May 2, 2020; nj.com
We have heard of turning lemons into lemonade. But we had not ever heard of turning ramen into pizza and chicken—and certainly not under the guise of being a nonprofit popup, no less—until now.
Writing for nj.com, Jeremy Schneider tells a fascinating story of a restaurant throwing out its original menu and business to serve the community by providing food to first responders. “Unlike many New Jersey restaurateurs, who have seen their business decimated by the coronavirus and its restrictions, Luck Sarabhayavanija can barely keep up with demand,” reports Schneider. And he has been able to hire back one quarter of his staff.
Schneider writes, “It took a team of six people working 12 hours a day, six days a week for a month to transform Ani Ramen, the popular Japanese restaurant, into a nonprofit that combines two entirely new menus under one roof.”
What makes the operation nonprofit? Well, getting a new 501c3 approved in a month would have been quite the feat. That is not what happened. Rather, an existing nonprofit called Be Awesome to Somebody, which typically supports international humanitarian work, agreed to serve as the nonprofit home to the project. It helped certainly that Sarabhayavnaija and the nonprofit’s founder, Mark Bustos, were friends.
The New Jersey operation, which started April 24th, is designed to serve first responders and has already served thousands of donated meals to local medical professionals. Sarabhayavanija and three of his partners are not taking salary as long as the nonprofit restaurant project lasts.
Sarabhayavanija notes that, “Trying to open a restaurant remotely was definitely not as easy as we thought it’d be. It took a lot more hands on deck, and it probably took twice as long.” He adds that, “it was a definitely a heavy sprint. But it felt like a marathon.”
Why the switch from ramen to pizza and chicken? Well, ramen wasn’t very well suited for takeout and delivery. Additionally, it gave Sarabhayavanija and his partners a chance to market two business concepts that were in development. Schneider notes that the Jersey City location is now home to Rock City Pizza and Bang Bang Chicken, both of which were originally designed to open with their own storefronts.
At the business, writes Schneider, “Customers are encouraged to donate meals to first responders and public servants on top of buying their own. Pizzas range from $11 to $13, but a pie can be donated to first responders and public servants for $6, while whole chickens with rice cost $17 and can be donated for $8.”
To date, customers have donated over 5,000 meals, and the restaurant is now looking to expand donated food distribution to even more medical centers. The restaurants also offer free meals to all takers from 8 to 9 in the evening daily.
Of course, Sarabhayavanija did not set out to operate a nonprofit. He yearns to run a profitable business again. He tells Schneider his three sons gave him a handmade card that cheered him up at one low point.
The card said: “We know that you think you’re at the bottom of your career, but you’re really at the peak, because you made a nonprofit pizza chicken restaurant when Ani shut down. That’s the best thing you’ve ever done in your career.”—Steve Dubb