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Noodlecat Chef/Owner Jonathon Sawyer on Cleveland, Expansion, and the Ramen Boom

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Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater talks with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
[Photo: Noodlecat]

Last April, chef Jonathon Sawyer announced he was opening a second location of his popular Cleveland restaurant Noodlecat — itself not even a year old — inside the historic West Side Market. The Noodlecat stall opened quickly thereafter, spreading more ramen across the Ohio city. Here now, Sawyer talks about the easy decision to expand into the market, how the restaurant dealt with introducing ramen to Cleveland, and his thoughts on the recent ramen boom.

How did the original concept of Noodlecat come about?
For Amelia and I living in New York as long as we did, we really enjoyed that affordable yet awesome meal of ramen. We felt like the city of Cleveland was really lacking in the ramen department. So we took a trip to Tokyo and we started developing our noodles and our dashis and all the recipes over the next, say, six months after we got back from Tokyo. Then we opened the restaurant. We just felt like Cleveland needed to step up its game with ramen, so we decided to open Noodlecat.

When did you decide to open up the second location?
Well, you know, the West Side Market is one of my favorite Cleveland landmarks. It's been around for 100 years. Four generations of my family have shopped there, my grandmother, my kids, everybody. A lot of my taste memories I can associate directly to that market. When a spot came open, which rarely happens, we wanted to jump right on it, and we thought the most immediate concept we could do would be Noodlecat. It's such a fun way to cook ramen and steamed buns, the immediacy of being inside of a market. You need a great Polish butcher or a great Hungarian meat smoker or charcutier from Germany, you buy it and then you put it on ramen and you're ready to go.

When did you first hear the space was opening?
We had about a month lead time. We found out maybe in January or February of last year. We did not have a lot of time to buy two steamers, six steam tables, two induction burners. We basically had to get in there and get open because those spots are super coveted, and for good reason. A lot of the marketeers and vendors that are in there have been there for... I think 35 years is the average. It's a pretty storied market, and it's pretty true to Cleveland for sure.

[Photo: Edsel L/Flickr]

How did the buildout go? It seems like it happened quickly.
Oh yeah. It's only 50 square feet. We had some product left over from all the construction of Noodlecat brick-and-mortar. We just cross-utilized them and we started producing all the broth and everything for Noodlecat West Side Market out of Noodlecat brick-and-mortar. And then we eventually started sourcing more and more stuff from the market for Noodlecat brick-and-mortar that the marketeers grabbed for us. It's been fun.

So you've used your market location to influence the original?
Yeah, now it's gotten to the point where they're sort of both feeding off of each other. We've got great asparagus coming in now from local vendors, and we have new hot dog recipes we've developed from our partnership with all the guys at the West Side Market.

What was your opening like?
We sort of took a casual approach to opening. With our other restaurants, we did a real big friends & family and media and that whole deal. But this one we just opened up on like a Wednesday, a typical slower day for the market, and tried to learn how to cook noodles in a different location. We just let it grow a little more naturally. It was pretty cool because it's so different from everything else inside of the market. We fed the marketeers first and foremost and educated them, and then the customers sort of came behind that.

And what was the response from the community to the West Side Market location?
You know, the West Side Market location had an easier kickoff than the Public Square one did because it was so foreign to everybody and, I'm sure as you know, ramen is a pretty emotional subject for a lot of people. There's a lot of opinions. I think we blazed a lot of ground with the brick-and-mortar one, whereas when we opened up the West Side Market one, it was sort of already readily accepted by everybody. It was just exciting to see people near West Side be able to get steamed buns and tsukemono even faster than before. They didn't have to come all the way downtown to get it.

Can you talk a little bit more about the reactions you got when you opened the first Noodlecat and how it was introducing ramen?
I think what we tried to avoid pretty hard was saying "traditional" in any way, shape or form because a big part of our restaurant is sourcing everything that we can within 90 miles. It definitely changes the flavor of the broth and the idea of the different broths that we would do when you source as much [and] as locally as we do.

We kept our ears open and we talked to everybody and we changed our ramen recipe. Now we're on our fifth different incarnation of our ramen recipe. We have two different ramens on the menu now. One that's sourced with local flour that's a combo alkaline and egg noodle and one that's a more sort of classic 100 percent alkaline noodle that we're ordering in. Continuing to talk about the idea of the noodles and making the descriptors on the menu even more user-friendly are the two biggest things that we learned.

How did you make them more user-friendly?
In the beginning, we tried to use some terminology that alienated people even further. Now we just focus on the main ingredient or two to describe the dish. Rather than explain it's a combination of tare, dashi, and fried chicken broth, we just say fried chicken broth. If there's someone who's a little bit more inclined to learn about the three different combinations or how we actually make fried chicken broth, that's a personal conversation we would have rather than typing it on the menu and confusing people.

Are there any lessons you'd learned from the first Noodlecat opening that you were able to apply the second time around?
Yeah, I think our space was a little bit larger than probably we should have gone for, the first one. It was almost 3,000 square feet. I really like to have people bumping elbows when they're eating ramen. So it was probably a little bit too big for what we were looking for. That's why when we saw the West Side Market, we were like, this is perfect. It's only 45 square feet. So it'd be ideal for us to have a line queued up all day and the noodles come out hot and you slurp 'em right away while you're walking through the market.

And then the development of the noodle itself, it morphing over the first four different times we changed the noodle to eventually being what it is helped with the immediacy of the market. We went to an egg noodle just because I think it's easier, especially in the market, for people to walk around. If they don't finish it in the first 10 minutes or 15 minutes, it's still a wonderful noodle.

Do you have seats in the market?
We don't. We've been lobbying for both two fold-up seats to go on the north side and trying to get a liquor license. We've applied like three times. Just so we can have a little bit of draft sparkling sake or a little bit of draft beer to go along with the noodles.

Since it's a smaller space, I assume you have a smaller cooking space too?
Yeah exactly. We don't have a deep fryer so we don't get to do our twice-cooked wings or any of like our pan-fried shake and bake pork chop or short rib char siu, but we still get away with doing steamed buns because we have two whole steamers. And we still get to do all the noodles because we have two whole pasta cookers. So we definitely get away with a lot in that small space.

I would say if anybody comes to Cleveland and doesn't go to the West Side Market, that would be an absolute shame. But if they do go to the West Side Market and they go to Noodlecat, I would highly recommend ordering the butcher's bun or the butcher's noodle. That's our "every day changing with whoever is cooking something good at the market" special. It's pretty cool to see the Eastern European-ness of Cleveland combined with Noodlecat on a steamed bun on a daily basis. Every day is just the cook's whim, and it's a lot of fun.

While we're at it, I'd love to hear your thoughts on what seems to be a ramen boom.
I think it's pretty awesome. The coasts are getting it more than the middle. New York, LA, DC. There's a lot more going on and I think it'd be nice to see it hit the middle of the country a little bit more. Chicago has a great scene too, of course.

Do you see it happening more in Cleveland?
I think that more restaurants are offering ramen than offered it before in the Midwest and in Cleveland specifically. But there hasn't been another modern ramen shop open in Cleveland yet. I hope to see one soon because, in my opinion, the more we're able to spread the good word of the noodles, the better off everyone is. We definitely don't believe competition is negative for business. At the end of the day, all of us owner-operators are just trying to take a little bit away from the national chains. I'd much rather someone eat with my neighbor than Noodles & Company.

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Noodlecat at the West Side Market

1979 W 25th St Cleveland, OH 44113