"I got into this because my whole career has been finding these incredibly talented people who need business partners and who, you know, go on to build really cool things," Owen Van Natta, 45, tells Eater, sitting in a booth in the former Hapa Ramen space.
In March, Hapa Ramen suddenly shuttered after a very public split with chef Richie Nakano, the outspoken former Nopa line cook who, over the course of five years, built Hapa Ramen from a farmers' market stand into a social media presence and, finally, a brick-and-mortar space on a developing block of Mission Street. Van Natta provided the infrastructure meant to help Nakano and Hapa Ramen grow into a full-service restaurant and a sustainable business. When the restaurant unexpectedly collapsed, the prevailing narrative in the media (and among Nakano's legion of Twitter followers) was a battle of archetypes: tech money vs. local talent. Nakano's account was very well-documented online, but Van Natta, whose C.V. includes some of the most recognizable names in the tech industry, became an easy scapegoat in San Francisco's contentious cultural climate.
About a week before my meeting with Van Natta, CUESA, the same local organization that carefully curates the lineup of vendors at the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market, where Hapa Ramen started, held a panel discussion titled "Evolving City, Evolving Restaurants." When the discussion inevitably turned to the subject of tech investments in restaurants and the untimely demise of Hapa Ramen, Joe Hargrave of Tacolicious concluded, "we don't know what happened."
"We do know that somebody — one person — wrote [Nakano] a check to open a restaurant. And that's all we know. So, to vilify this person is total nonsense. It's pretty absurd and pretty San Franciscan of us. You see it a lot, these stereotypes. We're supposed to be the tolerant ones, and we judge real quickly."
So Van Natta and I met inside the empty Hapa Ramen at 2293 Mission Street on a hot day in April, about a month after the restaurant closed. The restaurant hadn't changed at all, aside from the "Closed" sign in the menu box by the front door. Without a market stand to prep for, a set of long white coolers spray-painted with "HAPA" in Giants orange sat unused in the corner. Van Natta was dressed in Silicon Valley casual: a polo shirt and dad jeans over a pair of sneakers. Noticeably sun-tanned, he had the well-meaning stance of a high-school basketball coach, albeit one with a winning record. He referenced NBA legend Phil Jackson's book Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success in conversation, and apologized when he couldn't find a better word than "pivot" to describe the future of the restaurant we're currently sitting in. The idea of a good, solid team is obviously important to him: he mentioned it exactly 38 times over the course of our 45-minute conversation.
Leading up to Hapa’s long-awaited opening in November 2014, Van Natta paid $20,000 to purchase Nakano’s Hapa Ramen business name, good will, and assorted equipment. He invested another $1.45 million to build out the space at 2293 Mission Street, not including the price of the building itself, which he owns along with three other buildings on the same corner at 19th and Mission Streets. He owns a fifth building a few blocks down, between 21st and 22nd Streets.
To Nakano, who was accustomed to working late nights out of borrowed kitchens, the new space on Mission Street — complete with a full bar, a robata grill and a $60,000, 1,200-pound imported Japanese noodle machine — provided every last tool he needed for success. This upgrade for Nakano was also new territory for Van Natta, whose professional career highlights include a term as Facebook's Chief Operating Officer at a time when the social network was expanding beyond college campuses and making its first big revenue deals with Microsoft.
Despite an impressive track record in technology, Van Natta admitted he is a relative newcomer when it comes to the business of restaurants. Hapa Ramen was his first foray into the industry, aside from a couple of "opportunistic" investments that he said were too passive to be satisfying. But both sides make it clear that the relationship at the backbone of Hapa Ramen, one of its most fundamental business elements, had problems from the start.
"You really need the team to come together to create something truly lasting and great," Van Natta explained, seated under Hapa Ramen's authentic Japanese-style wooden latticework.
"And so we had a whole number of interactions over the four months that we were open, trying to figure out how to bring the team together and it became really, really clear that the team was just not going to come together. And we were basically at an impasse. So we had to make the unfortunate decision to just part ways."
That is, of course, an oversimplification of the restaurant’s brief life. Van Natta started again from the beginning: "I met Richie at one of his pop-ups and he was interested in finding a business partner to work with," Van Natta explained. The pair was introduced by Van Natta’s associate, who acted as a scout seeking out local restaurant talent in need of a patron. In the roughly two years between their introduction and parting ways in March of 2015, Nakano says he met with Van Natta maybe a dozen times, one of which was a one-on-one in Van Natta's apartment at the St. Regis.
