Televised Sports in the Restaurant; or, Embracing Your Inner American

Alcohol and televised sports are, I cannot stress enough, inseparable corollaries of one another.  This may be news to you, progressive Bay Area millennials, but it is about as newsworthy as the fact that the Ford F-150 is the best-selling vehicle in the United States by a wide margin.  To put it another way, the line between America and ‘Murica is a fine one indeed, and you’d be wise to keep stock of the side on which you are standing. When it comes to sports, you’d be even wiser to appreciate that there might not be a line at all. 

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The Agony of Summer; or, Where's My Money?

I've had enough of summer. The sunshine is all well and good, but I'm ready to move on. I don't mean to be a scrooge about the whole thing, but I'm not finding it all that satisfying at this point. Summer is bad for business. And I'm cooped up all the time. I can't even get out and enjoy the season. Not that it's all bad. Tomato season is almost here, and that's something to look forward to. I'm also into my garden. Amazing plants out there. 

I used to revel in the summer sun, so in that sense you could say I was a devotee of Apollo. But the Sun God and I have diverging interests, I'm somewhat surprised to find out. I'm generally one to follow my interests, so I pray to the Fog Gods now. Hope stirs when I see the first tendrils of fog creep over Twin Peaks; I am #blessed when it consumes the Golden Gate and barrels into the East Bay. Let it last through lunchtime tomorrow, and if afterward it should go away, let it be back by happy hour.  

The principal deities in my pantheon are the Rain Gods. Praise be unto them! Let us give sacrifice! The greater gift to the God of Cold Drizzle, the lesser to the God of Torrential Downpours. It is of great concern should the latter giveth too much. Biblical floods are bad for business, as is commonly known. I'm in the ramen business. Cold drizzle is the manna falling from my skies.  

I take solace in the fact that, as people are now wont to say, winter is coming.  Too bad it's only the beginning of August. There are still September heat waves to endure, a back-to-school slowdown, more of the massive, slow-burning construction outside our Emeryville store.  At least there isn't a realistic threat of baseball playoffs this year--the A's and the Giants are both terrible. Let's just get to the rainy season relatively unscathed, and then maybe we can start making some money, at least until the Warriors steal the attention of every jump-on-the-bandwagon fan in the East Bay, every other night for two months of literally endless NBA playoffs. Seriously, I never heard the word "Warriors" in my first decade in the Bay Area. Now they're great and every fucking person is walking around draped in blue and gold. It's bad enough that I'm a Cavs fan, but what I really can't abide is the impact of all this greatness on sales. 

 The Warriors' victory parade went right by Shiba Ramen. 

The Warriors' victory parade went right by Shiba Ramen. 

So this is what's become of me. Shiba Ramen has been in operation for twenty months, and I now view everything, every public event and every shift in the weather, in terms of the likely impact on sales. I hypothesize about the influence of morning clouds on lunch volume. I'm an armchair psychologist.  Does commuting in dark conditions positively correlate to lunchtime ramen consumption, as compared to commuting under clear skies? Does the answer change depending on the season? Do clouds have a bigger impact in summer (i.e., to what degree do you have to correct for expectations about weather)?? 

I imagine myself as a SuperFriends arch-villain, some diabolical Doctor Drizzle. I'm building a giant machine on a remote volcanic island, capable of controlling Earth's climate. My sinister goal is to create a perpetual state of Perfect Ramen Weather,  all to increase ramen sales, so as to accelerate the moment at which I can finally take a fucking vacation, and buy a car on which both side mirrors haven't been knocked off. I actually have such a car. The engine light has been on since 2015, and it's wearing a spare tire. 

What is money, and why is it needed? 

Money is something I do not have. I used to have it. Unfortunately, I still require it for things like "eating," which I must continue to do if I want to remain alive long enough to get my money back from Shiba Ramen. I want to get my money back from Shiba Ramen. I also require it for things like "shelter" and "preschool."  In a year, mercifully, I will enroll my child in public kindergarten. Even so, I will likely still need money.  

Where is the money? 

People took it. More accurately, I gave it to Shiba Ramen Corporation, which in turn gave it to people in exchange for goods and services. The number of such "people," defined to include corporate entities, to whom I regularly give money is staggering. Everybody gets in on the action. The many heads of the governmental hydra are first in line, followed closely by insurance companies, banks, and landlords. The employees eat the most, though, by far, and the minimum wage keeps rising. There are contractors, subcontractors, architects and engineers. And just when you've paid them, the government swings by for another bite, this time for some tax you didn't know you had to pay. Your last dollar goes to Waste Management, which charges a rate that reeks of noncompetitive bidding and municipal corruption.   

