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N.J. ramen shop owner relaunched as nonprofit to hire back staff

After his restaurants closed, one owner launched a nonprofit pop-up to bring free meals to first responders and hospital employees.
Image: Luck Sarabhayavanija, who turned a ramen joint into a nonprofit restaurant.
Luck Sarabhayavanija, who turned a ramen joint into a nonprofit restaurant.Jun Cen / for NBC News

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Luck Sarabhayavanija closed one restaurant but opened another.

The owner of a line of New Jersey eateries called Ani Ramen, Sarabhayavanija wanted to help first responders and health care workers. So after he temporarily closed his business, he launched a nonprofit pop-up restaurant that will offer customers discounted Thai rotisserie chicken and pizza — and donate meals to those working on the front lines.

"We get to feed our first responders that are sacrificing their health, their time with their family, so we could be at home safe," Sarabhayavanija told NBC Asian America.

Starting in Jersey City on April 24, the new pop-ups, Rock City Pizza Co. and Bang Bang Chicken, began serving the Thai chicken dish kai yang and Detroit-style pizzas for under $20. While ordering, customers will be asked to donate. For $6, Sarabhayavanija will provide a free pizza to front-line workers, and for $8, a whole chicken meal. Customers can also donate directly through Ani Ramen’s website.

After initially closing all his locations, Sarabhayavanija laid off his staff. But with the newly launched Rock City Pizza Co. and Bang Bang Chicken, he has been able to hire some of them back. Upper-level managers have cut their salaries by half to hire the staff back, though Sarabhayavanija said a number volunteered to help out. Any profits made from the pizza and chicken sales will go back into the operation.

The nonprofit also offered free pizzas and chicken to those who are struggling financially.

"You'll be able to walk by and grab a whole chicken or pizza and just keep going," he said. "No questions asked."

Before launching the nonprofit, Sarabhayavanija and his team also created 15,000 free ramen meal kits and distributed them at Ani Ramen locations in Maplewood, Montclair and Jersey City.

"You looked at the line, and it was everybody," he said. "There were people there who were like, 'I don't have a job next month,' or 'Look, this week, I have to decide between utilities or rent.'"

As he quickly realized, ramen doesn’t travel well, which is one reason why Sarabhayavanija switched to pizza and chicken. He teamed up with Be Awesome to Somebody, a nonprofit founded by celebrity hairstylist Mark Bustos, and also enlisted former NFL player Victor Cruz, radio personality Skeery Jones and hip-hop producer and DJ Just Blaze as brand ambassadors.

But it hasn’t always been easy.

Sarabhayavanija said that when Gov. Phil Murphy instituted a 10 p.m. curfew for bars and restaurants in the state last month, Ani Ramen saw a decline of more than 50 percent.

But Sarabhayavanija was willing to take a risk.

"If we can help you with a couple bowls of ramen or a pizza or rotisserie, then we're doing our part as a community,” he said. “If everyone chips in a little bit, it won't be as daunting. It won't be as heavy a lift once we get out of this."

This story is part of our Asian Pacific American Heritage Month series, "AAPI Frontline," honoring essential workers who are serving their communities during the coronavirus pandemic. Read more here.

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