Today we chat with Tom Mukoyama, co-owner of Tonbo Ramen in downtown Raleigh.
This Q&A is a part of our series called interviews with locals where we interview local Raleigh business owners and entrepreneurs to share their story with our community.
Where did you grow up and go to School? How long have you lived in Raleigh?
I was born in New Jersey but was raised in North Carolina and consider Charlotte my hometown. In ’82, I moved to Raleigh to attend NC State University and have continued to live here for the past 39 years!
How did you get into the industry you are in now?
I worked several different part-time jobs while in high school/college, but most jobs were in the restaurant industry.
I’ve gone from flipping burgers and hot dogs in fast-food to flipping lemons and shrimp tails at Kanki. Once I landed at Kanki, my career evolved naturally. Opening Tonbo was the next step as an owner/operator.
Give us your 30 second elevator pitch for your business?
I’m Tom Mukoyama and I’m a co-owner of Tonbo Ramen. At Tonbo, we do authentic ramen made from scratch. Each bowl is crafted in an open kitchen where you can see us prepare your ramen bowl from start to finish.
You choose from one of our slow cooked ramen broths including our signature pork bone Tonkostu broth, a light soy Shoyu broth, or a pure vegetarian option broth.
We have a seafood ramen and a “broth-less” dish too! Each bowl is prepared with toppings that pair well with the different ramen noodles and different broths.
Berkshire pork belly, dumplings, seafood, and even a fried chicken quarter are some of the toppings available.
Upstairs, we have a cozy Izakaya (Japanese small plate) bar where we serve craft cocktails, sake, Japanese whiskey, cold beer and even “adult” slushies. The Izakaya menu consists of small plates that are great for sharing.
Popular items are the pork belly buns, soy marinated crispy chicken, and spicy tender miso wings that are grilled over an open flame.
For dessert, we have matcha mochi doughnuts served with chocolate ganache and a blackberry apple brandy sauce or a savory ice cream made from black sesame seeds and served with a bit of waffle for fun.
Most popular item that you sell at your business?
The Tonkotsu ramen bowl – the broth is a slow cooked pork bone broth that we simmer for 20+ hours. It’s served with a specialty heritage Berkshire pork belly and house-made pork/shrimp dumplings.
The ramen noodle is a straight white wheat noodle (vs yellow curly) that balances with the broth. A soft cooked soy egg and some roasted root vegetables complete this dish.
Your favorite item that you sell at your business?
I love the Izakaya Chicken Karage. (It’s Tonbo’s version of a chicken nuggets/popcorn chicken).
We deep fry marinated chicken pieces in a potato starch batter that gives it a crisp but light texture. It’s served with a side of Shishito Pepper Ranch sauce. I love a cold draft beer and crispy chicken!
What would a traveler learn about Raleigh by coming to your business?
The traveler would see that Raleigh is more than just barbecue and coleslaw.
As one of just a few dedicated ramen shops in Raleigh, we try to create ramen and izakaya dishes that a seasoned traveler would recognize and appreciate the dish’s authenticity; but we also like to show our North Carolina roots by adding items like pork/shrimp dumplings to ramen or our crispy JFC (Japanese Fried Chicken) with a bowl of “broth-less” mazemen ramen.
If you had a friend visiting, where in Raleigh would you take them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?
Assuming we’re past the pandemic and the restaurants in our area resume “normal” seating and menus: The Morning Times for breakfast – corned beef and hash; Beasley’s Chicken and Honey for lunch – chicken, mac and cheese, banana pudding; Capital Grille for dinner – great service and my daughter’s favorite mashed potatoes.
Best thing about living in Raleigh?
Raleigh has been a great place to raise my family. Good safe schools, interesting parks (Pullen Park and Durant Nature Preserve are our favorites), good shopping, relatively easy access to the beach and the mountains, good job opportunities and a good network of medical facilities have made family life here a little easier.
Also, except for some recent events of 2020, I feel very safe living in Raleigh.
Least favorite thing about living in Raleigh?
I would like more mass transit options. I’m a big fan of light rail systems that other metropolitan areas use to open up different areas of their respective cities.
A rail system that would go from the PNC Arena/Fairgrounds area to Downtown and beyond would open new opportunities.
How did you pivot in your business during the 2020 pandemic?
Like most restaurants, we focused hard on takeout sales. Ramen does not naturally carry well as a takeout item; however, my team found creative ways to keep up the quality of the food without adding too much cost to the process.
A strong social media campaign has been instrumental in letting our customers know that takeout is an option.
In hindsight, what do you wish you had in place before the pandemic hit to better prepare for it and survive it?
