After completing her PhD in molecular and cellular pharmacology, Francesca Nakagawa, PhD ’15, did something no one expected. She opened a restaurant.
Despite the fact that she was new to the business world, she forged ahead. In fact, it was the skills she learned in the labs at Stony Brook that gave her the confidence and skillset to validate her husband Atsushi’s theory that Port Jefferson was ready for its first authentic Japanese ramen restaurant.
Today, Slurp Ramen is a Long Island favorite, earning a place on Newsday’s 100 Best Restaurants list four times, including this year.
Tell us about your journey from Stony Brook to the opening of your restaurant, Slurp Ramen.
My interest in business started while I was in the PhD program at Stony Brook. We attended a conference called “What Can You Do with a PhD?” where entrepreneurship was discussed. I remember being interested but unsure what that would look like for me. Then, shortly before I defended my thesis, my husband told me he wanted to open a ramen restaurant. I felt like this was an opportunity being handed to me. My husband had a product, and I was confident that I could run a business. This was my chance to test that theory — and it worked out.
How was the shift from Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology to restaurateur?
I always joke that opening Slurp Ramen was my postdoc. It felt like its own PhD research project. There were so many unknowns, things I had never studied before. Suddenly, I had to learn about negotiating contracts and accounting.
We were the area’s first ramen shop, so we faced a unique challenge. How do you create a menu that’s unfamiliar to most Americans while presenting it in a comfortable and fun way? Learning to market the restaurant was a huge adventure. It’s high risk when you’re the first, but you can also bring your own style. We were very confident that we could provide solidly delicious, Japanese-style ramen.
How have your experiences at SBU prepared you for owning your own business?
Incredibly, Stony Brook’s pharmacology PhD program has a proposal-style qualifying exam that is very similar to a business proposal. It was hands down the most difficult test I’ve ever taken, but it taught me that if I sit down and work hard at it, I can come up with good ideas. Everything I learned from that test helped me draft the business proposal for Slurp Ramen.
What are some ways you think science meets food?
Food and science use the same creative process. You start with a hypothesis, and then you test that idea to see if it works. Then, if it’s not working, you think, ‘how can I tweak this to make it work? But with food, it’s really fun because you get to eat what you make.
Science has also taught me that when someone approaches you with a problem, you first need to confirm the problem. You don’t start an experiment without confirming you have the right materials, and you have to look at the data and complete an experiment before jumping to conclusions. This has helped me with many aspects of the business.
Who at Stony Brook inspired you on your journey?
Jerry Thomsen, my principal investigator throughout my PhD program, was a big source of inspiration because he loved science so enthusiastically. However, my journey at Stony Brook began many years before that. At 16, I was named a fellow in the Simons Summer Research Program for high-school students to get hands-on experience in STEM. I was so grateful that distinguished professor, Mary Kritzer, welcomed me as a 16-year-old student into her lab.
It’s really influential at that age to have grad students and medical students treat you like you’re smart and you belong. Before that program, I’m not sure I even realized it. In a lot of ways, that program led me on the path I’m on today. Not only did it help me to believe in my own abilities, but I was inspired by those around me. The medical students in the lab were all fluent in other languages, and so in a way, I think that may have inspired me to pursue learning Japanese. It was also because of the Simons fellowship that I knew I wanted to go to Stony Brook to complete my PhD.
From a mentor in the labs at Stony Brook to a friend of the College of Business, you’ve spent a good deal of time working with students. How has that impacted the way you work with your employees?
I treat my team the same way I treated the undergrads I mentored in the lab. I try to give them enough skills to do things on their own, knowing they can come back to me with questions. I think everyone’s happier that way. I want all of our employees to leave here with skills. So when we troubleshoot or come up with a solution to something, I tell them to update their resume with these transferable skills.
What is one thing that you think people would be surprised to learn about your work?
I spent five years living in Japan, which meant I inadvertently spent five years seeing how westerners reacted to Japan and Japanese food. So when we opened Slurp Ramen, I realized that I had a skillset to make our restaurant better. I had a good idea of what people really liked, which played a huge role in developing our menu.
One of the things I love about our restaurant is that the food has always been genuinely Japanese. I knew we could do that from the very beginning. That comes from living in the country and wanting to do right by it.
What inspired you to live in Japan?
As an undergrad, I ended up taking a Japanese class just for fun. I did well and decided to take the next course. My Japanese teacher told me about a summer school program in Japan where you could live with a Japanese family for two months, so I went between my sophomore and junior year and had the best summer. After that, I knew I had to go back. So as a fifth-year student, I went to study abroad in Japan. That was how I met my husband.
We have to ask, what is your favorite thing on the menu at Slurp Ramen?
The chicken buns and the Ika-Age (deep-fried Japanese calamari) are two of my favorites. In addition, we just came out with a new paitan chicken ramen, a full-bodied chicken soup that still tastes like ramen rather than an American chicken soup. I’m really excited about it.
How have you kept your business successful during the COVID-19 pandemic?
The PhD program at Stony Brook taught me always to be prepared and ready to troubleshoot. Before we opened Slurp Ramen, we talked about our bottlenecks and what could hurt us. So, before the pandemic even hit, we were prepared. And because I had worked in a lab and done sterile cell culture work, I used that knowledge to make it as safe as I could. We had plastic barriers up before the state issued guidance.
Another thing that prepared us was the infrastructure we already had in place. I went in wanting to make everyone’s life easier. So before the pandemic hit, we had a cloud-based cash register system with functionality that became very useful during COVID. It could do things like sending customers a text when their order was ready, which suddenly became very helpful in keeping crowds low in the store. Also, by chance, our chip reader broke in January 2020. Instead of replacing it, we decided to upgrade to a touchless card system, which turned out to be incredibly fortuitous timing.
My dad used to say luck is when preparation meets opportunity, so we were prepared, not knowing we were preparing for a pandemic.
What advice would you give to entrepreneurial students looking to follow in your footsteps?
Take some action. Take that daydream and start making it real by sketching it out on paper. At this point, you might just have a bunch of questions, and that’s OK. That’s how research starts. If you can talk to someone who’s done it, talk to them. Call some suppliers. Price out your costs. The more you explore, the more concrete your idea will become. It doesn’t mean you have to spend any money; start by figuring out what it will really take to start your business and you’ll lower your risks.
So, what’s next for you?
There are so many places to grow. I don’t know whether that means making the business I have better, opening a second restaurant or exploring a new idea. So, I guess what’s next is growth. Do I know in what direction? I can’t wait to find out!
— Kristen Brennan