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: http://r-mugendou.com/syohin/tyubo/if/ramen.html

17-Seat Ramen Restaurant.  Floor plan for the entirety of a small typical Japanese ramen shop. Link here: http://r-mugendou.com/syohin/tyubo/if/ramen.html

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.