According to Van Natta, the two of them sat down early on in the process to hash out the details of their business venture before Van Natta’s lawyer put the terms on paper. In Van Natta's words, the contract was a "manifestation of everything we agreed on...So that we have good business hygiene."
"I had this crisis of conscience before the restaurant opened," Nakano explained a week later over midday Tecates in the Sunset district. "I was out with my GM picking up stuff and realized we’re going into business with the guy who everybody hates in SF." That would have gone against Hapa’s mission. "We’re a grassroots operation. It felt hypocritical."
To manage the relationship between his business team and Nakano’s kitchen talent, Van Natta brought in Deborah Blum, a veteran restaurateur who
's helped run is co-owner and co-founder of San Francisco mainstays like Beretta, Starbelly and Lolinda, to name a few. Sometime this year, on the other end of the block from the former Hapa Ramen, Blum will open Citizen Fox, a brewery with a "plant-based" menu in which Van Natta is also invested.
For the tech- and sports-minded Van Natta, Blum would fill a key role at Hapa. She was a proven player who could set up the kitchen talent for success. If Van Natta saw himself as this restaurant’s Phil Jackson, he saw Blum as the Scottie Pippen to Nakano’s tongue-wagging Michael Jordan. And because this burgeoning restauranteur was working on her own restaurant just down the street, Blum was set up to be a franchise player.
In January, Nakano’s twitter schtick clashed with Blum’s. Tweeting from the @HapaRamen account, Nakano wrote "Only downside to the repeal of the foie ban is I won’t be making clandestine trips to my dealer [at Dirty Habit] anymore," followed by a screenshot of a text message conversation with Dirty Habit chef David Bazirgan. @DeborahRBlum tweeted in response, "It’s a shame so many people insist on eating dead flesh from tortured beings. Gross actually." That tweet has since been deleted.
In February, the disputes were over ice cream. Blum pushed for Frozen Kuhsterd, another San Francisco pop-up darling, on Hapa’s dessert menu. "I know we make our own ice cream," Blum wrote in an email to Nakano, "but Owen is very adamant about having Frozen Kuhsterd’s custard ice cream there as well." When Nakano called the proposal "insulting," Blum insisted it was "non negotiable" because Frozen Kuhsterd "are going to be a tenant in Owen’s other building" and it would be good to build a relationship with them. Frozen Kuhsterd never made it to the menu.
Sample flavor 1 of 2 for our friends at #haparamen 2293 Mission Street, Hurricane Kettle Corn. We were challenged with merging Japan and Hawaii inspired flavors. Kettle Popcorn frozen custard base with bits of dried seaweed and rice crackers. This has to be a frozen custard or ice cream first. We just set a new standard! What do you think of this one? #frozenkuhsterd #frozencustard #hurricanepopcorn #seaweed #ricecracker #sanfrancisco #bayarea #desserttruck #foodtruck #missiondistrict #fktherest #fkwiththebest #getfkd #settingstandards #followourlead #fk #japanese #hawaiian
And it was apparently a stalk of asparagus that finally broke Hapa’s staff. In March, Blum pushed to have an asparagus dish served on a smaller plate after customers complained it was a poor value. In an emailed closing report, a staff member noted a test run of the smaller plate was "well received by guests." Nakano responded, saying the dish would return to his original plating and that he was unhappy with the decision to change it without his approval. He signed off with a smiley face emoticon.
Nakano’s ego-trolling overshadowed Blum’s pragmatism. Customers had complained about the asparagus, Blum wrote back, "almost to the point of making fun of the fussiness of the presentation and the overabundance of negative space." Besides, she argued over a five-paragraph email, people seemed to like it on the new plate. Nakano twisted her words back at her: "Maybe you can be the chef, Deb. Or maybe Owen wants to give it a shot."
"Maybe you can be the chef, Deb. Or maybe Owen wants to give it a shot."
To understand such a brusque response to a plating suggestion, it is important to remember Hapa Ramen is a brand, and briefly a restaurant, that was born from the meager earnings of a line cook and a Twitter account. For Nakano, building a following meant more than just turning out creative bowls of ramen. It meant building an audience online, speaking in memes, and rejecting mainstream restaurant menu mores. John Birdsall — an early fan — would later describe what was happening at Hapa Ramen as the creation of "a new ramen vernacular." Hapa Ramen has always defined itself by what it wasn’t, and by exercising his control over the negative space surrounding some asparagus, Nakano tried to prove he wasn’t going to be part of Van Natta’s plans. When things fell apart, it was only natural that Nakano returned to his default mode of expression on Twitter.
