November 22 2020
Kensho Social is the newest Mazemen Ramen and Artisanal Tea shop in the bay area. If you haven't tried mazemen before, you are in for a huge treat. Known as broth-less ramen, mazemen introduces a very unique experience to eating ramen and is filled with creative toppings that will constantly have you craving for more!
919 Story Rd
San Jose, CA 95122
Hi Paul, Alex, and Dave! We are delighted to finally meet the amazing team behind Kensho Social. As frequent visitors of Vietnam Town in San Jose, we recently came across your newly developed shop and were intrigued by the overall aesthetics and menu items! We would love to learn more about your business and the origin of Kensho Social.
For those who are unaware, can you explain the philosophy behind Kensho Social and where the name derived from?
Our team has known each other for over 20 years, so we wanted to create something that embodied our beliefs and welcomed others into our family. In Japanese, Kensho means enlightenment, understanding why and how things work, and finding zen. At Kensho Social, we want everybody to discover new flavors, find comfort in our food and drinks, and find a place where they can feel more at home. We envision Kensho Social to be a collaborative and social space where we hope to showcase local pop-ups and talent within our community.
Can you provide a brief introduction about the team’s background? Prior to the shop’s opening, what were each member’s past skill sets and experiences?
Paul (Owner): To be honest, I didn’t really have a passion for food until I started to realize that everyone in my family were foodies. At a young age, I helped out at my grandparents' restaurant, not knowing the why or seeing the love they poured into their dishes. I never really knew it back then, but that restaurant brought our family together as a unit.
As I grew older, I started working in tea shops, learning the various ways of brewing tea, and worked as a barista for over 10 years. I've always wanted to try something new and break out of the standard recipes provided to me by the cafes, so I started dabbling in recipes and working on my craft outside of work. I'll always remember the times when I took my parents and grandparents out for a meal and they would always ask me, “Why are we eating this? We can make this at home and make it better.” I always keep this in the back of my mind as motivation. I want to create unique food and drinks that stand out from the crowd, and of course, that would make my family proud.
Alex (Chef): I was studying in an automotive program before I realized my true passion in food. I always found joy and comfort in cooking meals for my friends and family and knew this was my calling. I took a leap of faith and decided to join my friend in culinary school, where I attended for 2 years, while also finishing my business degree. From there, I've been fortunate enough to have worked at many well-known restaurants throughout the East and West Coasts, including Ippudo, Tsujita, and Momofuku. Even with all of these experiences under my belt, I am constantly hungry to learn more and hone in on my craft. Inspired by Japanese cuisine and culture, I try to incorporate familiar flavors with my own unique twist. I have always dreamed of opening up my own restaurant and when Paul approached me last September to join the team, the idea for Kensho Social was born.
Dave (Chef): I pretty much grew up in a Chinese restaurant owned by my dad and his cousin called Bamboo Garden in SoCal. This definitely contributed to my love for food and transformed me into a foodie at a young age. I love traveling far and wide to try new and exotic foods. I'm not afraid to try anything at least once. Some of the wildest things I've eaten include dog in China, tarantulas in Cambodia, and porcupine in Vietnam. Alex and I have been dreaming about opening a ramen restaurant for nearly 10 years. For most of that time, Alex was living in New York, helping a lot of the big named ramen places open up their shops. He helped a lot of those places refine their style and process, like an undercover chef. I would consider him the UNDERGROUND RAMEN KING! I'm glad he decided to come back and join us on the Kensho Social venture.
Tell us a bit about your daily operations. What normally comes first once the shop opens up for the day?
Drinks are prepared and served from the front bar. A few hours before opening, we make sure all of our toppings, herbs, fresh fruits, and other fresh ingredients are prepped and ready to go. We also brew our teas fresh daily through a drip method multiple times a day.
Back in the kitchen, we start with an inventory count to get an idea of how much we have for the day. For our mazemen, we need about 4-5 hours to prep all of our ingredients. We also go through a lot of eggs, which can take a lot of time as we prepare them three different ways. In total, the ramen-making process takes us about half the day.