When everyone has finished eating, there are no leftovers. Well, sometimes there are leftovers, other times there aren't. Sometimes you have to pay just to have the privilege of feeding everybody. Also, technically, most of the above-identified diners never really stop eating. The contractors do if you stop building things, but everyone else will be back for breakfast tomorrow.

This is what happened to my money. I assume similar things happen to other people's money.  

Below: Summer hasn't been without highlights. Shiba Ramen had a stall at Umami Mart's matsuri festival, and the Shiba Party was incredible. 

Where can I get money? 

I have the sense that the more I seek money, the less of it I will have. That's certainly true as a historical statement over the past three years. But I'm at my limit of being able to live like this, and my personal flow of dollars to the business needs to stop. It isn't sustainable.

The good news is that a year of non-stop real estate development is wrapping up by the end of the month. I'm not sure what exactly we were thinking last summer when we signed two leases at the same time. Naturally, we underestimated how much it would all cost and how long it would take for everything to come together. That's how these things go. If your initial estimate is accurate, you might scare yourself out of taking a risk, and you might miss a good opportunity! You need to indulge in a bit of sugarcoating if you want to get anything big done. 

A year after signing the lease, The Periodic Table is just a couple weeks from opening. Finally. I hope we'll sell a lot of booze, but I don't know how long it will take to get the word out and start drawing people to Public Market to drink and spend time in the evenings. We're investing in a big PR push starting this month to promote the concept. We also decided to sell a burger (something the Market currently lacks) as a means to get some lunch traffic while we work on driving alcohol sales. We had been planning to only offer a few small-plate sides, but it's imperative that we capitalize on the crowd that makes up the bulk of the Market's traffic.

 Dinner in the garden is pretty nice, too. Grilling tai snapper, with oysters and great beer.  

Dinner in the garden is pretty nice, too. Grilling tai snapper, with oysters and great beer.  

The other good piece is that labor costs are going to be way, way lower than Shiba Ramen. Almost nothing has to be prepared in advance. The bad news is that we have to start paying the bank that financed The Periodic Table. We just got the last disbursement from our credit line, so the company has to pay the final contractor invoices itself just when we start getting the bank's bill.  

Whatever. I plan on selling good alcohol, and I'm confident in the capacity of humankind to seek out and consume good alcohol. The most significant thing is that the rainy season is only two months away, and that points to a coming renaissance for ramen sales. The summer days are getting shorter, back to school is in the air. Some evenings, when the fog comes in, you can almost believe it's October. October is the first rain, and October is what I'm shooting for. October is also when the worst of Public Market's construction is scheduled to be over. October can't come soon enough. 


Ramen Chemistry in Distraction. Also, We Opened Another Restaurant.

I think about Trump again.  When I do, I enter an ecstasy of horror and fascination. I revel in it. The sheer absurdity counterbalances the loathing and the terror, and gives me hope that, when we finally hear someone tell us "my fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over," the nightmare won't have gone on too long. Let's just hope the person delivering that message isn't Mike Pence! 

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Shiba Ramen Update from 38,000 Feet

We are somewhere over the Pacific, maybe halfway between Tokyo and San Francisco. I like it here. It’s dark, I have a bottle of my favorite [non-alcoholic] drink, Ito-En Oi Ocha green tea.  A cinnamon roll beckons at my right. Music is playing. I played math puzzles on my sumaho, then scrolled through the hundreds of photos I took in Japan.  There is no Internet [my choice], no toddler, and nobody needing me to write a brief, sign a document, or cut a massive check.  As far as I know, there is nobody on this airplane I need to yell at, although I’m quite sure there are people on the ground who have something coming to them. Perhaps best of all, Donald Trump is nowhere to be seen; I am blissfully unaware of which unqualified individual he appointed to lead a federal agency today.  In short, life on United 876 is pretty good. 

  Hama-Rikyu Gardens.  This used to be the private Tokyo park of the Tokugawa shoguns.

Hama-Rikyu Gardens. This used to be the private Tokyo park of the Tokugawa shoguns.

I’ll tell you something: I needed this trip.  People tell you not to bite off more than you can chew.  That’s good advice, but it’s often hard to know in advance just how much you can fit in your mouth.  I tend to assume my mouth is big. It’s not cavernous, but it’s definitely oversized. In 2016, I’ve been exploring the limits of my capacity.  I’m working through a massive bite right now, and I think I’m going to make it through, but my jaws are seriously aching.  Just as we were coming up for air from opening Shiba Ramen almost exactly a year ago, we signed not just one, but two new leases in August.  The first was for our downtown Oakland Shiba Ramen, set to open in roughly January.  The second was something of a calculated lark, the kiosk adjoining the original Shiba in Emeryville Public Market, to do an entirely new concept—The Period Table, our taproom and sake bar.  These two excellent opportunities came up at the same time. Were we supposed to turn one down?  

