There is no going back to the way things were — that much Noel Cruz is certain of.
“If you’re trying to look backwards and do things the way you did before, you’re in for a surprise,” he said.
What Cruz is less clear on is what this new world will look like for a restaurant owner and culinary entrepreneur like himself, whose business endeavors have been turned upside down during the coronavirus pandemic.
Following a financially catastrophic year, how will restaurants regain their footing and become profitable again? How will they keep their staff and diners safe? And what lessons from the past can be put to work toward a better and more sustainable future?
To figure some of this out, Cruz took a beat.
“2020 was introspective,” he said. “We’ve looked at all the experiences, both successful and not, over the last five years and are using that to look forward about how we retool everything.”
What Cruz found was an industry reliant on an antiquated business model in desperate need of a reboot.
Surviving on dine-in business alone wasn’t an option anymore — takeout and delivery had to be included in every operation going forward. He found that fast-casual models tended to fare much better than fine-dining setups. And with the concerns about dining out safely still top of mind, technological crutches would have to become less fringe and experimental and more mainstream. In short, there were a lot of pandemic pivots that would need to stay.
“Basically we’ve looked at how everything was done prior and we’re really trying to do everything different,” he said.
But Cruz didn’t take too long of a break. Instead, the owner of Tampa’s wildly popular Seminole Heights restaurant Ichicoro Ramen and its sister concepts, Ichicoro Ane and Ichicoro Imoto, plowed on full steam ahead.
At the end of the month, Cruz and his business partners will open Gangchu, a Korean fried chicken restaurant and cocktail bar in Seminole Heights. Next up is 3 Corners Pizza, a New York-style pizzeria and slice shop on the bottom floor of the Heron, the luxury apartment building that’s part of the multibillion-dollar downtown Water Street Tampa development.
And after that? Cruz says he has at least four other projects in the works for 2021, including another outpost of the Corners, a wine bar and “the next evolution of Ichicoro.”
It feels safe to say he’ll be pretty busy.
Hustling is nothing new for the Filipino American chef and restaurateur, a University of Florida grad who attended the Culinary Institute of America and cut his teeth working at a number of esteemed New York City restaurants before making his way home to Tampa.
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After experimenting with a Tampa-style ramen concept at a popup in New York, Cruz and his business partners opened their Seminole Heights flagship Ichicoro Ramen in 2015 to huge acclaim. Two-hour waits for a bowl of noodles were the norm.
Ichicoro Imoto, inside Armature Works’ Heights Public Market, and downtown St. Petersburg’s Ichicoro Ane followed with similar hype. In between, the culinary entrepreneur has been involved in or fronted several other food and beverage endeavors, including the short-term Chismi & Co. kiosk at Armature Works, the Corners — a Detroit-style pizza concept at Sparkman Wharf ― c.1949 Beer Garden, in Lowry Park Central, and several iterations of Filipino kamayan popups.
But things look very different for Cruz’s existing enterprises right now.
Ichicoro Ane, the basement restaurant and trendy anchor concept at downtown St. Petersburg’s Station House, has remained closed since March. There is no word on when — and if — that restaurant will reopen. Cruz has stayed quiet on the St. Petersburg spot, saying only that decisions are being made “minute by minute.” At Ichicoro Ramen in Seminole Heights, Cruz said the small restaurant’s quarters were too tight to safely welcome back dine-in business, and it is still running with takeout and delivery only.
Looking forward, Cruz envisions that technology will be key at all his operations — what he calls “digital efficiencies,” integrated throughout all levels of the restaurant. Ordering through QR codes and digital menus will be the norm, he says, and will eliminate a lot of human error.
Takeout and delivery are also here to stay and figuring out how to make to-go operations profitable and sustainable will be paramount to his restaurants’ survival.
Third-party app services like Uber Eats and Grubhub charge restaurants notoriously steep commission fees (both Uber Eats and Grubhub charge 30 percent) and added costs for things like revamping online ordering portals, and packaging materials can add up fast.
At Ichicoro Ramen, guests can currently order through Uber Eats or through the restaurant’s online portal, which is partnered with a delivery service that’s contracted out specifically for food deliveries (and comes at a lower cost to the owners than the Uber Eats orders).
Will the heavier reliance on technology mean staffing levels could drop? Maybe, Cruz says. In an ideal scenario, a restaurant could function and be profitable from dine-in business alone, and takeout would be more like lagniappe — a bonus. But he concedes that won’t always be the case. Scenarios where guests can order from QR codes or through digital touch-screen portals could also cut down on the number of servers needed.
But for those customers looking for a more traditional dining setup, with physical menus and a server to take their order, Cruz says those options will likely still be available.
“If someone wants what they used to experience, you can give it to them,” he said.
Currently, all of his energy is focused on Gangchu, the Korean fried chicken spot Cruz hopes to open by the end of January. He described the new restaurant as a lively chicken and beer joint, modeled on New York City’s high-octane Koreatown experiences. Diners will have the choice of several different types of boneless, battered chicken pieces and wings with different sauces. The menu will also feature popular Korean drinking snacks and other mashups, including Korean Philly cheesesteaks and kimchi pancakes.
A large beer selection will be the highlight (Cruz is collaborating with nearby brewery 7venth Sun on a special IPA called K-HOP) but the restaurant will also feature a full bar and a “serious but not so serious cocktail program,” including several wines and cocktails on draft, the list of which Cruz says is still being finalized.
The restaurant, which takes over an old auto repair shop at 6618 N Nebraska Ave., is also designed with an increasingly outdoors-leaning dining clientele in mind, with a large covered deck and a bar that divides the space, straddling both the patio and indoor dining room. Inside the restaurant, modern decor, including video walls and video screens, will provide a “fun, simple and modern” aesthetic, Cruz said.
But, he added: “We’re not trying to recreate the Disney version of Korea.”
Cruz is mostly tight-lipped when it comes to his other projects, and is modest when speaking about the ambitious year ahead of him — he doesn’t want to come off as tone-deaf or unsympathetic to his peers in the industry who are still facing a lot of uncertainty in 2021. He hopes they embrace the coming changes as he plans to.
“The key here is not to think you’re going to go back to doing the same thing as you were doing before,” he said. “You can always do what worked before, but why not take chances now?”