Tastemakers 2019: Jeff Tsao, Owner of Fukuryu Ramen
The son of Michael and Alice Tsao, owners of the iconic Columbus dining destination The Kahiki Supper Club, Jeff Tsao pivoted from working in their frozen foods division to opening Fukuryu Ramen in Upper Arlington in 2016.
Why He’s a Tastemaker: Tsao’s modern, casual and colorful ramen shop, Fukuryu Ramen, consistently puts out some of the city’s best bowls of ramen, with flavor-packed, house-made broths and locally sourced noodles. After launching his first Fukuryu (meaning “lucky dragon”) in Melbourne, Australia, in 2014, Tsao took a chance on his hometown, opening shops in Upper Arlington and Dublin’s Bridge Park, with more on the way.
Learning from the Legacy: Anyone dining out in Columbus in the late 20th century will remember The Kahiki, with its sweeping roofline, fish tanks, rain forests and colorful Polynesian cocktails. Jeff Tsao grew up in that culture. “It was another world,” he recalls. “It was a great place, a lot of people remember it.” Tsao’s father, who operated the famous Trader Vic’s tiki restaurant in California, was brought on board by Kahiki owner Mitch Boich. After taking full ownership, Tsao’s parents developed a frozen foods line, which they continued after the restaurant closed in 2000. Tsao worked in product development and then attended the Culinary Institute of America. (“Cameron Mitchell wrote my letter of recommendation,” he says.) He then worked his way through the kitchens to front-of-house management with the Four Seasons hotel group in Boston and San Francisco.
Designed for Scale: As his contract with Kahiki Foods wound down, Tsao was approached by the owners of a ramen chain in Japan. They chose him to develop a Western version of the chain. “We found a location in downtown Melbourne, up a flight of stairs, down an alleyway,” Tsao says. “In Melbourne, people love these little finds. When we opened, we had a line of people down the stairs, out of the alleyway. Now there are a dozen ramen places in that two-block radius.” Tsao brought the concept back to his hometown in 2016 with the express goal of expansion. “Our business was designed from the ground up to be scalable,” he says. “From the recipes to the training to the backend IT.” He is eyeing a third location in Columbus, as well as a central kitchen for the company. (“I see my real estate agent more than I see my wife,” he jokes.) Once he establishes the kitchen, Tsao will seek owner-partners to operate future locations.
A Focus on the Experience: It seems almost inevitable that Tsao would wind up operating a restaurant. “There was no spider bite, no lightning bolt, it was osmosis,” he says. “Everything in everyone’s life—they take all that knowledge and come up with something.” Tsao is taking his lifelong exposure to food and hospitality and is creating a similar positive experience at his ramen shops. “We’re sharing the joy, the flavor, the excitement that comes with ramen,” he says.
Previous gigs: Product development with Kahiki Foods; management at Four Seasons hotel group
Recommended reading: “Crucial Conversations” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler
Always in his fridge: “A bottle of Champagne, just in case. There’s always something to celebrate.”
Go-to Columbus spot: Buckeye Pho. “My wife loves that place; the owner, Max, is a good friend.”