"Richie and I made a commitment to each other," Van Natta said. "Looked each other in the eye, shook hands, agreed we were gonna work on this transition plan, that we weren’t gonna go talk to the press, you know, we specifically talked about that and then the next thing I know, he was out, talking to the press, posting things on social media. Shitstorm."
Nakano disputes this account. The final meeting between Blum, Van Natta and Nakano happened on Tuesday, March 24th. Afterwards, Nakano worked dinner service. By that Saturday, news broke that he was no longer with the restaurant. He tweeted that he was fired and his staff was in search of work.
"Richie was not fired," said Van Natta. "We specifically sat together and said, ‘I guess we are agreeing to part ways.’ That’s why we, that’s why Richie — after that conversation — Richie worked that night." In no uncertain terms, Van Natta says no one was fired.
Nakano later confirms the words "you’re fired" were never actually uttered during that final meeting with Blum and Van Natta. "We’re separating" was how Nakano recalls the pair phrasing it. Nakano was presented with a non-disclosure agreement the following day, Wednesday, March 25th. The agreement offered a total of four weeks pay in exchange for remaining silent about the split and handing over logins for Hapa Ramen’s social media accounts on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook. On Thursday, Nakano countered by asking for more money and a change in wording that would allow him to speak to the public. On Friday, Blum wrote to explain the offer had expired.
What would have been an announcement of a chef change or concept shuffle in nearly any other restaurant became a media event around Hapa Ramen. Word spread fast, and even stoked speculation that Nakano had been let go for taking shots at longtime San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer (a premise both sides admit is far-fetched). John Birdsall, writing in the same pages where he once celebrated the restaurant, condemned the faceless suit who "destroyed" it — a character cut straight out of a stock photo and ominously photoshopped looming over Nakano's shoulder. Birdsall's open letter served its purpose and brought the backlash to the national spotlight. New York Times food critic Pete Wells amplified the signal and the headline became "a cautionary tale of a dedicated @linecook and a steaming asshole" in the hands of Anthony Bourdain, despite the fact that Nakano himself doesn't save much respect for the celebrity chef, author and travel show host.
As for the rest of the restaurant’s kitchen staff: according to Blum, Hapa Ramen had 36 active employees on the restaurant’s last day, not including Nakano. Despite offers of compensation from Van Natta, only 11 were still actively employed by the restaurant by the end of April. Six submitted letters of resignation and the remainder left due to the "lack of consistent hours."
Van Natta insists to Eater that "it was always the plan to give Richie the name back."
Regarding the name that inspired such passionate vitriol towards him, Van Natta insists to Eater that, "it was always the plan to give Richie the name back." After our interview, Van Natta sent Nakano notice that he is abandoning the Hapa Ramen brand — it is Nakano's if he wants it. Nakano claims no one from the restaurant has tried to contact him since March, but a UPS delivery notice shows the package was returned after three delivery attempts. [Update: The UPS delivery attempts confirmed to Eater were made to an incorrect address, one digit off from the correct one.]
On the other hand, it is unclear if Hapa Ramen was legally Nakano’s trademark to sell in the first place. A former business partner filed paperwork to register the Hapa Ramen trademark, but left before it was finished. According to public records, the papers to transfer the trademark to Nakano’s name were improperly filed and the trademark was considered abandoned. Nakano’s claim to the brand "Hapa Ramen" was only covered by common law and social media logins.
And despite a raging #freehapa social media whirlwind around the return of the Hapa Ramen name to Nakano, Richie was impassive about it when we spoke. Although he seems flattered by all the places #freehapa stickers have started to show up, when I ask what he would do if he got the name back, he merely says it would be "nice to have."
Until Van Natta and company can settle on a new concept, the now-nameless restaurant space at 2293 Mission Street will host, of all things, pop-up dinners. Appropriately enough, one of Nakano's former line cooks, Andreas Bernard, has been tapped as the temporary kitchen venue manager and pop-up chef.
For his part, Nakano seems to be taking Hapa's closure in stride and genuinely seems driven to cook wherever he can. The next time he sees his old noodle machine, however, it won't be working for him: it has already been sold to a pop-up that went brick-and-mortar in Sebastopol, about an hour north of San Francisco, named Ramen Gaijin. Or, according to Richie's translation: "White guy ramen."