RamaMama restaurateur gets what he needs, if not what he wanted

RamaMama restaurateur gets what he needs, if not what he wanted

By Emily Kemme

John Lawyer has a knack for turning sow’s ears into silk purses. Specifically, the Fort Collins-based food truck and catering company whiz excels at converting negative situations into successful business enterprises. Part of his success stems from an adaptive personality, one that invents on a whim.

RamaMama ramen
The tiny ramen shop on College and Laurel isn’t what John Lawyer dreamed of. But as it turns out, it’s perfect for the times. (Photo courtesy of RamaMama.)

Even so, the 40-year-old admits that the coronavirus pandemic brought on a real-life midlife crisis.

Using his Corndoggies’ mustard yellow food truck and catering gigs to support the entire infrastructure, Lickskillet Catering had laid out a two-year schedule, spending thousands of dollars on the right equipment.

“All that got wiped off the board,” Lawyer said, referring to sizable weddings that were cancelled or pushed forward to summer 2021, along with events the company catered for businesses and schools. Food truck schedules, heavily reliant on food truck rallies and business from larger breweries, became sporadic as smaller breweries slotted newcomers into scarce spaces. Corndoggies’ income is down by 85 percent.

The final straw was the fizzled dream of an Old Town ramen brick-and-mortar, after years of RamaMama pop-up dinners to introduce the concept to FOCO eaters. Lawyer had searched for the right space — “A sort of back alley noodle shop, the esoteric kind of restaurant that epitomizes the genre.”

RamaMama ramen
As a Coloradoan, Lawyer wasn’t schooled at cooking ramen until he lived in Illinois. He learned the art of ramen making and the Korean food culture at family dinners hosted by a co-worker. (Photo courtesy of RamaMama.)

The game plan had been to open September 2019, but communications about the lease and contractors dragged. “Everything was bid three times, but ultimately, we were ghosted. We never heard back, there was no response,” Lawyer explained. 

Losing market share and behind schedule, he jumped behind the wheel of the business model he knows best: another food truck. It was a vehicle to keep forward progress of the concept and branding for the noodle shop — one that would serve up steaming bowls of silky broth, chewy ramen noodles, and an Asian authenticity that’s hard to find in Colorado.

“Food truck life is always a nightmare,” Lawyer lamented. He bought a truck in Denver that seemed good to go, only to discover it had a hole in the piston, requiring a lot more work than anticipated. The RamaMama truck opened last November, good timing for a winter warmer like ramen, and even more so since Corndoggies goes into hibernation around then.

After the pandemic’s arrival and abrupt shutdowns, Lawyer used the CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program to float payroll for his core employee base. But when the non-profit Homeward Alliance reached out with a plan to provide two meals daily to homeless people at the Northside Aztland Center in downtown FOCO, he found an opportunity to coordinate with the rescue mission and Catholic Charities to minimize the downtown FOCO homeless population footprint. For 68 day days straight — the beginning of April and into June —, he woke at 4:30 each morning to prepare individually boxed, ready to serve meals. A tight budget required menu creativity, and with little to no employees, he pulled it all together. Lawyer said he was lucky to have the equipment and the commissary — the hub of his company’s food truck and catering operations.

“Lickskillet Catering served over 20,000 meals through the program. It was a good cause, good for everybody. That kept us moving forward with employment while trying to pivot and maneuver around a situation that nobody has been through before.”

RamaMama ramen
A bowl of dumplings at RamaMama’s new shop on College and Laurel. (Photo courtesy of RamaMama.)

As businesspeople inherently understand, it isn’t always who you know. It’s how those relationships play out over time. So when Lawyer’s buddy, Taylor Smith, owner of vegan restaurant, The Gold Leaf Collective, shut down and signed a lease for the former IHOP building south of College Avenue, Lawyer snagged the chance to house RamaMama in Gold Leaf’s vacated space. Directly across from the CSU campus, the tiny spot fits with the concept, and Lawyer admits it’s closer to the ramen-slurping demographic.

“The original idea was awesome, but sometimes things don’t work out. I don’t look at it as a loss. We would be in a bad situation today if the first space had been signed, having 10 to 15 employees and a huge inside dining area.”

RamaMama ramen
Banh mi with Szechuan crusted brisket, gochujang mayo, and house-made pickles for crunch. (Photo courtesy of RamaMama).

On August 1, the noodle shop opened with limited, Covid super-soft opening hours, sticking to a basic menu of ramen, dumplings, Szechuan chicken wings, and banh mi — a Korean-style fusion sandwich piled with meats and pickled vegetables served on a baguette. Small, very efficient, and operating with minimal staff, the RamaMama brick and mortar mirrors the food truck theme — efficiency, speed, and volume. Their savory ramen broth is still cooked in the commissary across town, along with a lot of the prep work because the new shop has no walk-in cooler. Kitchen windows bring in fresh air, and there is a window for walk-up and online pick-up orders. 

As RamaMama heads into cooler weather, Lawyer finds he got what he needs. The Corndoggies and ramen trucks will run through the end of September, just in time to hunker down and slurp up a bowl of ramen in the comfort of your own home.  

To enjoy RamaMama

120 W. Laurel Street, Fort Collins

Follow RamaMama on Facebook for updates and to order online.

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