In addition to our food and drinks, we also sell DIY mazemen kits, where customers can take the experience into their own kitchens. In these kits, we include uncooked, individually packaged noodles, which are a little different than the ones we serve in the store. We also provide all of the sauces, finishing toppings, and a step-by-step instruction sheet so it's easy to assemble.
It's definitely a team effort to get all of these things ready before opening each day, but quality is always top of mind for us.
What was the reason for choosing your specific specialty dishes for the menu?
Here at Kensho Social, we wanted to do something different. Usually when people think of ramen, the first thing that comes to mind is a hearty tonkotsu broth. Due to the limited kitchen space in our shop, we decided to pivot in a different direction with mazemen. Mazemen is a broth-less ramen that is mixed with flavorful sauces and showcases creative toppings. Mazemen has broken into the New York and Los Angeles scene for a few years, and we feel like it's time for it to shine in the Bay Area.
Overall, we do try to keep our menu fairly simple, paying attention to the quality and taste of our ingredients. To keep things exciting, we will be having rotating monthly specials. For the month of November, we are offering curry mazemen, a fan favorite amongst our taste testers. For Thanksgiving and Christmas, we plan on serving a roast beef mazemen that will surely bring some holiday feels. We eventually plan on adding late-night cups of noodles to our menu as a limited item as well.
Can you provide us with a demo of the tea-making process and all the preparation that goes into creating the drinks?
Paul (owner): I am currently using three different tea siphons to brew my teas, one for each tea: black, green, jasmine. Typically, people have used espresso machines for this, which I don’t prefer, as it forces the extraction of the tea's natural flavors.
All of the teas I use are high-mountain, high quality, loose leaf teas that have been cultivated at an elevation of 4000+ feet with a minimum aging of 5 years. Not a lot of people are aware of this, but the elevation at which a tea plant grows drastically affects its aroma and flavor, and even nutritional value. Low-mountain, lower grade teas that most shops use are sitting at under 1000 feet and dry for about 1 year. Powder is typically added to increase the caffeine level, as well as the smell and taste. These teas will typically have more of a kick in their taste, which a lot of people are used to. The high-mountain teas that we use have a softer taste, while allowing you to pick up on subtle notes and changes in taste over time.
With higher grade quality teas, your salivary glands actually open up, causing you to salivate more and leaving almost a cooling effect after you sip. I try to complement this with the sweetness found in natural fruit flavors, not through added sugar. Unlike your typical shop, we will never add anything extra like fructose, brown sugar, or other powders or additives to enhance the sweetness and flavor of our drinks. We believe that when you drink tea, it should taste the way it smells.
I carefully craft my teas in a mocktail style (cocktail without the alcohol). I've already created over 30 different flavors and drinks, but I’m introducing the current 6 flavors for now. Similarly to our mazemen, we will be releasing a seasonal set of drinks to our menu that include flavors like pumpkin spice tea, peach cobbler, apple pie, and mango lassi. In the future, we plan to offer an additional menu that adds alcohol to teas.
What was the inspiration behind combining a ramen shop with boba? Would you consider Kensho Social to mainly be a ramen shop, or would you label it as a fusion of both?
We are definitely a fusion of both ramen and boba. Our mazemen and teas balance each other out with their unique flavors and satisfying effects - mazemen for hunger and teas for thirst. With boba tea, there aren’t a lot of places that want to cohesively blend their drinks with their food menu. We wanted to unite our two passions (Paul - tea, Alex - ramen) and create a delightful adventure for our customers' taste buds.
We’re definitely trying our best to stay within the brand and to not flood our customers with hundreds of items on the menu. Our goal is to keep things minimal, yet provide a tasty menu. Our vision for our future shops is to be more specialty-driven with regards to food and drinks, while staying true to our brand.
Kensho Social is currently the first ramen shop to open up at Vietnam Town in San Jose, CA. What are the main advantages that you see due to that?
