, I found myself writing not about Shiba Ramen, but about the home renovation projects that, more than anything else, expanded our imaginations to the point where we could even conceive of starting a ramen business.  So if you'll bear with me (thanks) let's take a short diversion to my back yard.

Shibas.   In the garden, taken earlier this morning.  

Shibas.  In the garden, taken earlier this morning.  

A few years ago, we bought a house in Oakland.  In exchange for getting a good deal on the price, we signed up for lots of deferred maintenance (roof, electrical, seismic retrofit, etc.) and much-needed cosmetic work.  We retiled the floor and resurfaced the walls in our sunroom, spending a lot of time thinking about tile and even more time covered in thinset mortar and drywall mud.  We converted the nasty-ass 1960s man cave in the basement (fully equipped with tufted white vinyl wet bar, naked lady ice cube trays, and a sign that said "If you had it last night . . . smile") into a colorful play room.  Before the retile and the man cave, we totally overhauled our back yard, building a pergola, a fence, a patio, rock stairs, raised beds, and planting a botanical garden's worth of the insane array of plants you can grow in the Bay Area.  

A necessary predicate to building our little backyard oasis---still incomplete, by the way, with funds for the glorious deck of our dreams diverted to opening a ramen restaurant---we had to demolish a grand eyesore of concrete and stone; one that combined the aesthetics of the Classical Mediterranean with those of Mordor, with some faded aquamarine paint for a splash of color.  It was a downtrodden concrete pond, over which a concrete floating stair bridge led to a badly decomposed and submerged-in-dirt brick patio.  On the terrace patio, reminiscent of some dilapidated Acropolis, ten white wooden columns were arrayed in a square, but whatever roof they once supported was long gone.  Big brown quartz rocks were cemented all around the concrete pond, and smaller jagged quartz rocks were studded into every step of the bridge.  The bridge was supported by long pieces of rebar anchored into 18-inch thick concrete blocks at each end.  

This fucking bridge survived the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake unscathed.  It was formidable.  It was hideous.  It was dangerous for children.  Like really dangerous for children.  There was actually a sign at the open house warning prospective buyers of the threat to their children that the backyard presented.  Anyone who has taken the California bar exam was forced to learn about "attractive nuisance."  This is an obscure legal doctrine that makes landowners liable for the injuries of trespassing children, where the land contains some feature that attracts unsuspecting children to their doom.  This bridge/pond business in my yard could have been a great hypothetical for bar study.  Fortunately, I got rid of it before the lawsuits started pouring in!

And I got rid of it with extreme prejudice.  It turns out I really love demolition.  So as soon as we closed on the house, I went to Home Depot and got a sledgehammer, and then I beat on the bridge methodically until it was just a bunch of exposed rebar.  But when the sledgehammer proved useless on the thicker concrete, I had to go back to Home Depot.  This time for a jackhammer.  Said the customer service dude: "You ever used one of these before?"  Said me: "No."  Said the dude: "Please sign here."  Said the day laborers hovering around in the parking lot as I wheeled the jackhammer to the car: "That looks like a two-person job."  Said me: "Thanks, I've got it."    

I had it, but barely.  Jackhammers are heavy.  So I brought it home and got to business.  It did the trick on the thick concrete, but that wasn't the end of the story.  There was so much concrete in the yard, in various places, that even after the bridge was gone I was sledgehammering intermittently for months (breaking my first sledgehammer in the process and needing a second!).  I produced a staggering amount of rubble and had to spend $2000 just to get rid of it.

While the demo was underway, Hiroko and I set about designing a new garden.  We spent absurd amounts of time at Home Depot, American Soil & Stone (I seriously love that place), Ashby Lumber, and any number of East Bay garden centers.  We bought 3000 pounds of ledge stone, 10 cubic yards of dirt, 8 cubic yards of crushed lava, black basalt patio stones, Mexican pebbles, and lots of redwood.  We read books on landscape design and construction, figured out our plan, and went out and built our garden.  This was a pretty huge project, and Hiroko was pregnant during the entire affair.  That didn't stop her from mortaring cinderblocks and excavating trenches, though.  We did every bit of the labor ourselves (except the rubble removal).

