For Manville Chan, March 2020 followed a familiar pattern: cancellations, lockdown, uncertainty.
Life at The Story of Ramen, his four-year-old business that teaches groups the art of making ramen and gyoza in the heart of San Francisco's Mission District, effectively came to a halt.
At first, the business tried selling T-shirts and other merchandise. ("Just to get by for the month.") Then Chan and team dabbled in the world of takeout. ("It's just a huge drain on our time, it makes so little money.") But finally, after months of trial and error, The Story of Ramen found a successful niche offering virtual cooking classes hosted via Zoom.
Hello Alice first wrote about The Story of Ramen last year to highlight its success at driving customers through its website. Chan says the initial demand for virtual events started in July when former clients — many of them Bay Area companies interested in team building activities — reached out looking for ways to keep staff connected.
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"They kind of realized they need to motivate employees, but they didn’t want to send them to the store," Chan explains. Interest slowly ramped up until it reached a fever pitch during the holiday season. Now, Chan says that The Story of Ramen is hosting as many as eight events per day, with a steady stream of repeat customers from clients including Google, Facebook, and Kaiser Permanente. In December, revenue officially surpassed six figures.
"At one point, we were really mad about the shutdown," says Chan, echoing a sentiment heard from many restaurant owners and event organizers. "But now we don’t really care too much. It actually benefits our business as long as people need a way to socialize."
Getting the virtual operation up and running was no easy task. Chan was adamant that the experience would be all-inclusive, with every ingredient landing on a participant's doorstep before dialing into their Zoom call. This meant zigzagging across San Francisco shopping for the ingredients and figuring out how to package the haul — including broth, sauces, and meat — so that it arrived at each participant's home intact and, perhaps most importantly, unspoiled.
"We really changed our business plan from doing in-person to develop a competency for online shipping," Chan says. He now uses Shippo to get better rates and hires temporary workers when there are lots of boxes to get out. The team has also become attuned to the rhythms of UPS, shipping every package right before the daily cutoff time to ensure kits don't sit around longer than necessary. These systems allow The Story of Ramen to host parties for teams distributed across the United States; one class was split between California and Australia (a local Aussie vendor did the shopping).
Events have expanded beyond just corporate clients, too. Chan has hosted birthday parties, Christmas parties, and even Thanksgiving dinners. "It’s not always easy to get people together," he says, but a ramen class is one way to make the distance feel a bit smaller.
Ultimately, The Story of Ramen's virtual transformation shows that a willingness to try new things can make a difference.
"We’ve seen a lot of businesses closing down," Chan says. "For example, there is a cheese shop nearby that's closed, but if they had tried a virtual cheese and wine party, there's a chance that they would have done alright."
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That said, Chan won't deny that his current business model, with its dizzying set of logistics and labor requirements, is difficult to scale. He looks forward to one day offering in-person classes again, but this pandemic has revealed online events to be a huge, untapped, and profitable market for anyone who can solve the pain points.
"I am interested in growth," Chan says. "I just don’t know how to do it yet."
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