The Periodic Table: Design & Construction. Drinks Now Pouring.

The Periodic Table is open! This is practically old news at this point--it's been over two months already. As usual, construction seemed plodding; it started slower than expected and then there was an unfortunate setback when a contractor ordered (and partially installed) the wrong long-lead-time tile just as things were starting to move. That cost us at least a month. Not a huge deal objectively, but not great for our mental state. We were feeling almost desperate to reverse the cash flow situation, with all the capital outflow this year opening two stores, plus the slower summertime business and the drag of road construction on our business in Public Market.  Finally, at the end of August, about a year after starting the project, the construction barricade came down to reveal a stunning little space.

Photo: Eric Rorer

Photo: Eric Rorer

Functional Design

Coming in at under 400 square feet, The Periodic Table is a compact operation. Perhaps the most important feature is the pass-through window to Shiba Ramen's kitchen. Being "contiguous" with Shiba Ramen allowed us to use the same alcohol license for both storefronts. The Dept. of Alcoholic Beverage Control ("ABC") told us to build TPT in the next kiosk and "knock a hole in the wall." On one side, Shiba Ramen Corporation does business as Shiba Ramen, and on the other as TPT. We couldn't have done TPT as a standalone bar, because the kinds of alcohol licenses that allow minors to enter the premises (the kind we need in a food court) require a significant percentage of sales to be for food.

But to do this bar in such a small space, we couldn't lose any square footage for food prep. We also didn't want to increase our construction and labor costs by investing in another serious food service operation; i.e., we absolutely did not want to build another kitchen (of course, we could have followed the brilliant suggestion of ABC and gotten a "panini machine" or a "soup kettle" to satisfy the food requirement). The whole point was to piggyback on the infrastructure we already had in place, allowing us to focus on alcohol sales and devote as much space as possible to customer seating.  

Shiba Ramen is "Adjacent Tenant."  You can see the pass-through window under the back bar.

Shiba Ramen is "Adjacent Tenant."  You can see the pass-through window under the back bar.

Every effort was made to pack maximum functionality in the bar area: a back bar cooler for beer kegs with a 12-tap beer tower, a display fridge for bottled beer and sake, a small fridge with worktop for food/drink prep, a dishwasher, and the various sinks needed for code compliance. A hot water heater is stacked on top of a mop sink in a discreet little closet in the back corner. The main bar itself seats 6-7, with another 10-12 seats at the counter that wraps around the room's back and side walls. All the food prep, except for a couple of cold plates, is done in the Shiba kitchen. Above the back bar is a wood lattice shelving unit, where we display bottles and other things.  As I discussed on this blog recently, we put a TV in the back of the room.

The compact nature of the project created a real challenge for our architecture and food service design team. Not only did they have to make sure all the functional needs could be accommodated, they had to make sure everything was code-compliant, and that the final product looked great. Needless to say, they made it happen, and without too many hiccups. We successfully deflected an uninformed eleventh-hour demand by the city that we install a grease trap in our essentially grease-less space, the inclusion of which would have disrupted the careful balance created over months of back-and-forth among the many stakeholders in the project. In a science fiction world, perhaps we could have fit a grease trap in the extra dimensions contemplated by string theory; in the real world, we were completely out of space.

Photo: Eric Rorer

Aesthetic Design

We wanted TPT to be a real standout space, so we hired the folks at Oakland-based Arcsine, who had recently done some excellent restaurant work with Agave Uptown and Calavera. The design process was a low-stress, streamlined collaboration. Arcsine began by interviewing us at some length about the concept and our design goals. We were looking to build off of the modern Japanese-influenced design used at Shiba Ramen, while incorporating references to chemistry, science, and alcohol. The use of geometric patterns and shapes would allow us to act on each of these goals simultaneously, given the prevalence of geometric motifs in both Japanese design and chemistry. As with Shiba Ramen, we wanted tile and lighting to be feature elements.