Three Years In.  Our garden today, getting greener every year.  

I think that, more than anything else, this garden project prepared us to undertake Shiba Ramen.  It showed us that we were capable of going outside of our comfort zones, learning completely new skills, and applying them to a complicated multi-stage effort.  We learned that we loved design and loved building things, although the fact that we both spent years designing and building molecules in the lab suggests that these interests were always there, but just needed the right outlet.  Perhaps most importantly, Hiroko and I learned how to work together really effectively, and developed a much deeper understanding of how our individual skills complement one another.    

Next time, we'll leave my yard and head back to Shiba Ramen.

Design For Function: Building a Ramen Kitchen

Shiba Ramen's space measures just around 385 square feet.  Today, it's an empty square framed by metal studs.  But over the next few months it will transform into a functioning restaurant kitchen.  And not just any kitchen, a ramen kitchen.  Our business is all about producing a large volume of a single core product, in several variations and with just a few select sides.  Our kitchen setup needs to ensure we can do that.  

And pretty much that alone.  There's no space to spare for equipment--ranges, freezers, etc.--that we don't absolutely need.  The health department requires us to have 7(!) sinks, so it's a tight fit back there.  And the space has to flow, with the ramen being assembled mechanically, moving from back to front, ending in the hands of the customer.  Other tasks need to be performed--cleaning dishes, preparing sides--without getting in the way of the ramen.  

So this spring, with the aid of a professional kitchen designer, we set out to build our Ideal Ramen Kitchen.  Having never designed a restaurant kitchen before (or any kitchen, for that matter), we just started off with the good old Internet, trying to figure out the kinds of equipment we would need, then making a list and ballparking the costs.  Hiroko found some Japanese language sources that had schematics for small ramen restaurants, which gave us a rough cut at an equipment list.  Then we headed to some online restaurant equipment vendors to get a better look at the individual pieces.

We Can't Forget About  You!    Draught beer is an essential part of the ramen experience, and must be in our kitchen.  

We Can't Forget About You!  Draught beer is an essential part of the ramen experience, and must be in our kitchen.  

Professional Help, Please!

But this is the kind of thing where you definitely want to get some professional input if you haven't done it before.  We did that in two ways.  First, Hiroko went to ramen school where she spent nine days in a ramen kitchen, learning from a guy who designs these kinds of kitchens for a living.  This is the level of information we had when we then connected with our kitchen designer; confidence in the equipment we'd need to make ramen and how the ramen pieces needed to fit together, but pretty clueless about how to make sure the kitchen has all things necessary and proper to make it up-to-code in Alameda County and in conformance with industry best practices.

And this is where the kitchen designer added tremendous value for us.  He was able to translate our need-to-haves and want-to-haves into a workable whole, filled with all the eye-openingly granular detail that goes into a restaurant kitchen.  He knows the health codes that must be followed, and had lots of ideas about how we could achieve the level of functionality and convenience we wanted for our kitchen.  It didn't hurt that the designer we worked with, Michael Scheiman at Myers Restaurant Supply (a one-time chef), had just finished designing a kitchen for another local ramen shop.

17-Seat Ramen Restaurant.   Floor plan for the entirety of a small typical Japanese ramen shop. Link here:

17-Seat Ramen Restaurant.  Floor plan for the entirety of a small typical Japanese ramen shop. Link here:

Here's how the process worked.  When we sat down with Michael the first time, we talked through the whole kitchen.  The point was to convey what specific functions we need our kitchen to perform: we need to make various kinds of ramen with a range of prep requirements, fried chicken (naturally), gyoza, rice.  We need to have beer on tap (naturally) and a water dispenser.  We need to have enough refrigeration of the right kinds, prep surfaces, stockpot ranges, noodle cooker capacity, the right heating elements, etc.  And it all needs to be set up to facilitate smooth ramen assembly.

