- Friends and business partners Manville Chan and Jeff Parsons began hosting ramen-making classes in San Francisco to earn money while Chan looked for a new job in tech.
- After starting to share their courses on Airbnb Experience, Chan and Parsons have scaled their business and now receive the majority of their bookings through their own website.
- They run two to four classes every day, including most weekends, in a space they purchased from a former barbeque restaurant.
- Chan estimated that his full-time business brings in $60,000 to $100,000 in revenue per month.
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Manville Chan and Jeff Parsons started hosting Italian dinners on culinary experience platform EatWith while living in Texas in 2014. At the time they pursued this side gig, Chan worked as a product manager at a small tech firm and Parsons worked in communications.
“With EatWith, I had three-course/five-course inventive Italian dinners. Both included pasta as one of the courses,” Chan said. “I’ve always loved to cook and have always been passionate about Italian food, especially pasta.”
After Chan was laid off as part of a series of job cuts, he moved to San Francisco in December 2017 in search of a new job. “I thought, San Francisco is where the tech jobs are, so I’ll look there,” Chan said. Around the same time, Parsons’ company relocated him to San Francisco to oversee West Coast operations of the firm.
Chan didn’t have many connections in the area, so he and Parsons decided to continue to host a cooking class so that Chan could “get by” while out of a job.
However, instead of pasta, they decided to host a ramen-making tutorial.
“Switching to ramen was an idea that I first came up with in January 2017. At the time, I realized that ‘just serving dinner’ does not provide value added to customers to demand a higher price for a small-scale operation. So I came up with some cooking ideas. Ramen was one of them, and it took off,” Chan said.
He and Parsons set up the ramen cooking class as an Airbnb Experience in Chan’s San Francisco apartment. The experience became so popular that, in July 2018, Chan decided to abandon his search for a full-time tech job in San Francisco and take on the project full-time. He expanded the business beyond Airbnb and named it The Story of Ramen. Individuals can book the class through the business’s website or through Airbnb.
“When we started, neither Jeff nor I were professionally trained in ramen making,” Chan said. “No one complained, but since then, we did go to a ramen school to become trained.”
Airbnb Experiences are activities coordinated and led by “local hosts” around the globe. They include everything from cooking classes, like Chan and Parsons’ experience, to photo shoots across New York City. They can be a good avenue for small business owners like Chan because Airbnb provides advertising for the classes offered through its site. Experiences can also offer full-time employees an opportunity to start and grow a side gig.
Initially, Chan received 64% of his bookings through Airbnb. Now that his class is more well known in San Francisco, he receives the majority of them through his company’s website. His class remains on Airbnb, and he receives many bookings from people visiting the area through the platform, he said. Chan acts as the chief experience officer of The Story of Ramen, and Parsons as the chief marketing officer.
“We applied to do the Airbnb Experience soon after the experience platform launched, so the application was quite simple,” Chan told Business Insider. The application asked for a description of the experience he wanted to host, he recalled, and for his credentials.
In his application, he described the pasta dinners he’d hosted in Texas through EatWith and linked to reviews of the class. Within about four weeks of applying, he and Parsons received a short interview with Airbnb.
“The interview was about 20 minutes and informal,” Parsons said. “They wanted to hear more about our expertise and what we offered that was unique.”
Airbnb approved the experience approximately three to five weeks after the interview. Chan noted that, at the time, the “Airbnb Experience team was very small and they were short staffed in processing applications.” Since then, he said, the team has grown.
Parsons and Chan started hosting the ramen classes in Chan’s apartment, which could only fit 10 to 12 people. Wanting to move the experience outside of Chan’s personal space, they eventually began renting another apartment in San Francisco to host the class. But when landlords learned about the experience, they had to set up shop elsewhere — again and again and again.
“People kept asking the neighbors where the experience was, and eventually some of them reported it to the building, and we could no longer run it there,” Chan said. “We have rented out a lot of pop-up spaces around the city, but the landlords would often find out.”
A year and a half ago, Chan and Parsons moved into their current location, a former barbeque restaurant. Including the leftover equipment, they spent $150,000 to sign the lease. In June 2019, Chan saved up enough to buy the space and now owns it with a mortgage.
Chan and Parsons run anywhere from two to four ramen-making experiences almost every day of the week. Each class lasts approximately two hours and typically includes 24 people. Some of these individuals book through Airbnb Experience, where the class is priced at $60 per person, and others book through Chan’s website, where the class is listed at $55 per person. Airbnb takes a 20% cut for each booking made through their platform.
“When guests come in, we immediately serve them potstickers as appetizers,” Chan said. “Then they wash their hands and we talk a little bit about the background of ramen and the ingredients that we use. Then we start making noodles from scratch, and after that, we go into the kitchen and cook the noodles.”
Chan emphasized that people often sign up for these types of experiences with friends or as a group, so to ensure friends have time to bond, they end with a mochi dessert. He also makes the class highly customizable through his website. “If someone has a birthday, they can tell us online in advance and we can serve birthday cake at the end,” Chan said.
“We think the business that we do is the future of dining in creating an experience around food,” Parsons shared. ” We don’t look at ourselves as a cooking class or a traditional restaurant. We are right in the middle, where we want you to have an experience around the food you are eating, and in our case, we’re going to teach you how to make the ramen.”
Chan and Parsons currently run advertisements for their website on Yelp. Besides those ads, they rely on word of mouth, Airbnb, and search engine optimization to keep their experience booked.
“We put all of the information on the help page,” Chan said. “We have our gluten-free policy, our policy on bringing pets, our policy on children, and so on. The more information you have, the more people you pick up with Google, so that’s how we increase our reach.”
Chan said when they first started, their clients were mostly city visitors or locals looking for a new experience. Now, 70% of their business is from corporate teams in San Francisco, like Uber and Lyft, who are looking for some team bonding.
“A lot of companies tell me they don’t have to just pick a restaurant or a bar for the team bonding because everyone will just eat and drink,” Chan said. “They want something more engaging. Making noodles and working as a team is interactive and engaging.”
For these corporate bookings, they often charge as much as $75 per person or $115 for an extended four-hour class, which is cheaper than most other cooking classes, he added.
Chan estimates that the business brings in $60,000 to $100,000 in revenue per month, depending on how many classes he runs in a given month. Some of this revenue also comes from gift cards purchased on his website, especially around the holidays.
“In December, gift cards were 20% of our total revenue. We sold $21,000 worth of gift cards that month,” Chan said.
Monthly costs — which include the mortgage, updating equipment, and buying food — fall between $40,000 and $50,000, according to Chan; for an individual class, he estimated the price of food per person to be $7.
For those looking to open their own experiences on Airbnb, Chan suggested scaling the business early. “I have met with a lot of Airbnb hosts with amazing reviews, but some say they can only have six people per class. That makes it hard to make it your full-time job,” Chan said.
Parsons recommended maintaining a “good reputation.” Once that is achieved, he suggested taking a risk and “scaling the operations up.”
“This could be done by hiring temp staff and renting pop-up locations,” he said. “Also, keep thinking how to get a bigger group to join rather than individuals. In our case, we found corporate team building business as our sweet spot.”
As The Story of Ramen grows more, Chan and Parsons are hoping to step away from teaching and focus on building franchises outside of San Francisco. “But it’s not easy to find someone on the street who can teach ramen, so we are still teaching now,” Chan said.