Arcsine presented us with a set of three concept boards: one emphasized traditional Japanese design, one had a chemistry/industrial theme, and one was more playful with extensive use of color. In response, we suggested combining elements of each theme. We want TPT to present sake outside the usual sushi restaurant context, and we want to steer clear of shoji screens, brushstroke kanji, and the like. But we were excited to incorporate wood and Japanese geometric patterns. Similarly, we did not want to create the kind of sterile, monotone space that could result if we tried to make TPT into a chemistry lab. We viewed warmth and color as essential attributes of the space. The next time we sat down with Arcsine, they presented us with the refined composite concept slide below. We were totally on board. 

TPT Concept.PNG

Over the next few months, we sat down with Arcsine for a series of conversations as they fleshed out the design (the images below include a refined concept collage and an interim material palette). We started with the floor plan, making sure the space had all the necessary technical and code features, arranged efficiently and usefully, all while maximizing customer seating. The main bar terminates with a bump-out in the shape of a half-hexagon, creating an intimate space for conversation, either between patrons or with the bartender. The wraparound bar along the back and side walls contains two more half-hex bump-outs, providing additional focal points for conversation and design features. There are low (34") segments of the main bar and the wraparound bar, both necessary to meet ADA accessibility requirements.  

The ceiling is closed off above the bar, with a half-hex soffit mirroring the bar bump-out, and oak slats running in parallel from the back bar wall to the front of the bar. The area above the customer area is open, allowing light from the Market's skylight into the space. The oak slats in this area run from front to back, perpendicular to slats behind the bar.

The walls are primarily done in oak veneers, with a couple of exceptions.  The bump-outs on the wraparound bar feature gorgeous laser-cut oak screens from Lightwave above the bar, in a custom Japanese tortoiseshell pattern. Below the bar, the screens are mirrored by half-hex tiles from Clayhaus, teal blue with white accents, arranged in the same tortoiseshell pattern. The same tortoiseshell tile mosaic runs along the entirety of the main bar die wall, and is used again, although in plain white, as the backsplash behind the bar. The countertops are deep blue, made from a unique paper-polymer composite material called Richlite. The signature copper-coated beer tower has twelve taps. Butcher block is the countertop material on the back bar. The barstools are plastic/steel in a cool muted blue, from Normann-Copenhagen.  

Image: Arcsine

Image: Arcsine

The space also has two features that are direct inspiration from chemistry. The oak shelving lattice behind the bar is comprised of parallel rows of square openings, suggesting the periodic table of elements itself. The reference is an explicit one, with some of the openings covered in colored fabric squares printed with chemical element symbols (H for hydrogen, O for oxygen, Cf for Californium, Nh for Nihonium), a graphic representation of the platinum atom, and our ethanol-molecule logo, among other things.  In front of both laser-cut screens are sets of pendant lamps shaped like Erlenmeyer flasks. The lamp is appropriately called "the Erlen," so its designers clearly had chemistry in mind when they developed the product. Side note: this was the one piece of the design Hiroko and I took direct responsibility for, exhaustively scouring the Internet for chemistry-themed lighting. Today we are serving sake by the glass in actual Erlenmeyer flasks.    

* * * * *

So the space is pretty amazing. Arcsine came up with a striking design, which UpCycle Builders executed beautifully. The finishes and the carpentry are exemplary (and so are the drinks, by the way). I love spending time there, and I hope other people do too. It would be pretty sad if I didn't, though, because--brace yourself--this little room cost about $350,000 to design and build, financed through a combination of a Small Business Administration loan, cash, and landlord tenant improvement funds. Then add $40,000 for equipment. Total capital investment close to $400K. That's the cost of doing a tiny designer bar space in the Bay Area. The shock of these costs has worn off to a degree after three projects, but it still seems kind of appalling. There are still a few improvements to be made before the space is really complete, but we'll get to them when we get to them. We're working on some graphic educational collateral about our products for the wall, and we need a better sound system. 

We obviously need to sell a lot of booze, so if you're reading this please come and drink ASAP, and bring some friends! The burger is great, and you can eat ramen and wings at the bar. Here's where we are with the drink menu: 20-25 sakes, 10 draft beers, bottled Japanese beer and California ciders, a growing selection of Japanese spirits, including whisky, shochu, gin, and vodka, and a small cocktail menu. The food menu is minimalist at present, but likely to grow soon. We have cheese, charcuterie, and house-made pickle plates, all great drinking foods. Sports are on the television. See you there. 

