On March 26, Rust Belt Ramen, an eatery with a focus on Japanese cuisine, became available for online ordering and pickup.
Rust Belt Ramen is currently operating out of a ghost kitchen, leasing a kitchen space from the First United Methodist Church in Albion. After receiving a positive reception at Festival of the Forks, the eatery has worked extensively to become an available food option in the Albion community.
Dreaming, Building, Rising
Last fall, Anthony and Emily Cox considered operating a food truck and eventually opening a brick and mortar location. However, after further evaluation, the Coxes realized that there aren’t many available storefront locations in downtown Albion.
“We were really wrestling, at the time of ‘do we do a food truck?,’ ‘do we do brick and mortar?’ what do we do,” said Emily Cox. “We needed help clarifying some of those goals and working through that process.”
Because of these issues, the Coxes joined dream.build.rise, a program designed to support the development of small businesses in Albion.
“I wanted us to enter dream.build.rise because I knew we needed some help figuring out what we needed to do,” said Emily Cox. “It was really good for us to get some of that background through the business side of things and to make connections and networking with other people in the community and different people from across the region.”
After completing the five-week program and presenting at the program’s pitch night, the Coxes received a $10,000 consulting credit with International Strategic Management.
A Ghost Kitchen
Leasing a commercial kitchen to operate out of was always in the radar of the Coxes. Anthony Cox always knew that operating out of a commercial kitchen was doable for Rust Belt Ramen. At the same time, using the ghost kitchen makes it easier to overpass hefty costs that a brick and mortar location would need, according to Emily Cox.
“It works well because we don’t have to come up with equipment costs, the ventilation system, the structure-type of costs that are so expensive when you’re building a brick and mortar,” said Emily Cox. “When you think of opening a restaurant, you’re looking at $300,000 and a solid $150,000 of that is just structure and hood and ventilation and a fryer and sinks. We don’t have to worry about that, it works great.”
Anthony Cox has noticed a forward trend in food truck usage, with the benefit being that the permanent facility overhead is bypassed. However, Anthony Cox believes that a food truck in Midwestern states limits the ability to operate on a recurring basis.
“No one really wants to go hang out in a park somewhere and eat their lunch in January,” said Anthony Cox. “Up here, we’re shut down five months out of the year. So how do you generate enough capital when you can be open to cover when you’re now open. That’s where ghost kitchens are coming in.”
Working out of a ghost kitchen also offers a middle ground to build a customer base, have positive income, be a part of the community and offer a food option in the area, according to Emily Cox.
“It is a food desert in Albion, there just aren’t a lot of options, especially on Sundays and Mondays,” said Emily Cox. “Your options are the brewery or fast food, that’s all you’ve got. That’s why Monday is one of our nights. Mondays are one of the slowest days in restaurants, but I don’t think it matters here.”
Operating out of a ghost kitchen gets the eatery running. However, it is only a taste of what Rust Belt Ramen can serve for the local Albion community, according to Anthony Cox.
“It’s kind of weird, even for me as a chef, it’s nothing that I’ve ever seen before or tried to do before,” said Anthony Cox. “We’re asking you on a Monday or Tuesday to decide if you want to come dine with us on a Friday or Saturday. But at the same time, you’re not really dining with us.
With the help of Jeremiah Cox, Anthony’s brother, Rust Belt Ramen can focus on this unique opportunity to work with the community on what works and doesn’t work, such as menu options and the operating days.
“We work with the ghost kitchen to see if this will work by meeting the needs of the community,” said Jeremiah Cox. “Are scheduled orders going to work for people? We are taking a chance but we’ve had a lot of great feedback and expect that it will work. But we are constantly visiting our business model to make sure it works for everybody in the community this fall.”
Unwilling to Compromise Quality
Some food options on the menu are currently unavailable. According to Anthony Cox, the cost of importing the ingredients needed for the items has made it difficult to prepare them well.
However, rather than finding cheaper alternatives, the Coxes refuse to increase the price of their products to cover the cost of the ingredients.
“I want it to be affordable to as many people as possible, regardless of where you live or how much money you make,” said Anthony Cox. “Costing things out has changed my perception into working with locally-sourced items available in the Midwest region.”
According to the Coxes, the dream.build.rise program presented Albion’s biggest demographic as being retired, working class and on a fixed income. Anthony Cox is keeping this in mind when making dishes and adding them to the menu.
“Ramen is an import in America, carrying a higher price point,” said Anthony Cox. “Ramen in Japan is the working man’s food. I’m trying to take that into what I’m doing. I’m trying to serve blue collar workers and college students, we were on a very limited income not too long ago as college students ourselves.”
Sacrificing the quality of their menu items is also not an option for the Coxes.
“In my mind, I’m seeing the remade, frozen or powdered soup, and that’s the first step in putting yourself out of business,” said Anthony Cox. “I will close the business before I start serving low quality food.”
Rust Belt Ramen will continue to operate on Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays every week at Albion First United Methodist Church, facing Wesley Hall. Customers can place their orders up to 14 days in advance through Toast and set up a pick-up time block between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. each night. Updates on menu items can be found on the Rust Belt Ramen Facebook page.