(Photo by Areej Qamar)
The last few weeks saw lines of hungry customers stretching out to the corner of Sussex Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Ramen Gami, a Japanese restaurant specializing in the eponymous noodles, once again stands right across the street from the NJIT Park. On March 27, the restaurant had its soft reopening after a fire broke out in the building in 2020.
Owner Mike Cheung and his wife started their restaurant business in 2016 with no expectations. “We were just thinking, ‘let’s serve ramen and see how it goes,’” Cheung said. “It was just the two of us — I remember taking orders, running back, and making the ramen.”
The restaurant grew without any advertising or marketing. “It was by word of mouth,” he commented. “We started with just two employees, [me and my wife,] and we grew to just over 25 associates before the COVID-19 pandemic.”
However, just before 3 a.m. on Feb. 17, 2020, a fire consumed some of the Ramen Gami building as well as adjacent areas. Cheung had the Newark Arson Squad inspect the space, but the cause of the fire is still unknown. He noted that the fire started in the back room of the restaurant, where only dry ingredients were stored like sugar and salt. “There were no electrical outlets — nothing that could start the fire,” he added.
Immediately following this news, Maria Vasco, a customer and local resident, began a GoFundMe to support the staff that were affected by the fire since the restaurant could no longer function. At the time, Cheung lived in the apartments adjacent to the restaurant, so he was also displaced due to the tragedy.
“The last thing on my mind was starting a GoFundMe, but [Vasco] said, ‘Mike, we already started this, and we’ll get you as much money as we can to rebuild,’” he said. “I was blown away. I didn’t know anything about it.”
Despite this effort, the COVID-19 pandemic started to spread rapidly just about a month later, delaying any plans Cheung had to bring the restaurant back into business. When asked about some of the challenges he faced to reopen Ramen Gami, he replied with, “everything.”
“From the architect, to [Newark’s] City Hall, to PSEG, and to top it all off, we were going through the pandemic,” he said. “We couldn’t bring people in here to inspect the space. People were retiring earlier; people were not going to work. Working from home didn’t pan out for us because we needed people in the field.” The renovation was supposed to take about eight months to a year.
To keep his family financially afloat, Cheung became an employee at other restaurants while being careful to not give away any specific recipes of Ramen Gami. He and his wife also did a lot of cooking and experimentation by themselves during the gap of three years to keep themselves sane, Cheung explained.
The soft reopening felt very different to him from the initial start of the business in 2016. Now, there stood expectations from previous customers and the local community, which had all motivated Cheung and his wife to reopen the restaurant. Many people messaged the business during the three years asking when it was going to come back.
“After one year, our morale was really low; after two, it was almost completely gone,” he said. “After three years, we were completely drained, but it was the constant messaging that told us that there’s no turning back.”
With some products still being shipped to the country, the soft reopening excludes certain dishes to be served at Ramen Gami for some time. “Once we’re settled in, fully staffed, and fully stocked, we’ll slowly introduce the new items that we have planned,” Cheung stated.
He mentioned that there will be more vegan options at the restaurant. Although he was considering adding gluten-free choices, the restaurant space doesn’t allow him to offer those. “We would basically need another special cooker to avoid any cross contamination and have 100% gluten-free options,” he said. “We can, however, make kosher and vegetable broths completely separate from the chicken broth.”
Cheung is extremely grateful for the immense support he has always gotten from the NJIT, Rutgers-Newark, and local Newark communities. In 2016, one of his and his wife’s ambitions was to make the best possible product at an affordable price.
“Our main goal was to see our customers smile — that’s all we ever wanted,” Cheung expressed, “and that has never changed.”
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