When the Portal Opens, Walk In, Don't Look Back: The Lights Go on at Shiba Ramen

Last month, after a seemingly endless amount of planning, waiting, and theorizing, the lights went on at Shiba Ramen.  One day, the whole project still was on paper for us.  Daily life was the routine of a salaryman dad and a stay-home mom, increasingly interrupted by meetings and paperwork, but otherwise business as usual.  The next day, in an instant, the world turned upside down.  It was like a portal to an alternate reality opened up and swallowed us whole.  Then, of course, the portal closed permanently.  It's a one way thing.  We own this thing, and vice versa.  Life is Shiba Ramen.

The World Turned Upside Down. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, 1559.

The Long Windup  

Door to door, it took us 17 months to get from the moment of conception to the moment the lights went on at Shiba Ramen. Considering we were restaurant nobodies at the start, and considering the plodding realities of design and construction, 17 months is really pretty good.  Day to day, though, it felt like things were going in slow motion most of the time.  How could it not?  It gets to the point where everything is in place on your end; you're just waiting on a million other people to get their jobs done.  In situations like this, waiting is a real killer.  All you can do is sit there burning up inside, offering up occasional sacrifices to the twin gods of Negligence and Delay.  

This sense of endless transition was most acute during the 3+ months of construction.  The experience is one of periodic bursts of rapid transformation, followed by weeks where nothing seems to happen at all.  During the former, you think--Great Scott!--this is really about to happen.  During the latter, it's hard to imagine that anything ever will.  Your ideas have begun to take on physical shape, but the whole thing nevertheless remains in the abstract.  Except, of course, the contractor's bills.  Those are really quite real.

Um, no, it isn't like Top Ramen.  You are not hired.  

While We Were Waiting: Getting Employees

So if this wasn't already clear, we had absolutely no idea when we'd be able to move into our space.  We had an estimate, evolving ever further into the future.  Our job was to find a collection of employees, all to start around the same time, on some date uncertain, two weeks or two months in the future.  The employment market in this business is really fluid; people don't start job searches months before they're planning to make a move.  They want (or need) a job now.  We didn't want to hire too early, or people might get tired of waiting around. Nor did we want to risk not having a staff when we opened.  

We'd never hired employees or opened a restaurant before, so you can bet this state of affairs was a bit nervewracking for us, especially when we realized how hard it was to find good cooks. The national cook shortage is an actual thing!  We spent a lot of time looking at resumes, talking to candidates, figuring out what we needed and how much we should be paying for it.  We always met with people at the construction site, so that they would get that the job was for real, and was probably not that far off.

This part of the startup experience was definitely the most alien.  This is not fall OCI at Boalt Hall School of Law, I can assure you. I had a kitchen manager candidate ask me if our food is "like Top Ramen."  More than once a candidate just flaked on the interview. They don't write, they don't call, and they certainly don't answer your texts.  "Hey, it's Jake from Shiba Ramen.  I'm here for our meeting. Are you coming?"  One guy showed up to the interview with the papers from some criminal case he was involved with. He told me all about it, in great detail, assuming I understood everything he told me because I'm a lawyer.  I didn't understand a word that came out of his mouth.     

December 4, 2015: Portal Opens

The contractor scheduled our portal to open at noon on December 4, 2015.  This is when the portal's gatekeeper, the county health inspector, was able to fit Shiba Ramen into his schedule. We were on edge when he showed up.  Who knew if he'd flag us for some arbitrary shortcoming, one we couldn't anticipate having never been through this before?   We couldn't bring so much as a chopstick into our space until he signed off.

When he arrived, his first act was to look upward, disapprovingly, at the wood finish above our counter.  These guys are really sensitive about how wood is used around food.  He remembered we'd talked to him about it last summer, and even though he'd signed off, there still seemed to be misgivings.  I told him we'd taken out the planned counter water dispenser at his direction (no water vapor under a wood ceiling!).  So he responds (incorrectly) "but now you're wasting all this space" on the counter.  He suggested that we put up a sneeze guard and a clear plastic sheet over the wood and "sell some pastries."  He was quite insistent about the pastries, as a matter of fact.  I politely explained that we're a Japanese noodle restaurant, and that we don't plan to sell pastries.  To which he responded, "I'm just trying to help you.  That's what I do.  I try to help people."  After that, the tension eased up a bit.  He stuck his hand in the hot water to see if it was hot enough to be up to code: "yeah, that's hot; I know hot water."  Then he told us that he "really likes our kitchen."  And that was it.  Approved.  

Moments later, our first employee showed up and we got to business stocking the kitchen.  The next morning, I got donuts and did an orientation for the nine employees we'd hired in the fall.  In the afternoon we got down to business in the kitchen.  Little did I know, five of those people wouldn't last a month.  Three were gone within a week.  Today, six weeks in, we have around fifteen employees.  The storyteller in me thinks there might be some wonderful details in there amid all the crazy.  I'll get to work on that.