There were only two things I missed during the height of the pandemic lockdowns: going to the movie theatre and going out for ramen. For movies, I made do with the biggest TV I could find, but ramen remained an elusive experience.
Take-out ramen is just not the same; the temperatures are never right, the ingredients are all over the place, and more importantly you miss out on the experience of walking into a small shop of steaming pots, bold aromas, the chorus of “irashai!”, and seeing the chef carefully craft a bowl with ingredients perfectly portioned and placed for maximum enjoyment. I’m nice in the kitchen, but multiple attempts at muscling together broth, miso, noodles and other random ingredients, always left me (and my family) unsatisfied.
More than I missed eating ramen, the owners of Crafty Ramen missed serving it! They had opened a new location just in time to be locked-down and were left staring at empty shops. They responded to this void by working to give customers the chance to have restaurant quality ramen at home. Thus, the DIY ramen kit was born!
I was skeptical. But, this past week we had a chance to sample a selection of their DIY kits, and now I’m a huge fan. And no, you don’t get the ambience of a quaint ramen shop, and maybe you have to yell “irasahi!” yourself when your roommate walks into the kitchen. But, what you do get is a sense of being the ramen chef. Assembling a bowl of ramen from the kit requires just enough effort to give you the satisfaction of being a chef, but is crafted and portioned to make the experience stress-free and deliciously successful.
The kits come frozen, packed in ice. We tried three of the different ramen kits and three yaki selections – BBQ skewers from Crafty’s summer menu. We defrosted and prepared all the items to share with half a dozen friends and family hanging in the backyard on a warm summer night.
The yaki, which only require a quick visit to a hot grill before serving, consisted of chashu skewers, ginger scallion shiitake skewers, and tofu pockets. The chashu, made from meaty pork shoulder, developed a beautiful caramelization on the grill. The shiitake mushrooms are skewered with delightful bites of mochi which crisp up nicely. The tofu pockets are aburaage, filled with soft crumbly tofu and green onion. All three were a hit with our group, and the flavours and quality of ingredients were on point.
For hot bowls we had Gryphon and Spicy Chicken TanTan Men. Gryphon is a comforting, rich broth of duck and chicken with miso, topped with pork chashu. The TanTan Men is a sesame chicken broth topped by ground chicken with Szechuan inspired seasoning. We also tried the cold, brothless ramen, My Cold Seoul, which is bursting with fresh, vibrant Korean flavours, and was a perfect bite on the warm summer night. Again, all three were a hit. Each bowl was very distinct from the other, and each was picked as a favourite by at least one in our party. You can see a video of us cooking it up here.
Warming up and assembling the ingredients was straightforward and fun. It’s the kind of thing I would like to do with my kids, but it’s also something they could do themselves and would enjoy the satisfaction of building a bowl of ramen. I know they would love eating it! There are fun touches, like butter molded in the shape of a Lego man, and packaging adorned with quirky art; robots proclaiming their love for ramen. One thing to keep in mind, though, is each recipe has distinct ingredients and requires slightly different preparation. We made each of the three bowls one at a time and served them in succession. It worked for our party, but it’s not conducive to four bowls all hitting the family dinner table at once.
Overall, the experience was fun and delicious. The folks behind Crafty Ramen have really achieved their goal of bringing restaurant quality ramen into peoples’ homes. We sat down with these folks, Miki and Jared Farrell, and Khalil Khamis, to discuss their journey into the business of Crafty Ramen.
Hello! Before we get into the DIY ramen kits, tell us about yourselves, and how Crafty Ramen came to be.
Miki: I was born and raised in Japan but spent most of my life fascinated by Western culture – I always dreamed of experiencing life in the West. On my first extended stay abroad in the West, I met my now-husband Jared, who was working as a chef in Vancouver at the time. He followed me back to Japan where he continued to work as a chef. Eventually, we both took jobs in hospitality aboard superyachts that were travelling the world and while abroad we tried ramen shops wherever we were globally. We became fascinated by the diversity of ramen, so when we returned to Japan we enrolled in the Yamato Ramen School and spent time touring the country learning how to make it.
We returned to Canada and settled in Guelph, which was worlds away from our life in Japan. It was funny how much I missed Japan and Japanese culture, particularly the comfort food I grew up on – ramen and gyoza. Food is home, and I was missing a place that gave me that feeling. So, we decided to create it ourselves! That’s how Crafty Ramen was born. Crafty is our way of bringing Japanese culture, and our unique feeling of warmth and hospitality to Canada.
Jared and I opened the first Crafty Ramen together in 2017. A year later, we were looking to expand to Kitchener, and we met Khalil Khamis. He fully embraced our vision for Crafty, and the creativity and connection we were looking to foster through our restaurants – he soon joined us as partner and CEO. I now serve as co-owner and VP of operations, while Jared is co-owner and Executive Chef.
How does your approach to ramen distinguish Crafty Ramen from the other shops out there?
Jared: Ramen is all about regionality and locality – that was probably the most important lesson we learned in our travels learning how to make ramen. Each country, each shop, each chef makes a bowl entirely unique to that place and that region. This is what makes our ramen so unique, too! We took what is essentially a classic comfort food and integrated some of the many different styles of ramen to make something that represented ramen in Canada. Making Canadian ramen for Canadians…and here we are! From our broth to our noodles, we make everything in-house, and pride ourselves on using locally sourced ingredients wherever possible. We work extensively with local butchers, and also source our produce locally based on seasonal availability. Our flavours and ingredients are quirky, we have a lot of fun creating new dishes, and our menu offers something for everyone with both meat and plant-based options.
Tell us about the journey to creating DIY ramen kits and ramen subscriptions.