Michael and his team then went and put our kitchen on paper, with everything laid out to scale based on specific pieces of equipment, all set out in an accompanying list.  All the code necessities, sinks and drains and shelving, electrical boxes, employee lockers, were filled in.  Over the next few weeks, we thought pretty intensively about the details in the draft, and had a back-and-forth with Michael to make miscellaneous changes; shrinking the number of ranges and the size of the griddle, adding and relocating prep space and heating wells for the broths, changing the location of the water dispenser, that sort of thing.  

A First Cut.  This is the preliminary layout assembled by our kitchen designer.

Vetting and Refining the Design

Once the preliminary design was in place, we had a big team conference call with the kitchen designers, the architect, the space designer, and the landlord's people.  Everyone took turns asking questions about things pertinent to their respective zones of interest, and Michael's team made changes to the rendering in real time through a screen share.  We also happened to be in Japan the week we were finalizing the design, so we showed the preliminary rendering to the ramen school people and got some advice about the fine details.  I recall walking around Tokyo and emailing with Michael about making sure we had appropriate freezer storage for ice cream, after we'd decided late in the process to serve monaka, a Japanese-style ice cream dessert.  He wanted to know the fat content of the ice cream we expected to use (we had no idea), so you can see just how detailed these issues become.

Preliminary (Top) and Final (Bottom).   You can see what changed from the preliminary design.  Among other things, we reduced the number of gas ranges from 6 to 2, shrunk the size of the griddle and rice cooker, and reoriented the process flow by moving the two stockpot ranges off to the side and out of the live prep area.  Bottom center is where the ramen action happens.  The soup and noodles are assembled on the prep surface in between the noodle cooker (22) and the broth-containing heating wells (11).  The partially assembled bowl is passed over a short "pony wall." to a finishing station across from the bar/point of sale.

Preliminary (Top) and Final (Bottom).  You can see what changed from the preliminary design.  Among other things, we reduced the number of gas ranges from 6 to 2, shrunk the size of the griddle and rice cooker, and reoriented the process flow by moving the two stockpot ranges off to the side and out of the live prep area.  Bottom center is where the ramen action happens.  The soup and noodles are assembled on the prep surface in between the noodle cooker (22) and the broth-containing heating wells (11).  The partially assembled bowl is passed over a short "pony wall." to a finishing station across from the bar/point of sale.

When the details were in place, we submitted the design to the landlord for approval.  After a little back and forth, the landlord approved it.  Michael's team then went ahead and put together a serious package of drawings and specs, with extensive detail about necessary plumbing, electrical hookups and load requirements, and so on.  This was handed over to the architect, along with the "Space Design Drawings" put together in parallel by our designer, and provided the basis for the construction drawings that are now getting reviewed by regulators and bidding contractors.   

So, suffice it to say, the kitchen designer was pretty essential for us.  We were fortunate to work with somebody who clearly understood his business and who was on the same page with us.  This gave us confidence that our job was going to be done the right way, and the details were going to be taken care of.  We learned a ton and will be a lot better at speaking the language and understanding the parameters of kitchen the next time we do this.  

Now we just have to buy our equipment, build our kitchen, and start making ramen!

Next time at Ramen Chemistry, we're on to space design.  

Brick and Mortar: Constructing a Restaurant Space

This week we submitted Shiba Ramen's architectural plans to the City of Emeryville and the County of Alameda, capping several months of hard work by us, our landlord, and the (surprisingly) large team of designers, architects, and engineers we had to assemble to get this job done.  It was a steep learning curve and a fantastic hands-on education in how physical spaces get designed and built.  

In the next series of posts, I'll explain the whole process.  I'll tell you what all of these consultants do, and what goes into putting a basic restaurant kitchen together.  How we made sure we got the right equipment and the right layout for a ramen assembly line.  And how we strove not only to make it look great, but to set the tone for the look and feel we want Shiba Ramen to have.  All while working within a tight set of landlord guidelines and an even tighter health and building code.  

