Union Ramen Bar owners Chef Nate Nguyen and Jeff Gapultos are long-time friends who decided to open a restaurant over a bowl of ramen. They started their business in the midst of the pandemic but were able to have a successful open and continued support from the public through their creativity, combined experience and love for ramen. We reached out to them to see what it was like to open a business during uncertain times and what advice they had for those starting a business.
You opened in August 2020. In the midst of a pandemic, what was it like to open a business during an unprecedented time?
It was very stressful for Chef Nate and I, to say the least, to open in the midst of the pandemic. Our original grand opening date was supposed to be April 4 – National Ramen Day – but the pandemic got in the way of that. It was also financially challenging for us, because we weren’t open before the pandemic, so we did not qualify for any of the PPE loans. Meanwhile, we were already heavily invested, with utility and operating expenses not going anywhere, along with the challenge of keeping the employees we recruited to start on an opening date that no longer existed because of the unknowns. After a lot of stress for the future, and countless conversations with Chef Nate and my wife, we officially decided to go ahead and pull the trigger and open to the public for take-out on July 8, 2020.
The pandemic really forced us to change our whole opening strategy, as well as our menu. Originally, our menu was going to start out simple with hot broth ramen and some small plates, but because take-out was going to be our only option, we decided to add a brothless style of ramen called Mazemen, and more small plates designed to travel better for take-out. Being limited to take-out only also forced us to focus more on the packaging of our food and presentation. We wanted it to be an experience for the customer, so we created a “How-To” instruction card for preparing your bowl at home, and packaged it more like a food kit using eco-friendly packaging. As time went on and restaurant safety guidelines were put in place, we felt comfortable enough to open our doors for dine-in service in August. Fortunately for us, the community really responded well to what we were offering, and the support was pleasantly overwhelming. We thank them every day for their support!
Tell us about what inspired you to start Union Ramen Bar together?
For me, it was a couple of things. I had been in the world of entertainment and hospitality since graduating from Loyola University New Orleans. From being the Marketing Director for a local record label, to producing & promoting parties in one of the biggest party cities in the World, to moonlighting as a game day entertainment coordinator for the New Orleans Saints, to opening up my own special events venue… everything I have ever done has always started with why I think I was put on this planet: to make sure the people around me are having the best of times. I was also looking for that next project and challenge to bring that philosophy to. Meanwhile, after a few year hiatus from the professional kitchen to raise a couple of beautiful daughters, Chef Nate had expressed to me that he got the figurative itch to get back into the culinary game. The timing just seemed right plus it was an opportunity to partner with one of my best and most talented friends! We took a leap of faith together, and we decided to team up to bring our interpretation of our favorite food – Ramen – to New Orleans.
While developing the menu, much of Chef’s inspiration came from our trip to Japan to attend the “Tokyo Ramen Show” – the largest ramen noodle festival in the world. We were inspired by the Japanese culture and the experimentation we witnessed from ramen chefs. Because ramen is relatively new to the grand scheme of food history, it is not bound by tradition in the way that other foods like sushi can be. The definition of a ramen dish is simply a dish that has ramen noodles in it, and that leaves a lot of room for innovation. Why not unite some of the Asian and New Orleans flavors we grew up with, and fuse it with traditional ramen and small plates? Sell out after sell out in the New Orleans pop-up circuit, really brought us the confidence to find a location and open up a brick and mortar. We found a fantastic historic location in what used to be Jim Russell’s Records Store, in the Lower Garden District, and Union Ramen Bar was born!
Chef Nate, you have worked in well-known restaurants like Bayona and Meauxbar Bistro. You even owned a restaurant before moving back to New Orleans. What lessons have you brought with you from your previous experiences that you apply at Union Ramen Bar?
What I have learned over the years, personally, is to always be a humble cook. What I bring to Union is to maintain quality and give great detail to the food that we serve. More importantly, I’ve learned by preparing dishes from scratch gives us that “soul” which makes us who we are at Union Ramen.
Jeff, as co-owner of Union Ramen Bar and owner of Think Tank Marketing, what advice do you have for those looking to or interested in starting a business?
#1 Make sure you truly believe with your whole heart and soul in your business concept, and prove it by actually taking the time to develop a business plan.
#2 Make sure you have the finances to execute that plan, multiply that by 2, and then have another financial cushion on top of that… because remember, you will ALWAYS go over budget.
#3 Surround yourself and work with people you trust.
#4 Steve Martin said it best, “Be undeniably good.” If you’re good at what you do, your customer will come to you and will surely talk about it to the next person. In our case, it’s not just the food, of course that certainly helps, but we want the whole experience to be a good one – from the vibe, to the ambiance, to the service – our goal is to be so good at what we do, we simply cannot be ignored.
You have worked with Familias Unidas to donate a portion of your sales towards the Hurricane victims in Honduras and collaborated with pop-ups. Are there any future collaborations to look forward to?
We love developing alliances and ideas that give back to those in need, so we definitely want to host more fundraisers, and pop-ups for up-and-comers at our restaurant! We got our start in the pop-up circuit, and we are still so grateful for the opportunity we were given by the venues that hosted us, so we want to pay it forward. We also recently teamed up with Zony Mash Beer Project and Southern’s Food to do a friendly “Chicken Wings & Lumpia Battle” pop-up.
You are currently hiring. What are some of the qualities you look for in applicants looking to be new hires?
We currently have a fast-casual operating style in place, so with that, we are looking for those fast-paced and friendly individuals who genuinely enjoy to give the customer a positive experience. Teamwork and communication is key in this operating style, so we expect our team members to understand that each of them is equally important to make things work, and that in this new normal, they need to be able to adapt and be a “jack of all trades” in the service industry.