Shiba Cafe hits the mark in Hancock

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette The traditional bowl — wheat noodle, pork broth, pork belly, egg, bean sprouts, fish cake and oyster mushrooms — was many of many options on the menu during the soft opening of the Shiba Cafe Friday and Saturday.

HANCOCK — From building their own ramen bowl to enjoying mochi ice cream balls for dessert, diners got their first taste of the Keweenaw’s newest restaurant.

Shiba Cafe, a new ramen house in Hancock, held a soft opening Friday and Sunday. It will share space with the Griffin Cafe in Hancock’s Skyline Commons.

Owner Zack Osborn came up with the idea around six months ago as a way to vertically integrate another business of his, Keweenaw Mushrooms.

“For me, instead of needing to sell mushrooms to a bunch of different locations, if I had just one restaurant, then I’d be perfect,” he said. “But the process of finding a restaurant who all of a sudden wants to make gourmet mushrooms the centerpiece of it, you need to do that from the ground up.”

He was approached by his neighbor Chee-Wooi Ten, a Michigan Technological University professor who had always dreamed of opening a ramen house.

“And I said, ‘If we ever had that one in a million of finding a place where we can get a good lease, good rent, have the equipment and not need to spend tens of thousands of dollars on infrastructure and inspections, let’s do it,'” he said.

Osborn got a lead through the Griffin Family Cafe, where he had gotten a part-time job as a cook as a way to gain cooking experience he could pass on to the children he teaches at Kaleidoscope, an alternative education program in Hancock.

After six months of working at Griffin Cafe, he realized there was plenty of open time for more business at the cafe, which closes at 3 p.m. He brought the proposal to Griffin Cafe of renting the space to operate out of during late afternoon and night.

It all coalesced within a month, Osborn said.

“Everything just kept aligning perfectly,” he said. “We kept getting yeses, no nos or anything like that, and that’s what you do. When you have opportunities, you seize it.”

Osborn’s mushrooms can be found throughout the menu as components of the bowls and in the appetizer selection, including a pan-fried mushroom sampler. People can also buy several varieties of mushrooms fried or by the pound.

Friday’s menu was developed through experience. Osborn saw what the Kaleidoscope kids liked. He took what he’d seen from the public during a mushroom cooking demonstration at the Portage Lake District Library. He also looked at what he enjoyed making.

Already, he’d seen some surprises. The Yooper Bowl, which combines pork belly and tenderloin steak with egg and green onion, had an unconventional recipe for a ramen restaurant. Osborn had assumed it would be the third-most popular of the bundle bowls. Instead, it sold as many as the other bowls combined.

With items priced at half-off, diners were more willing to forgive the occasional first-weekend hiccups, Osborn said. Between now and the opening in June, the staff will streamline the process.

“That’s where the soft open has just been such a great success, because now we know exactly what the public wants,” he said. “And when we come back with a grand opening, I think we’re going to have something that is on par with any other professional ramen house that’s been operating for years.”

One bottleneck Friday came from the time it took to cook noodles. The restaurant is getting hooked up to gas prior to the full opening, which will allow them to get dishes out faster, Osborn said.

The former hospital business isn’t equipped with the right level of gas to do that, Osborn said. However, Moyle, which bought the building this year, told him it plans to remodel and bring in a new gas line.

“Now we’ll have a noodle cooker that will take 20 gallons of water and bring it to boiling in four minutes, something you’re just never going to do with electric without starting a fire in your electrical box somewhere,” Osborn said.

Osborn plans to open the restaurant June 8. While there are still kinks in the recipe and backroom process to work out, he said feedback during the opening night had been overwhelmingly positive.

“I think once those kinks are worked out, we’re going to have really the gem of Hancock, and something that’s going to give not only tourists something they weren’t expecting, but the locals as well, who may have gotten a little bit tired of pasties, cheeseburgers or fried chicken,” he said. “Now they have an opportunity to change it up every now and again, and get a little bit of a taste of Asian fusion cuisine.”

Guests Friday liked what they’d tasted.

Michigan Technological University student Maxim Reuschlein said it had “the best dumplings in town.” He came with Anna Dijkstra, who had seen a picture of the Shiba Cafe poster on a friend’s phone and decided to check it out.

It’s one of the few places where she’s been able to find reliable gluten-free food in town, she said.

Reuschlein said he plans to support the restaurant when it opens permanently.

“We haven’t had a ramen place at all, so I’m excited,” he said.

Erik and Belinda Copeland tried a bit of everything Friday, getting a Yooper Bowl and building their own bowl, plus every appetizer.

“As a mushroom fanatic, they were fantastic,” said Erik Copeland, the head chef at Michigan Technological University Dining Services.

Asked for a favorite, he said, “I’m going to try them each five or six dozen more times to really figure out exactly which. They were all fantastic.”


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