This time, I'll explain how we restaurant-technical no-nothings dove into the project and navigated the unfamiliar waters of putting together a design team.

Coming Soon!   Status of our space, May 2015.

Coming Soon!  Status of our space, May 2015.

Racing in Slow Motion

As soon as Shiba Ramen closed the deal on a lease at the Public Market in Emeryville, CA, the race was on to design our space.  It's a race because with a commercial lease, there's usually a grace period before rent obligations kick in.  You want to be open for business when that deadline hits, because otherwise you're bleeding scarce operating capital until you do open.  At the same time, you can't get too much of a head start, because you might end up investing a lot of time and money into a space only to watch the lease deal fall through.  And not only do you have to get the design done, you have to get your plans approved by the city planning department and county health department before you can start building.  So it's a race, but one that's drawn out painstakingly over a period of months.

What I truly did not expect when we started was how many stakeholders would be involved in the project.   It was not just a matter of hiring an architect or a designer.  We had hire four different people doing four different things, just to design the space!  Then, because we're part of a larger project with holistic and pre-established design and construction objectives, our landlords and their building and design team are very much part of the process.  After the design is done and approved internally, everything goes to two different government agencies (city building and county health departments), at the same time that bids are taken for general contractors to do the buildout work.  That's where things stand this week.  

Emeryville Public Market .  Shiba Ramen, Kiosk 10.

Emeryville Public Market.  Shiba Ramen, Kiosk 10.

Surviving the Unknown

A central theme of Ramen Chemistry is to explain how we restaurant neophytes make it through big projects that are outside of our comfort zone.  These kinds of things can easily overwhelm, so for me it's essential to figure out where to go for information and when I've got enough information to make an educated decision.  Things move fast and there are a lot of decisions to make, and it's critical to avoid getting bogged down agonizing about everything that comes up.  

So everything is just a question of coming to grips with what has to be done, who has to be hired to do it, and what's reasonable to pay for it.  All while being comfortable as the least knowledgeable person in the room (at least at first), and being confident that you're not totally fucking things up!  You're the client, the ultimate decision maker, and the lead advocate for the project, so you have to get engaged and adapt to the project as it unfolds.  You've got to make sure everyone is coordinated and on time with deliverables.

For a project like this where expensive and technical personal services are involved, I try to find knowledgeable people and ask a lot of questions.  I started off with our logo designer, Misa Grannis, who is a soon-to-be-licensed architect.  Even though she hadn't done much restaurant work, I assumed she knows the basics about doing building projects, and has a network of resources at her disposal to help figure things out.  

Again, the questions are what has to be done, who does it, and how much does it cost?  I ask those same questions to everybody I meet along the way to see where opinions differ and where they overlap; doing so really helps to gauge the boundary expectations for the project.  And I always try to get personal recommendations (for architects, contractors, whatever).  Once I've hired a consultant for one part of the project, I'll often ask them to look over other consultants' proposals and suggest questions for me to ask.  And I'll frequently get the different consultants on the phone and make sure everyone is communicating, while listening attentively to what they say to each other.   

Kiosk 10.   Our first view of the space, back in January 2015.

Kiosk 10.  Our first view of the space, back in January 2015.

Kitchen Design, Space Design, Architecture

Misa mined her network and came back with our first surprise: in addition to an architect, we needed a specialist kitchen designer.  This is somebody that helps identify all the equipment needed for your restaurant kitchen and designs its layout.  Misa found a good contact for us at Myers Restaurant Supply, the firm we ultimately hired to do the kitchen design work and put together our equipment package.  

In terms of hiring an architect, we'd wanted Misa to design our space.  But when we learned that this particular project requires sign-off by a licensed architect (not every project does), we realized that we either couldn't hire Misa, or we'd need to split the project between Misa and an architect.  The problem is that most architects will want to do the space design (the fun part) if they're also doing the technical "construction drawings" that get submitted to the building department.  Although it was possible to have Misa do the entire package and get a licensed architect to stamp her drawings, most architects wouldn't want to accept the liability that comes with signing off on someone else's work.    

