Every week, I feel disheartened to hear about how restaurants are struggling through the pandemic. So many restaurants and food businesses have permanently closed since the pandemic hit our country earlier this year. Small business livelihoods are now gone. Family-owned businesses are disappearing at an alarming rate. Against the odds of mandatory shutdowns, thankfully our ramen experience business has found a new wave to ride to survival. How have we managed to survive?
Before March 2020, The Story of Ramen was a ramen cooking center that offered in-person noodle and broth cooking experiences. Couples and individuals signed up for our seatings as a date night, fun activity, to celebrate a birthday, an anniversary, and more. Companies signed for sessions as team building activities to motivate their employees. Our goal was to create a new experience beyond a traditional restaurant approach.
But in March, that changed. We received tons of emails and phone calls about cancelations of events. Our business, like most others, came to a complete halt. We tried selling t-shirts and DIY ramen kits. When permitted we tried outdoor dining. But nothing worked early on. Our experiences prior to March brought people together... instead of keeping them divided.
One potential we explored: online/virtual experiences (classes). At the time, many chefs and cooking schools started offering virtual classes but they sent a laundry list of ingredients to buy in advance. We didn't see the logic of pushing people to go out shopping during the pandemic. We wanted our virtual customers to really taste our broth and our noodles. So we developed a hybrid approach of offering a cooking class with our ramen ingredient kit, delivered to their doorsteps.
We started with delivery within our own city of San Francisco. Then after more inquiries, we tried to expand to the rest of the Bay Area, then California and later across the country. Our business was built solely on inviting guests into our facilities — we had no experience in packaging, shipping and delivery! We had to learn it the very hard way - by making mistakes and learning from those mishaps every single time. We also aggressively sought feedback from our virtual guests within 24 hours of their experience.
It turned out our hybrid approach of virtual cooking classes plus delivered ingredient kits paid off. In June, several months into the pandemic, it looked like our business might have to shutdown. After learning from mistakes and pivoting as needed, business picked up in July. It's grown by more than 400% in attendance to now over 1000+ virtual guests in December. We now ship our ingredient kits all over the country and Canada with reliable packaging and shipping products from another local company. And, we hustle and drive across the Bay Area to deliver ingredient kits to customers’ homes. I personally have flown our ingredient kits to Los Angeles, Seattle and Chicago and driven around all day delivering them to valued customers.
What we learned from the last few months is that companies are desperate to keep their remote employees motivated. No longer could employees eat and socialize in the company kitchen, dining room and at on-site restaurants. We offer an important solution to team motivation and unity at a time when remote work keeps people separated. This is true of companies as well as families and friends coming together virtually. Some add our extras like ramen bowls and aprons for their employees, friends and family. Our customer based has also expanded. We've hosted a special birthday party for 23 people spread across the country, a family dinner night for a group staying on the cost and countless companies. Several of our notable customers include a major managed health care firm, a large Spanish-language television network based in L.A., and even a professional basketball team.
Without the pandemic, we would not have known how to scale our business in this way beyond the physical limitation of our facility (48 people). But virtually, we are now hosting experiences with 80-100 people. Without the pandemic, we would not have known how to scale our business beyond the Bay Area. Now, our customer base stretches from Boston to Seattle, Chicago to Dallas and Orlando to Portland. Last December, we hosted about 1,200 people for our in-person experiences. After a very difficult first six months of 2020, we are now on track of hosting the same number of people but all virtual with meal kits delivered to them.
I’ve always been told that an entrepreneur should always think positively, even in uncertain times. We keep innovating. We see hurdles as opportunities. We see success today as potential for more growth tomorrow. I hope our story provides an inspiration of how business owners and entrepreneurs should never stop innovating even in these challenging times.