Hopefully, Kensho Social being the first ramen shop here is a refreshing change for Vietnam Town's usual patrons and will also attract a new set of customers hoping to expand their palette. There already is some amazing food in this plaza and we only hope to add to the diversity and elevate Vietnam Town's success.
Besides our food, we're also trying to differentiate ourselves by bringing a new ambiance with the design of our storefront. We try to add our own personal touches wherever we can, from the interior decor (Paul's love for DBZ) to our large outdoor patio area, which our team members hand-built from scratch. We're also in the process of implementing Lightform inside our store, which is a projector AR mapping system that will allow customers to create their own custom designs on our walls. We want to create a whole new experience for our customers, both visually and in taste.
Thus far, what has been the most effective method of marketing for you when it comes to brand awareness?
We couldn’t have done a lot of our marketing without our marketing guru, Sabrina. She has been helping us with our brand identity, website, graphics, social media, and everything else in between. She really took the time to understand our brand, vision, and what we're trying to accomplish and turn it into reality. She has helped us push a lot of content through social media, which is definitely one of the most effective ways to get your name out there.
Another thing that really helped us was through word of mouth. With the challenges of COVID, we wanted to take a very soft approach and not rush into opening up shop until we felt ready. We did multiple test runs with our friends and family, which helped us a lot with getting the initial word out about Kensho Social.
Now that we have our rhythm and processes down and an awesome team behind us, we are ready to push our brand even further through even more channels.
Since 2020 has been such a rollercoaster for new businesses, what were the main hurdles that you had to overcome throughout the process?
Paul (Owner): Inventory, construction, and finding the current resources were the most difficult issues that we encountered throughout 2020. To get our feet off the ground, we wanted to start with a test run via DIY mazemen delivery kits to not waste any time. This was a great way for us to receive initial feedback and get our name out there. Since then, our customers have been ordering mazemen kits on a weekly basis.
Alex (Chef): The noodles were reaaaally hard to get, especially the custom noodles we use. The noodles we use are very limited and are only served in a handful of restaurants. It took a lot of back and forth with our distributor until we were finally able to procure some. Due to COVID, everything was on hold, even the opening of our shop, which is why we started with DIY kits. The noodles used in the kits are a bit different than the ones we use in the shop, but still have the same great quality, taste, and texture.
Growing up, were there any famous chefs or restaurants that influenced you to one day create your own restaurant?
We watched a lot of Gordon Ramsey and Anthony Bourdain, which inspired us to travel all around the world together to try new foods. One of our favorite places to visit was Japan. We had the best ramen in a small hole-in-the-wall spot that completely blew our minds. That, combined with eating a lot of instant noodles growing up, was probably the moment we realized we wanted to open up a ramen joint.
Visually, where do you see Kensho Social a year from now? Do you have any goals or objectives that you would like to accomplish by then?
We always had a vision for Kensho Social to be a place for the community - hence the "Social" in our name. We didn't create Kensho just for good food and drinks, but we want to make it possible for other local small businesses, artists, etc. to have pop-ups here and showcase their talent here as well. We know how hard it can be to put yourself out there and start something new, so we want to be a partner and lift up the community. We definitely hope to create and expand this network over the next year and beyond. Later down the line, we hope to open up more locations and spread our reach beyond the Bay Area.
Lastly, do you have any tips for the aspiring entrepreneurs who would one day want to create their own food-related business?
When it comes to any business, be ready to put in a lot of time and hard work. There will always be people who tell you that you can't do it and hope you fail, but don't let that get the best of you. Whatever your vision, try it out. Even if it fails, you can always grow from it and come back stronger.
We have so many people telling us we’re going to fail and that this venture has a limited lifespan. This motivates us even more to prove them wrong. On the flip side, we're also very fortunate to have a strong system of supporters. It's super important to surround yourself with people who will lift you up when times get hard. In the food business, you never know if what you create will be the next big fad or a big flop. The amazing thing about food, though, is that there are no bounds to your creativity, so the more that you try, you're bound to find success. Never give up hope and never give up on your dreams.
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