It took some time to settle the architecture situation.  It was tough to find an architect with availability and willingness to work on a small and relatively low-dollar-value project like ours, especially if they wouldn't get to claim ownership over the design.  And looming in the background, of course, was the ever-present issue of cost.  When I finally had bids for various combinations of services, I talked to a friend's architect husband (who was not bidding) just to get a gut check on pricing.  This guy runs a small firm in San Francisco and assured me that his usual fee would be well in excess of the bids I had.  

In the end, we hired Crome Architecture to do the construction drawings and Misa for the so-called "space design drawings."  Crome is the architect on the overall Public Market project, is working with some of the incoming tenants on their design, and was available and willing to do only a portion of the project.  Hiring Crome made a lot of sense from an efficiency perspective, and helped balance the inefficiency of hiring a separate space designer: they already have a seat at the table, and probably would have been in charge of reviewing the work of whichever architect we hired for purposes of getting buy-in by the landlord.     

Floor Plan.   Inside Kiosk 10.

Floor Plan.  Inside Kiosk 10.

Wait.  I Need to Hire Another Consultant?

At this point, I've hired three people: a space designer, an architect, and a kitchen designer.  I'm definitely spending more money than I'd (naively) expected when we'd started.  But there's more!  As I was vetting architects and consultants for the job, and asking lots of questions about the overall process, who does what, and how much it should cost, I kept hearing about some mysterious "MEP consultant."  

The MEP is a special type of engineer that does all the detailed mechanical, electrical, and plumbing design, based on plans made by the kitchen designer and architect.  Initially I had a hard time figuring out how what the MEP does is different from what the rest of the team was doing.  But it seems that having one is absolutely necessary to building something (at least here in Northern California), so I rolled with it.  

The scary thing was that I kept hearing how expensive the MEP is, especially relative to how much work they do on the project compared to the other consultants, all of whom definitely spent a lot of time working on their surprisingly detailed and comprehensive submissions.  Numbers like $8000 were being bandied about, but I refused to believe it could be that expensive.  I couldn't even figure out how the MEP's role was different at this point!  How could it possibly be the most expensive line-item in the budget?  (Several architects told me that engineers have figured out how to monetize their services in a way that architects haven't.)  I ended up getting two bids: one for $6500 and one for $3800.  The lower bid was from an MEP that was already doing work at Public Market alongside the architect we'd hired.  We went with the lower bidder.

Is Everybody Ready?

So now the full design team is in place.   Kitchen design, space design, architect, MEP.  Total bill just north of $20,000.00 (I had hoped for $10K).  We're ready to design an awesome restaurant space.    

Next time: how we designed the kitchen.    

Shiba Ramen Has a Space! Emeryville Public Market

Big News this week for Shiba Ramen!  After six months of hard work, we closed a deal to open later this year in Emeryville's redeveloped Public Market.  We'll be part of a newly renovated international food hall, featuring a ton of new and diverse food concepts.  There will be around 15 new food kiosks, a few vendors housed in outfitted shipping containers, and a couple of anchor restaurants.  There are a few pre-existing tenants (Urban Outfitters, Guitar Center, Peet's, Hot Italian).  Long-term plans for the project include expansive new retail and residential space.  

There is a serious unmet need that the Public Market is going to fill.  Emeryville has tons of retail (Ikea! Home Depot!), corporate offices, and multifamily residential.  But there's practically nothing to eat there, setting aside a few chain restaurants and Swedish meatballs.  I think this place is going to have a lot of energy, so it's a good launching pad for Shiba Ramen.  And, I'm happy to say, the Public Market's kiosk model fits nicely with our no-tipping policy.  


Right now, we're in the midst of the design and architectural process for our space.  Then we're off to permitting and on the hunt for general contractors.  We'll be doing our buildout later this summer.  I'll write all about the process here at Ramen Chemistry.  Here and here are links to press reports of our joining the Public Market, and here and here are reports about the Public Market project.