Unsurprisingly, each project requires a not insubstantial amount of blood and treasure.  Also unsurprisingly, the amount of each is quite indeterminate until you’ve traveled well past the point of no return.  So I’m out looking for money.  Lots and lots of money.  I’m learning where money hides, and I’m learning how to flush it out.  People keep wanting more of it, so I need to keep finding more of it.  That’s the way it goes.

  Shiba Ramen Oakland.   Should be finished in January.

Shiba Ramen Oakland.  Should be finished in January.

In the meantime, we have to execute the projects.  Shiba Oakland has been the big one.  It’s been a live design-build scenario since Labor Day.  That is, the design is unfolding as the construction happens.  We're taking over a café that went out of business, but even though a lot of infrastructure was in place, it’s a huge renovation.  Total makeover of dining room and bathroom, all new kitchen equipment and corollary plumbing and electrical work, and significant upgrades to storage.  In addition to overseeing the contractors’ execution of the project, we have spent positively inordinate amounts of time choosing all the finishes, fixtures, and furniture.  You cannot imagine how many pendant lights we’ve looked at; the Internet is a vast sea of them, and 99.9% are no good for one reason or another.  Anyway, there are worse ways to spend your time.

The Periodic Table project, mercifully, is on a staggered timeframe.  This is a full buildout from a cold dark shell, not a renovation.  The architecture has to be done and permits obtained before anything can be built, and that’s a still-ongoing process.  The only bills have been for the architects.  Construction will happen this winter-spring.  The architects curated most of the finishes and fixtures, but we did go pretty deep ourselves looking for pendant lights.  It’s unavoidable.

Would you believe it if I told you we’ve been negotiating even more deals for new Shiba Ramen locations?  Of course you would.  It’s the natural order of things.

  Robot Restaurant.   Crazy and totally worth it. Kabuki-cho. Tokyo. 

Robot Restaurant.  Crazy and totally worth it. Kabuki-cho. Tokyo. 

Now here’s the real problem: the monasticism that pulling all this off requires.  Recall I’m a practicing lawyer, so I need to bill my hours.  My firm (thanks, DWT!) lets me work at home, which is great as a time-saving measure.  The downside is that I spend unhealthy amounts of time alone at home in front of a computer, doing one or the other of my jobs, often too tired and stressed to be as efficient as I want to be.  When my kid comes home from school at 5:30, I usually just give up until he goes to bed.  Then the gravitational pull of the computer kicks in again, and more progress is made in fits and starts.  I drink too much sake and stay up way too late.  The next day invariably proceeds according to the template set by the last.  Things are better or worse depending on how many cooks have called off at Shiba Ramen on a given day—a staggeringly bad problem—and thus how much time Hiroko has to spend at the restaurant cutting onions or peeling eggs.

And let’s not forget the backdrop to this year’s stint in solitary: watching the Great American Trainwreck unfold in slow motion on the Internet, compulsively checking an ever-expanding roster of websites, distraction begetting distraction, escalating through September and October, and reaching critical mass on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.  The nauseating palpability of our National catastrophe savaged my productivity in the days that followed.  At least in this, I’m certain I was not alone. 

But now I have been to Japan, and I feel good.  Today I was eating four different kinds of toro at 9:30 a.m., photographing red leaves and white herons in a gorgeous urban park after that.  I had amazing tours at three sake factories.  I saw a show at the Robot Restaurant.  I visited Hiroko’s parents, the original hipsters, in their artisanal/local/sustainable 19th Century world where they make their own charcoal and salt, and grow a substantial percentage of their own food.  Twice I ate fugu and survived the threat of tetrodotoxin, and twice I ate the seasonal delicacy—soft roe—a coiled membrane filled with cod sperm.  I am outfitted with sake bottles and sake glasses, and the enjoyment of Japan will continue when I land. 

For the moment at least, I'm excited to see my dogs and my tyrant 4-year-old.  This exceptionally long day started with sushi breakfast, and it's going to end with cheeseburgers and milkshakes.  Hello California.

  Pre-Flight Breakfast . Sushizanmai, Ginza, Tokyo.  Sushizanmai is a chain of sushi restaurants in and around the Tsukiji fish market.  The sushi is amazing and it's a great value.  

Pre-Flight Breakfast. Sushizanmai, Ginza, Tokyo.  Sushizanmai is a chain of sushi restaurants in and around the Tsukiji fish market.  The sushi is amazing and it's a great value.  

Postscript, 3 Days Later: In the three days between writing this post and its publication today, I've decided I'm pretty much ready to leave again.  

Postscript, 4 Days Later: Ben Carson appointed as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.  The Rapture really may be upon us.