Sleek blade sign fabricated by Sweitzer Fixtures and designed by Misa Grannis.

Sleek blade sign fabricated by Sweitzer Fixtures and designed by Misa Grannis.

Shiba Ramen Oakland: The Final Product

We made it, I'm relieved to report. Shiba Ramen Oakland is up and running. Construction has been done for over a month, and we're fully open, more or less. Six days a week, at this point, until 8:30. Development is about to explode in Downtown Oakland, but the biggest projects are either just breaking ground or still at the Planning Commission. When more people move down there, we'll stay open later. Right now it doesn't really make sense. There just aren't that many people down there after work. 

Construction was taxing. We're glad it's over. These things always become much bigger than you expect them to be. They take longer, and they cost a lot more. There is copious angst. Your sense of time gets distorted. But once it's over, it's over, and there you are, a bit worse for the wear and a lot poorer. Now you've got to switch gears and start selling things. You've got to get your money back. But, hey, the space looks great and I love hanging out there. With Chef Danny Keiser on the job, the menu is growing, and with me and Hiroko on the job, the alcohol situation is quite promising.   

Design Concept to Final Product

We got deeply involved in every aspect of the design on this project. The stated objective was to move the design themes we'd started in the Emeryville kiosk toward a logical conclusion. The kiosk format was so limiting, and this was an opportunity to refine and extend the concept. The whole project was a collaboration between us and our design/build contractor LMNOP, with consulting input from our design partner Misa Grannis. Hiroko and I selected all the fixtures, finishes, and furniture, and with Misa's input, set the overall design parameters for the project. LMNOP pulled together the structural design and technical drawings, and then served as the general contractor. 

The signature feature of the space is an undulating basswood soffit, suspended by aircraft cables from a scaffolding. The soffit begins in the back of the restaurant, extends over the bar and POS, and then projects upward in multiple segments over the dining room. The front 1/3 of the dining room is open to the full height of the ceiling, with a 3-foot-diameter ball suspended overhead between the soffit and the front wall. The top of ball is visible from across the street through the clerestory windows--a striking scene at night--and you can still see the bottom of the ball throughout the restaurant. 

A design theme that resonates throughout the space is the use of hexagonal geometry. Hexagonal forms appear behind the bar, in the asanoha tile mosaic, in the bathroom parallelogram-based tile mosaic, in the bar stools, in the shadows cast by the central pendant lamp, and in the front window treatments.  

The Finishes

We looked at a staggering number of pendant lights on the internet. If you've ever looked for lights on the internet, you know there is an ocean of choices, and maybe you concluded, like we did, that most of them fall on a continuum somewhere between abhorrent and meh. The nice ones stand out, but you've got to work to find them. We picked pendants for three different applications in the space, and probably spent more time on those than any other element, if only wading through all the chaff on the internet.  

In the front of the space, we installed a 3-foot-diameter "Coral" sphere from David Trubridge in New Zealand.  It's made of 60 identical pieces of painted bamboo, each connected at 5 points, and it throws geometric shadows all over the adjacent walls.  Along the length of the dining room we installed 12 "Annular" pendants--six per side--from Dutch designer Woud, bought from some French distributor. Splendid customer service, I have to say. Thanks Fabrice! Finally, over the bar counter, we used four "Chouchin" pendants from Foscarini. These Italian lights, inspired by Japanese chouchin paper lamps, are the same ones we used in the original Shiba Ramen, but a different color and larger format.


