Unconventional dining options attract willing patrons at Umami Ramen in Battle Creek

Peecoon Allen fully believed that Battle Creek residents here were ready for totally unexpected dining options.

Based on the lines that have become a daily occurrence at Umami Ramen since it opened Nov. 3, Allen’s instincts were spot on.

"It’s gone exactly the way I had envisioned it in my mind," says Allen on a recent Sunday inside the eatery she owns at 78 Calhoun Street.  "I think it’s because we’re offering food people may see on the 'Cooking Channel' or read about in 'Bon Appetit', but have not had the opportunity to be exposed to like kimchi and pho.”

The most frequently-asked question Allen gets from customers is "What is kimchi?" The answer: a traditional fermented Korean side dish made with vegetables such as Napa cabbage or daikon radishes and any number of spices. 

"They think it’s something they want to try, but they don’t know how to cook it or where to get it," says Allen’s husband, Lance.

Despite not knowing, he says customers are willing to try it which speaks to the trust placed in his wife’s culinary talents.  

Food items listed on the simple chalkboard menu are a reflection of what Peecoon Allen likes on her plate, not one specific cuisine.

"The way I decided on my menu is what I personally would want to eat," she says. "You don’t usually see falafel or naan on an Asian menu. But I’m not Malaysian and I have that type of food and I’m not Japanese, but what’s to stop me from making Japanese food?”

Daily selections include egg rolls, Hawaiian sliders, and wontons or naan with falafel, chicken, tofu or wild mushroom and rice or ramen noodles served with or without broth with a choice of proteins such as chicken, pork belly, and shrimp. Vegetable options vary depending on freshness and among the list of toppings to finish noodle dishes are kimchi, sprouts, cilantro, basil, a sweet and sour pickle, garlic, and peanuts.

"You could have chicken and ramen every day," Peecoon Allen says. "That dish becomes different every time with the garnish which adds different spice levels and intensity.”

For those who are open to trying new things, Lance Allen says he recommends asking for the "House Way" which is a combination of garnishes. "You may never have thought to put pickles in soup or garlic in ramen, we’re giving people choices," he says. 

Even though the menu contains a number of Asian-inspired items, he says he discourages labeling it an "Asian" restaurant, preferring instead to say that it’s a "ramen shop that branched out" to include what he and his wife like to eat.

Peecon Allen says nothing on Umami’s menu board or website alludes to "traditional" food. "I don’t like to put a box around the food I prepare."

This refusal to embrace labels or conformity speaks to the unconventional path Allen took to opening a restaurant that most days keeps its staff of nine busy from its 10:30 a.m. opening until its 5 p.m. closing. Her mother and a French-trained Japanese chef were her mentors and her earliest teachers. The chef owned a restaurant in Indiana where Peecon waitressed and she credits him with teaching her the art of plating food.

She also spent time working with her brother who owns a Thai restaurant in Alabama called Thai One On, which features Thai and Asian Fusion cuisine.

But, it wasn’t until 2009 when she and her husband moved to Battle Creek that the idea of cooking for a living began percolating.  The couple relocated from Palm Springs, Calif., after Lance Allen accepted a position as Vice President of Table Games with Firekeepers Casino in Emmett Township. Peecoon Allen also was employed there as a Training Supervisor in the Human Resources department until a virus severely damaged her hearing and resulted in her decision to resign in 2012.

For one year she taught various forms of Yoga at Intentional Yoga in Kalamazoo and cooked every day.  She says what appears on Umami’s menu is a fraction of what she was cooking at home. It was around this same time that Lance Allen says he and his wife started evaluating the food options available in Battle Creek and noticed that there was nothing like the food his wife was preparing.

Feeling confident that the area’s residents would embrace her cooking, Peecoon Allen began preparing and selling food at the Springfield Farmers Market. About halfway through the selling season, she was contacted by organizers of the Battle Creek Farmers Market who offered her space there.  While a regular fixture at the market, she and her husband cooked for a sold out "Farm to Belly" event featuring locally sourced fare and catered local events.

A food truck seemed like the next logical step. Fortuitously, this was part of a business plan that Peecoon Allen had developed in 2009.

"I had a pretty solid plan for a Red Food Truck featuring locally-grown foods," she says.  "I can’t believe that plan I wrote is now a building.”

Allen says she settled on the vacant 978-square-foot building because of the neighborhood and its close proximity to the city’s downtown. The 69-year-old building has been home to several restaurants through the years.  The Allens purchased the building and restaurant equipment for $52,500 in January and invested an additional $5,000 in capital. 

Storage is already a challenge, says Lance Allen says as he pointed to a stainless steel refrigeration unit that sits against a wall in the main food prep and dining area.

The restaurant seats about 16 and communal dining is the norm for those who eat-in.  The majority of the more than 100 people served daily opt for take-out.

"People who only have a certain amount of time for lunch come in for take-out at 10:30 when we open," Peecoon Allen says.

Current customer favorites include ramen, loaded wontons, and egg rolls.  The noodles used in the restaurant’s dishes are produced in the Battle Creek area and the Allens try to use as much locally sourced product as possible.

Lance Allen says the restaurant’s success is a sign to him that the Battle Creek community is ready to embrace new ideas and move forward.

"My advice to others is don’t be afraid to start. "I'm 50.  It all works out," Peecoon Allen says. "It’s so much easier to start a business now because of all of the information and technology that’s out there now.”

There is a vision and a plan that she's not ready to talk about publicly just yet.  

"This building was always purchased as an incubator, not just for myself, but for the next person," she says. "My goal is to be here for two years and then incubate another business.”

Jane C. Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. 
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.