Khalil: When COVID started, we had just opened our second location in Kitchener. Suddenly, we were left with a completely empty dining room, and quiet kitchens. We think it’s important to note that ramen is more than a dish – as Miki mentions it’s also about a feeling and an experience of warmth and comfort. Having an open kitchen to watch how it’s made is a part of that. More than anything, we needed to figure out a way to bring that experience into people’s homes in a different way while keeping our revenues up. That’s when the idea for our DIY kits, and an e-commerce focus, was born. We launched in December 2020 and slowly started growing; adding new kits, eventually expanding to more than 40 cities across Ontario and even adding a ramen subscription service. This also led to interest from smaller grocery stores across the country – they began reaching out asking to carry our product, and it organically evolved into a full-fledged grocery/retail side of our business. We just recently hit the shelves at Whole Foods and will be in some other large grocers in the coming months. We’re really proud of how the kits have evolved, it’s just incredible to us. We are now able to connect more people to the Crafty experience than we ever imagined we could!
Can you walk us through the process of building the kits, to delivery, to the customer experience?
Jared: Our online platform is pretty streamlined and easy to use. Just select your subscription type and the kits you want to try, set up your delivery dates and get excited! We have the most amazing customer experience team who do their best to answer customer outreach as quickly as possible, and we promise there’s always an actual person responding! Our chef R&D team is always on hand for any ingredient/dietary related questions, and we have a tight communication set-up on the backend so everyone is looped in if there are issues with things like delivery hold-ups or IT glitches. We just want our experience to be as approachable and seamless as possible.
Our kits are now delivered frozen rather than fresh – which is something that is fairly new for us but is great in the long run. Delivering frozen kits allows us to offer a more sustainable product (less packaging is required for shipment, and it uses more environmentally friendly cooling components) while also something that lasts longer once you get it (you can keep them in your freezer for up to six months) which means you have more time to make the most of the dishes.
In our kits themselves we take all the same house-made ingredients that we use in our restaurants and package them up so any at-home chef can quickly and easily assemble them into something awesome. Each kit comes with fun, simple directions to create restaurant quality ramen at home in 15 minutes or less. We even have a Crafty Spotify playlist for you to groove to while you’re cooking! Ramen is an experience and we wanted our kits to recreate our restaurant feel in as many ways as possible.
What have been some of the biggest challenges with using a new business model?
Khalil: The biggest challenge for us was what it took for us to shift our business to an e-commerce platform – it was entirely new for us and the learning curve was intense. Our teams were experts in restaurants exclusively so we’ve spent the last two years learning so much about online operations, site experience, customer support etc., it’s been an incredible opportunity for us to grow not only as a business but also as individuals running it. We’ve all come a long way.
The other major challenge that can’t be overlooked has been our shift to operating three different revenue channels (restaurant, grocery and e-commerce) at once with a small team. We’ve had to be very nimble; our team is amazing and incredibly adaptable which has been a huge asset, and we’ve been lucky in bringing on some great additions who are helping us continue to expand in all three channels.
The branding and packaging is really cool and innovative! Can you tell us about the design process and disclose the thought behind the art on the boxes?
Miki: Jared and I love getting creative – I personally love crafts, making something surprising from nothing, and this is also what Jared loves doing with food. This idea–being creative (crafty)–is actually a big part of how we came up with the name Crafty Ramen! So, when it came to designing our packaging and the feel of our brand we wanted it to be playful, creative, fun and a little surprising. In fact, we put a lot of effort into deciding whether we would use a ‘K’ or a ‘C’ in Crafty; we chose ‘C’ because it felt softer, less serious, and that was important for us. We wanted to make Crafty Ramen feel like home for people, somewhere warm, welcoming and approachable. Ramen can often feel foreign to Canadians, which can sometimes put them off because they don’t know what to order or how to eat it. What we wanted was for people not to take it too seriously – just to enjoy great food and maybe learn something about the tradition of ramen at the same time.
‘Loud, happy and fun’ was the big focus on our packaging specifically. We wanted our boxes to make you excited to open them, to feel like a kid opening a toy box. You’re meant to enjoy them from every angle – from the moment the box lands in your house, to when the bowl is finished and ready to eat on your table. We hired a local artist to design it and we’re so happy with how it represents who we are perfectly in kitchens across Ontario.
What’s next for Crafty Ramen?
Khalil: Ironically, as pandemic pressures wane, we are seeing foot traffic in our brick-and-mortar locations now higher than pre-pandemic levels. The combination of being stuck at home for a long time, working from home every day, and wanting to get out after work has skyrocketed demand for in-restaurant orders. As a result, while we’re keeping our e-commerce model going and possibly expanding, we’re also looking to open more restaurants over the next few years. In addition, we’ve gotten great feedback from our grocery partners and people looking for our kits in stores, so we’ll also be growing our grocery channel and distribution points across Canada!
What is your personal favourite thing about ramen?
Miki: I love how no two ramen shops make the same bowl of ramen. In Japan, lots of small ramen shops have their own ramen, typically named after their shop, which is often specialized and doesn’t fit a particular style. That’s what we do at Crafty as well! On our menu each bowl is unique in some way – it has its own flavour, toppings and a name unique to us and our story. So, what I love about ramen is trying each unique bowl and thinking about the history behind it, imagining what the founders were thinking about, and what went into creating it.
Jared: What I love about ramen is very simple; my favourite thing is enjoying broth-soaked noodles. There is nothing more satisfying than that slurp.
Khalil: What I love is simple too – I love the wholesomeness of ramen. A bowl of ramen makes everything better somehow; it’s comforting and familiar. It just makes me happy.