We chose three kinds of tile (floor, back bar wall, and bathroom walls), designed the bathroom mosaic, and assembled the back bar mosaic (wonderfully designed by Misa) at our house before transporting it in boxes to the site. The back bar tiles are Japanese imports in the asanoha pattern. They're the very same tiles we used in the Emeryville location, but we used five colors this time and the mosaic is about twice the size. The asanoha pattern also features in the window treatments in front of the restaurant. The bathroom mosaic is comprised of Spanish tiles manufactured by Natucer -- parallelograms arrayed in the forms of hexagons and six-pointed stars. We designed it to be rotationally symmetric--meaning if you rotate the image (in this case by 180 degrees: so-called "C2 symmetry"), the resulting image will be identical to the one you started with. Well, there's one point of asymmetry. Go visit Shiba Ramen and see if you can figure out what it is. There's a real organic chemistry influence in this mosaic.  

Wood is featured throughout the space, in the banquette seating, the butcher-block tables, the drink rails, and the slatted ash die walls under the bar.  And, of course, in that gorgeous soffit that dominates the scene. The bar counters are gray quartz -- silestone, specifically. For the furniture, we went with red geometric "Hot Mesh" bar stools from BluDot at the various counters and the community table, balanced by some relatively nondescript modern gray chairs at the low tables. We featured our Shiba red color in a few accents throughout the space -- front and back accent walls, the backlit-at-night storefront sign, and a giant Shiba Ramen logo in the back hallway.

There were countless other issues that came up along the way, not the least of which were redesigning the kitchen and dry storage and settling on an equipment package. The stereo system had to be put together and purchased. For that, I outsourced component selection to my audiophile friend. I sent him the dimensions of the space, and told him he had $2000 to work with, and he came up with a nice system (KEF Q-series speakers and Nuprime amplifier) that works well for the space. 

Finally, let's not forget the rounds of multi-party hand-wringing about the questionable code compliance of the building trash area's drainage system, almost leading to a serious issue with the landlord who (naturally) tried to disclaim responsibility, until the health department relented and made us buy a $500 trash can instead of doing a $40,000 sanitation upgrade to the building's exterior (i.e., not in our rented space). Deep breaths.  

Wrapping Up and Next Steps

And so, reader, we are open. Please come eat at Shiba Ramen Oakland. Buy some beer, but don't let it stop you from buying sake, too. Double-fisting is nothing to be ashamed of. To the contrary, it is something we practice ourselves, and something we encourage for you. To be clear, however, we are not promoting sake bombs. Goodness, no, that would be gauche. And make sure to order some of Chef Danny's house-made pickles, which arrived on the menu last week. They are outstanding, especially with sake.

With Oakland complete, Ramen Chemistry needs to move on to new topics. The construction barricade for The Periodic Table went up a few days ago, and excavation should start early this week. In that spirit, we need to dive into sake here in a serious way. Coming soon, I'll take readers on a tour of the Kenbishi sake brewery in Japan, where we spent an amazing morning with the owners last November. And, of course, we need to learn the ABCs of sake. Lots to talk about. Exciting.

p.s. A week after we opened, the next-door Foot Locker shut down. We're not sad. The space is for lease, and rumor has it the landlord is looking for a cocktail bar. Fingers crossed. That would be a nice synergy. 

Space Design: Putting the Pieces in Place

I just flipped our shiba inu calendars to August.  Aside 1:  How is it August??  Aside 2: Yes, plural.  Our love of the shiba is sufficiently well-known that we received two shiba calendars as gifts this year.  There's more than one wall here at HQ, after all.  But, to my point, it is now August.  This is the month Shiba Ramen construction should begin!  Our building permits have been issued, and we're seemingly days away from hiring a general contractor.  Aside 3: I've said "days away!!" every week for the past month, but getting these contractor bids resolved is an almost unbearably slow process.  But this time I really mean it.  Maybe.  

Shiba Ramen.  More or less.  We've had to cut the bar seating due to obscure regulatory requirements.  The storefront elevation diagram below shows the change.  This image does not reflect what the tile will actually look like.  For a more accurate view, see the image below. 

The point, dear readers, is that we have something to build and we're ready to build it.  We have a space design that we're really excited about, and that's just a part of the exceedingly complex architectural plans for the whole operation.  Seeing how much goes into a sub-400 square foot restaurant space is eye-opening, to say the least.

Over the past few posts, I've explained our approach to space design, from the aesthetic we're trying to create to the many external forces that shaped our decision-making.  This time, I'd like to show you where we ended up, and give you a preview of what Shiba Ramen will look like.  With any luck, I'll be posting pictures of the real thing in a couple of months.  

