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Ross Kamens: Noodles & Co.

Ross Kamens' skiing buddies are mad at him. Ever since he became the executive chef of a chain aiming to grow to 315 locations in the next five years, he just doesn't have time for the slopes anymore.

"I came to Aspen to be a ski bum," admits Kamens, executive chef of the upscale-quickservice Noodles & Co. So what shifted Kamens' focus from mountains to menus? "I'm always up for a challenge," he says.

In this case, his challenge was of the black-diamond variety. Like other menu planners, he faced familiar mandates—the need for uniqueness and variety. Unlike them, he had a few other hurdles: The Noodles menu had to be, you guessed it, 100% noodles, which are hard to execute in a fast-food environment. His menu would also have to please differing palates all over the country.

The chain would in fact essentially be staking its entire fortune on a single ingredient. It risked being dismissed as a Chinese takeout joint. It risked the veto vote from people who didn't want to eat pasta. And for those who did, Kamens had to stay within the parameters of the noodle while still providing enough variety to encourage return business—but refrain from offering dishes strange enough to discourage it.

It's a good thing that Kamens, true to ski bum traditions, had already done his share of traveling—and much further than Colorado. It had been co-CEO Aaron Kennedy's original "epiphany" to build a "global noodle shop," and Kamens (whom Kennedy plucked from a job cooking at an Aspen resort) was a fortuitous find: the globe was already his turf.

"I've always traveled to understand more about a country's food and culture," Kamens says, and his method was pretty straightforward: Wherever he went, he watched the locals make dinner. He'd wandered freely into to hotel kitchens in India to learn about curries and spice, and schooled himself in Thai cookery aboard a dive-boat in the Similan Islands off the coast of Burma. Kamens' travelogue read like a geography textbook—he toured Japan, Malaysia, India, Mexico, Nepal, and Thailand, internalizing the cuisines of all.

Hence, when Kennedy gave Kamens his mission ("Bring the menu to life"), he had quite a lot to draw from. The result: a menu sporting an international roll call of Japanese Pan Noodles, Roma Tomato Marinara, Indonesian Peanut Sauté, Mushroom Stroganoff, Mediterranean Noodle Salad, and other globally-influenced dishes.

Adhering to his theme, Kamens didn't turn his nose up at domestic pasta, either. American classics like Wisconsin Mac & Cheese and Chicken Noodle Soup stand along side exotic offerings from the other side of the planet.

Does that strike customers as strange? Not according to Kamens, who claims the unorthodox variety has become key to the way the chain defines itself. "The international variety is our own niche that stands us apart from others," he says.

The diverse offerings, Kamens says, also provide for the broad appeal Noodles strives for. He sees the menu's eclecticism as a draw for families with differing appetites and tastes. A guest can get as edgy or traditional as he or she wants. "Mom can get a Spicy Peanut Salad. Dad can get some Japanese Pan Noodles with beef. And the kids can get Buttered Noodles or Mac & Cheese."

"The main menu is unique because it's almost purely vegetarian," Kamens explains. "But we please meat-eaters as well with our protein add-ons that allow the diner to customize each dish." That customization will cost them extra. Chicken, beef, tofu, or shrimp can be added once the patron ponies up another $1.45-$1.95. The whole arrangement keeps food costs low and margins high, though Kennedy says that's a matter of degree. "Contrary to popular belief, our food cost is not extraordinarily low," he says. "We pay for ingredients from all over the world."

There are fiscal benefits, of course, but Kennedy says that's not the sole aim. "It's more than just upping the average check, "he says. "The add-ons are giving customers an opportunity to order exactly what they want."

And they take him up on it. Of the estimated 16,500 bowls of noodles the chain serves each day, over 40% of them are ordered with add-ons. "The add-ons obviously raise the price point for customers," says senior director of operations, Marco Macchiaroli. "But with the premium ingredients we use for our menu, the customers say it's worth the extra cost."

For better or worse, committing the chain to the variety that Kamens has established means staying in continuous touch with that world. Chicago, New York, and San Francisco have all been invaded by Kamens & Co. as they seek inspiration at the latest, and the oldest, noodle shops in the country.

"It's a wide open realm," Kamens says. "We're looking to tweak existing menu items and start from scratch with a new one." So which ethnicity will the new dish be based on? Kamens says that although many requests for an Alfredo dish have been made, he feels that's a bit passé. "We're more progressive and innovative than that," he says. Instead, he's tinkering with a roasted tomato cream dish that he predicts will be as popular as the current top-sellers, Japanese Pan Noodles and Mac & Cheese. Another goal for Kamens is strengthening his role as Keeper of Quality. "I make sure that as this chain grows, the menu will improve, not homogenize or become stagnant," he says.

Oh, and he'd also like to hit the slopes more if he has time.

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