To the average customer, Manville Chan’s business, The Story of Ramen, is a brick-and-mortar service. And it’s a unique one. Neither merely a restaurant nor a cooking class, TSR combines elements of both, with Chan and co-owner Jeff Parsons inviting groups into his storefront in San Francisco’s Mission District to learn the history of ramen, go through the process of making noodles, and then sit together to enjoy their handiwork alongside bottles of sake.
But in another way, Chan considers his business to be a digital one: He says that 90% of his customers come to him through his website, ramenpartysf.com. “We are an online business as far as getting customers,” he states assuredly.
How does the business exist in two worlds like it does? It owes its amphibious nature to its chef and co-owner, who was a product manager in the tech world before he became a noodle maven. “I was at an advantage,” he admits. Not that he had ever done any coding of his own, but Chan was aware of the need to invest in SEO.
He also got some surprising advice early on that he now thinks is spot-on. He was told to only invest in paid advertising in one place: Yelp. “A lot of our leads come from Google SEO,” he says. So the only place it made sense to pay was to get to the top of the queue when users looked up “cooking classes” on the restaurant review site.
The next challenge, after making potential customers aware that TSR exists, was finding an efficient way for them to sign up for classes. Previously, the company used Eventbrite, but Chan says it’s been a boon to have their own system in place. “Ecommerce definitely pays off,” Chan says.
That's the kind of thing you'd expect to hear from a product manager, but maybe not a ramen guru. How did Chan make the switch? Thank a New Year's resolution to capitalize on his love of food. He had already started offering culinary experiences through eatwith.com when his former company downsized and Chan was laid off. He looked for another tech job, but his food business proved to be so popular that it wasn't necessary. By August of 2016, he was cooking full-time.
With the goal of becoming a true master of his craft, Chan attended the International Ramen School in Yokohama, where he trained among career ramen chefs seeking to open their own businesses. But he didn't want to open a restaurant like the rest of his graduating class. He planned to do something informal along the lines of the experiences he was already offering. And thus, TSR was born.
Chan admits that he only incorporated late in the game when a customer mailed him a big check and he realized he had no way to cash it. He set up the company in 2017, first as a sole proprietorship, then six months later as an LLC when chief marketing officer Parsons joined.
Less than three years after incorporating, TSR is continuing to grow by leaps and bounds. It's expanded beyond rented condos and apartments into its own space. There's a satellite location in Charlotte, S.C. And just last month, Chan hosted a record 1,279 people in a single month. That's a lot of bowls of spicy broth.
That kind of success means that when his landlord decided to sell the building last year, Chan was able to buy it. "Very few businesses can afford to buy the entire building," he says proudly. He'll be moving into the residence upstairs soon to keep even better tabs on his investment.
The best advice he can give is simply to take a risk. He had no food experience when started. Now he's a ramen master with a thriving business. The next step: expanding to even more cities. It's amazing where a good idea and a great website will get you.