Storefront Elevation Diagram.  Everything to scale.  Here you can see that the bar seating has given way to a standing area.

Decisions, Decisions

So here's how we struck a balance between our design goals and the competing constraints on design freedom.  We chose to focus on four elements: color, tile, wood, and lighting.  The first element--color--was an easy one.  Shiba Ramen's signature color is a crimson red, so it is critical that that color is prominently featured in our first location.  The storefront sign above our kiosk, a backlit strip of water-jet cut aluminum, seemed like the ideal (and most appropriate) place to deploy the Shiba red.  But we wanted the red to play more of an accent role on an overall basis, rather than a dominant one.  So we decided to feature it on the edges of our visible shelving and menu board strips.  Our pendant lamps are orange-red, not an exact match with the Shiba red.  What can you do.

Asanoha Tile.  

To accompany the red motif, we decided to incorporate a blue in our tile.  Although the hoshi tile comes in "clay" (sort of a brick color), which may well have worked with the red theme, we thought a cool blue would look great as a backdrop for the red.  It provides a nice contrast, and because we love blue, we wanted to find a way to incorporate it into the design.

For the tile, the hardest part was finding a place to put it.  Because we have to use the landlord's blackened steel panels under-counter, a different location was necessary.  We solved this problem by incorporating a customer-facing drop ceiling behind the point of sale.  The hoshi tile will be done as a blue-to-white gradient from the left side.  We will use a small amount of gray tile to help intermediate the transition.  The menu board will hang over the right side of the drop ceiling, directly behind the register.  

Wood Elements.  Blade sign (left) and mock-up of menu board (right).  Prices not to scale.  

We are using wood in a couple of ways.  First, we'll use a set of engraved plywood strips for the menu board, with the edges painted Shiba red.  We'll also use plywood for the blade sign, engraved with the Shiba Ramen logo.  But the big wood element is the slatted pine soffit that hangs above the counter and extends down the wall alongside the point of sale.  The soffit is comprised of a series of adjacent triangular segments, with the wood in each oriented perpendicular to that in the next.  On top of that, the surface is three-dimensional, so that the triangles will undulate along the length of the space.  Where the soffit runs down the wall, we will overlay a stenciled asanoha pattern to tie the tile motif into the wood element.  Our view is that the angular and geometric nature of the wood soffit will tie in nicely with the similarly angular asanoha tile.  

Soffit. This behind-the-counter view shows the three-dimensional nature of the pine soffit.  

For the over-counter lighting, we are using a set of four pendant lamps.  These so-called "chouchin" lamps are made by an Italian company, Foscarini.  But they are inspired by Japanese design.  Chouchin are traditional Japanese paper and bamboo lanterns.  You've certainly seen them before.  The Foscarini lamps are sleek blown glass renderings of this historic lighting element.   In other words, it's the exact kind of thing we want to showcase at Shiba Ramen.  

Lights! Foscarini's "Chouchin" collection at left.  We're using the smaller orange pendant.  Japanese chouchin lamps at right.

Note: all of the fantastic images above were produced by our design partner, Misa Grannis.  We worked closely with her throughout the process of putting this together.  She did the heavy lifting and put together a great design package that we were proud to stand behind.  Hiroko and I contributed mostly be musing, opining, and trying not to be annoying. 

On the Hunt for Tile, a Visit to Edo Japan: Japanese Geometries

We get excited by tile.  Probably to an abnormal degree.  Tile is capable of infinite variation in pattern and color.  It can deliver a look of striking complexity or clean simplicity.  If you're looking for a signature design element for your space, whether in your home or in a ramen restaurant, tile can provide it.  Two years ago, after months of searching and planning, we installed a custom-colored cement tile floor with a traditional Mediterranean-style pattern in our sunroom.  That fantastic experience made it a near-certainty that tile would be an integral element of Shiba Ramen's inaugural design scheme.

Cement Tile.   Toro sunbathes in the sunroom, on our "Bayahibe" tiles that we bought from Avente Tile.  