I would have pushed harder for outdoor seating during the construction/design phase of Tonbo.
Who knew social distancing would have been so important 3 years ago! Limitations to our storefront prohibit us from providing outdoor/sidewalk seating.
Can’t miss experience/attraction in Raleigh?
Tailgating and a hockey game. Going to a hockey game while it’s 90+ degrees outside seems strange but can be loads of fun, especially during the playoffs!
Your favorite business in Raleigh that you like to frequent?
(I want to say the gym but that would be false….) When going to the movies was still a thing, we would go to the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and get dinner and a movie. They have a surprisingly diverse menu, cold beer, and adult milkshakes. Yum!
What are you reading right now?
“Ready Player Two” by Ernest Cline and “The Gaijin Cookbook” by Ivan Orkin (Ivan Ramen)
What is one book every budding entrepreneur should read?
“Setting the Table” by Danny Meyer.
What excites you the most about doing business in Raleigh over the next 5-10 years?
The food diversity in our area continues to grow and get better. When I first moved to the Triangle there were only a handful of places to get sushi; now, there are hundreds of places to get sushi.
With the abundance of media sources and dedicated food networks, expectations for diverse and better food are higher than ever. Raleigh has a good share of award-winning chefs and owners who are setting high marks for our industry.
What concerns you the most about doing business in Raleigh over the next 5-10 years?
As 2020 has shown us, the dining habits for many of us have changed dramatically. Our industry has taken a huge hit and I’m not sure how long it will be before we know what the new normal will be.
Which local Raleigh entrepreneur inspires you to do better?
Van Eure of the Angus Barn. She and Steve Thanhauser have been able to keep their restaurant relevant and on the top of the game for decades.
If you had $1 million dollars to donate to a charity, who would you give it to and why?
I would donate to the Green Chair Project. A friend introduced me to this organization through a fundraiser his building sponsors annually.
The Green Chair Project reuses essential furnishings donated by our community to help neighbors in need facing the challenges of homelessness, crisis or disaster.
Lives change when families and individuals are nurtured and sustained in well-equipped homes.” As someone who loves a good night’s rest, I can appreciate what a real comfortable bed could mean.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to start a business in Raleigh?
Believe in yourself. Focus on maintaining your vision. Build a strong team and do the research.
I’m very fortunate to have partners who shared in the belief that we could make a ramen shop viable in Raleigh.
What is your favorite task that you perform in your business each day?
Interacting with guests. There’s something very gratifying when I see guests truly enjoying themselves and understanding what ramen and izakaya is all about!
Which activity do you hate most doing in your business each day?
Answering emails is my least favorite part of the day.
Drink of choice? Where in Raleigh do you get it?
A Buffalo Trace Old Fashioned or a good cup of coffee.
Watts & Ward is my favorite bar. The Morning Times has great coffee but I miss the upstairs seating area; their corned beef and hash with a nice cup o’ joe was my go-to meal while doing construction on Tonbo.
How do you relax and destress?
Game night/poker night with friends is a favorite activity; albeit it’s been over a year since we’ve been able to get together.
Lately, it’s been spending time with the family and catching up on some streaming shows and movies we’ve missed over the years.
What is your “WHY” for doing what you do?
Tonbo Ramen started as a passion project but more importantly, it was a start on how we can break out of our mold and create a successful restaurant business “outside of the box”.
2020 put some of our momentum on hold but we’re still working towards successfully building other concepts that will help our company grow and give opportunities for our staff to grow as well.
Do you plan on retiring?
Maybe someday. I’d like to open a breakfast place on the coast and open 3 or 4 days a week during the summer months. Winters would be spent back here in Raleigh on a golf course.
Favorite getaway spot in North Carolina?
We vacation at least once a year on the Outer Banks. I love sitting under an umbrella on a relatively uncrowded beach with a good book and a slight breeze.
We also love frequenting some of our favorite eateries; ironically, one of our favorite Thai restaurants is in Kitty Hawk!
Favorite American city?
New York City – My sister lives in Hoboken and my wife’s family are from Queens. The two areas are culturally worlds apart but only a short train ride from each other.
Favorite international city/country? Or dream destination?
Although I am of Japanese descent, I have never been to Japan. I would love to visit Tokyo and eat at new ramen shops daily!
When you hear the words “THIS IS RALEIGH” what comes to mind?
I think of the culture that sets us apart from other areas of North Carolina. I think of oak trees and parks, soccer fields, professional sports, museums, hospitals, colleges, shopping, “big box” restaurants and little ramen shops like Tonbo Ramen!
Go say hi to Tom and tell him This Is Raleigh sent you: