Just one month in, Furious Spoon, Shin Thompson's Wicker Park ramen shop, has already seen such high customer turn-out that production wasn't able to meet demand, resulting in temporary closings. Thompson and management added more staff to smooth these issues out and have already received critical praise, even if, in Thompson's words, half of the customers don't fully understand what they're trying to do.
Thompson spoke frankly about the obstacles he and his staff have overcome in the past month, customers' responses to the food, utensils and music, and gives a sneak peek of a menu addition that is on its way when warmer weather returns to Chicago.
How has the first month gone?
It's gone well. It's been busier than we expected off the bat. Initially, I thought it would take some time to grow the business. With this location, there's so much foot traffic that we're drawing a lot of people off of the street. We were a little bit under-manned in the beginning and weren't able to produce the food as fast as we would have liked, so we had to close a couple of times just to revamp everything. The soup - we have these pots that only have the capacity to do 400, 450 bowls a day. On the weekends we were far exceeding that, so we were closing at 9:00 p.m. when we ran out. So we were just learning, not only our operation, but how to forecast the quantity to prepare, staffing needs, etc.
What were some of the other hurdles you had to get through? You also had the issue with noodle production.
The noodles are ideal if they sit for 48 hours before using them. It's not the best if you go fresh from the machine into the pot, because the alkaline in it needs to settle and react with the flour to get the consistency we want. So, when we fell behind on those we had to close down for a day.
How have you handled avoiding that problem?
We just staffed ourselves a little more heavily now, so (that) we're staying about three to four days ahead on the noodles. Same thing with the broth. During the week when we don't do 500 covers, we'll reserve some of the broth from the previous day just to stay ahead.
How are you finding working within the small space that you have?
That's a challenge too, because it's not a big space by any means. The storage is very tight. We don't have a back entrance, either. We're pretty much open all hours, starting at 11:00 a.m. Deliveries coming through during service hours while we're busy has been a challenge.
Are you finding that you're able to stay open later now that you've worked out some of the issues you had?
This past weekend was the first full weekend that we made it all the way through (to 2:00 a.m.) We had enough food for everybody until then. We thought that we would be really busy on Saturday (because of St. Patrick's Day celebrating), but people seemed to be more interested in drinking rather than eating. Sundays are (when) we are really busy.
We've been (able to be) open until 1:00 a.m. during the week. Late night is something we're still trying to grow. We have been getting a lot of industry people in here. We give a 25 percent discount to any industry person - just tell us where you work and you get the discount.
What have customers been saying about the ramen and the concept of eating furiously and then leaving?
Half of them embrace it and the other half just don't get it. Those that really understand and get the concept really appreciate the food and everything we try to do. And then there's the ones that are just off the street and don't understand who may have a different mindset going into it. Sometimes we don't meet their expectations. Everything from "your soup ladle is too big," to "your music's too loud," or "the soup is too thick." Ramen is one of those things where there's not a universally agreed upon standard of what's good and what's not. So it's all based on style. Even in Japan that's the case.
I'm quite happy with half of the people loving us and half of the people hating us. What I don't want is to have everybody think "oh, that place is just okay."
You mentioned that some people have had problems with the spoons. Are you doing anything to counter people's complaints?
Our spoons are obviously large. They look like a ladle. They definitely make a statement. I try to explain to people that, when you're eating ramen, you don't really need a spoon. You take a first sip with the spoon, taste the broth in the beginning and then you put the spoon down. To drink the rest of the broth after you eat the noodles, you pick up the bowl and you drink out of the bowl.
Yeah, people think you're an animal if you do that for some reason.
I don't know why. In Japan that's how you do it. So we have these communal holders for chop sticks and napkins and Japanese peppers, so we're going to be adding a couple of smaller, wonton spoons for people who don't get it. It's not really hurting me.
Do you feel like you've had the opportunity to educate people on how you do things and on how your style of ramen compares to others?
Educating diners is a tricky thing to do. You don't want to offend the guests, you don't want to piss them off. So we have to be tactical in how we come across. We make subtle suggestions rather than saying "this is how we do it and this is how you must do it."
The number one question when people call the restaurant or even walk in off the street is, "Can I get my ramen to go?" They're so upset that we don't do to-go ramen. I have to explain that the quality is going to be garbage by the time you eat it. The whole concept behind eating the ramen furiously is because you want to eat it at its best quality. Most of the people don't understand that concept. Eating at hundreds of ramen shops in Japan, I've never seen a to-go bowl of ramen or even anyone asking for that. It's a cultural difference. We just have to stick to our guns. Unfortunately, that means pissing some people off.
Do you have any menu changes planned?
We definitely have plans to rotate different styles of ramen. One thing I'm excited about that I haven't seen a lot in Chicago is called tsukemen, a very popular style in Tokyo right now. It's ideal for warmer months, because it's a cold noodle dipped in a warm sauce. It basically translates to dipping noodles. It's going to be a thicker style of noodle than what you're used to in a typical bowl of ramen. It takes a little bit longer to cook and the broth is served separately on the side. The broth is a sauce more than a broth, because it's a reduced version of the broth. It's thicker and more concentrated and designed to it adheres to the noodles and that's why the noodles are thicker, too, because it sticks better to it. There will be (other) changes seasonally.