Cement Tile.  Toro sunbathes in the sunroom, on our "Bayahibe" tiles that we bought from Avente Tile.  

Now the other thing we love:  geometric design.  I spent years being fascinated by the endless hexagons and pentagons, the lines, the symmetries, and the repetition found in chemistry.  I loved the way molecules looked, and I took great pleasure in drawing them, designing them, and building them.  It's no surprise, then, that geometric patterns have featured in our home renovations, especially through the repeating quatrefoils on our sunroom floor.  If there's any material capable of delivering an awesome geometric look, it's tile.

Tile + Geometry + Japan

It didn't take long for our search for geometric tile lead us to early modern Japan.  Japan in the Edo period (ca. 1600-1868) is a renowned epoch of artistic achievement, especially in the graphic arts.  Ukiyo-e ("pictures of the floating world") prints remain captivating today, as evidenced by a fabulous exhibit at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum earlier this year (one that I attempted to enjoy until I had to throw down with a combative and excitable toddler halfway through the first gallery--it was Mother's Day, so Hiroko got to roll through relatively unmolested).  

Traditional Japanse Patterns.  You've probably seen some of these before, especially the seigaiha pattern at lower left.  Images taken from Patterns and Layering: Japanese Spatial Culture, Nature and Architecture.  You can download a pdf of the first chapters here.  I'm waiting for Amazon to get the whole book in stock so I can get a hard copy.

You don't have to look at much ukiyo-e to appreciate the sumptuous fashion on display in Edo Japan.  Images of courtesans and samurai abound, the subjects often clad in layered garments, replete with varied colors and--to our point--geometric patterns.   It turns out that this use of geometry has been deeply integrated in Japanese design for hundreds of years.  And some of the very same traditional patterns used in the art, imagery, and fashion of feudal Japan are still in regular use today.

Traditional Look, Modern Look

But don't let the word "traditional" give you the wrong impression.  The amazing thing about these Japanese patterns is just how modern they look, and how easily they fit into contemporary design.  The reality is that once you become aware of these patterns, you start seeing them everywhere, not only in Japan, but even here in the U.S.  OK, maybe not so much in my native Akron, Ohio (the home of LeBron James!), but certainly here in the Bay Area.  Perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised when, just last week, we saw the Japanese pattern we're using at Shiba Ramen--asanoha--used in curtains in a CB2 catalogue, and in a piece of wall art in a West Elm catalogue.  

Let's Buy Some Tile

Given the design constraints in our small space, we knew we had limited opportunity to deploy tile, so we had to make it count.  But there was little question that we intended to find that opportunity in the first instance.  After Misa put the Soli hoshi  tile on our Pinterest board, we didn't have a hard time making up our minds to use it at Shiba Ramen.  It conveys the modern Japanese look we're going for; it references a Japanese design tradition without seeming traditional.  It can work in a modern food hall in Emeryville, CA.  And, to come back to where we started, it is an incredibly cool geometric pattern.  

Asanoha Tile.  This is what we're using above the counter at Shiba Ramen.  A mosaic of "hoshi" tile from L.A.-based tile vendor Soli.  This image from the web is what caught our attention.  We're doing a fade from sky blue to white, with gray intermediating the transition.

The tile also has the capacity to deliver a bit of much needed color to our space.  As you'll see next time, our color palette is pretty neutral, and there is little opportunity to deviate.  The metal "Shiba Ramen" sign above our kiosk will be the crimson of our logo and we'll use red-orange hanging pendants over the counter.  But we wanted to offset the red with a cool blue, and that's something that the hoshi tile (in sky blue) will do for us.

As of today, the hoshi tile has been in our basement for over two months, awaiting the big day of installation early this fall.  We were worried that Soli would run out of stock and we'd be unable to get the colors we wanted.  This stuff is not cheap (around $28/sf), and that's fine because we're using such a small amount, but if we'd wanted to custom order the tile, the minimum order was 300 sf.  Obviously, custom ordering the tile was a non-starter, so we acted fast and made a final final decision months in advance of building.  This tile is not returnable.