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On The House: The Sophomore Slump

On the House is our regular column written by the owners and operators of the great food and beverage establishments of New York. Today, we're pleased to introduce a new proprietor into the fold, Mr. David Chang. The Gentleman from Freemans will return when he's good and ready.

2006_09_onethehouseA.jpgOpening a restaurant is a foolish endeavor. Everybody knows this.

But if you do open a restaurant and you have the good fortune to open a place that keeps its head above water, that’s when foolishness gives way to sheer idiocy. Because that’s when you decide it’s time to open Number Two.

If you’re a particular breed of idiot, you will make that decision with a boilermaker on the bar in front of you, when the booze already has you regretting the ensuing hangover. And you will focus far more on the placement of an oversized Johnny Mac poster that was boosted from a bus stop in 1985 than on the tedious details, like how you’re going to put asses in seats.

Say it with me: asses in seats. That’s the business you’re in when you open a restaurant – the putting-asses-in-seats business.

But Quino and I, we knew where the Johnny Mac poster was going, so we drew up a business plan and all the pro forma bullshit and opened Number Two: a fast food concept that we didn’t know how to operate and no one knew how to eat at. We called it Ssam Bar, which was another brilliant move – giving the restaurant a name plenty of people didn’t know how to pronounce.

We got some press. We were busy a couple hours a night. But it was scary slow. We were headed for the Deathwatch a couple weeks after we opened. We were that slow. And we were not putting asses in seats.

People asked why we weren’t serving noodles and we had no good answer. (Then they’d rub salt in the wound by asking if Nike was paying us to house such an ugly old John MacEnroe poster in the front of our restaurant.)

My naïve vision of hordes of people clamoring for ssam was just that: naive. It was high time to deal with a dilemma we should’ve addressed much earlier, of how we could replicate the success of Noodle Bar without simply cloning it.

The problem was that Noodle Bar’s success was an anomaly, a happy pile-up of accidents that piled up into something that people really seemed to like. So we couldn’t apply anything we learned from operating Noodle Bar to Ssam Bar, which we conceived of as a fast-food operation.

Fortunately, obstinate and deep-seeded self doubt was working in our favor: I had told Hiro (our architect) and Swee (our contractor) to make the restaurant nice enough that if the fast food experiment didn’t work, we could switch it up into a more conventional restaurant.

Around the end of September, Cory, our GM, and Quino and Tien – two of the great cooks that I’m lucky to work with – spearheaded the late night operations. From 10:30 p.m. on we cooked anything we wanted to. We had a good time. Cory made sure anybody who stumbled in had a good time, too, and Quino and Tien each came up with great dishes that I’ve been given too much credit for.

And late night was a hit. Something was going right with Number Two, finally, and soon people stopped asking why we didn’t serve noodles to why we didn’t serve the late night menu all day. And again, we didn’t have an answer for them.

Forward to turkey day, with sales still inconsistent. Late night was going well. The days were slow. We’re slow, too, but I could do the math: the late night menu + regular hours = asses in seats.

We put ourselves on double secret probation and planned to make a switch from serving the late night menu from 6 to 2 and continue our counter service burrito ops during the day. How our customers figured that out before we did, I don’t know, but at least we caught up.

We planned to make the switch on March 1st – you know, enough time to bulk up the staff and alert people to the change – and in a typical Momofuku move (in my mind Momofuku could also be a synonym for “ill-advised”), a couple days before Xmas we decided to launch the new hours on January 1, without telling anyone?.

And it seems that customers were just waiting for the change. Suddenly there were asses in seats. Suddenly it looked like I wasn’t going to default on my loans and lose everything. Suddenly, months after we started and miles from where we thought the restaurant was headed, it looked like Number Two was not headed for the hospice.

For the moment, financial ruin and public embarrassment are at arm’s length. Our fumbling worked. When we were empty, we had the chance to tweak our food without the serious scrutiny of Bruni coming in, and other than a weird New Yorker review, most of the press we got was favorable. We couldn’t have made more wrong turns on the way to where the restaurant is now, but that’s the way Noodle Bar came together, too. Ssam Bar isn’t the Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain sophomore effort I’d hoped for, but we will get it there.

And once the sailing is smoother at Ssam Bar, I know thoughts about Number Three are going to start creeping up. And I know I should figure out every little detail before spending another gazillion dollars and six sleepless months trying to make it work. But I know me. And I know I’ve always wanted to have a restaurant with a jukebox in it. So once I figure where that can go?

—D. Chang

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