Back in 2018, Johnny Chen, a Wilmington restaurateur, took a trip to Japan. During his time there, he was inspired by the country’s food, notably ramen. He was intrigued and fell in love with it, and upon returning home spent time researching ramen.
“He wanted to investigate more and he took heart to it and fell in love with it,” said Eliza Santos, an associate of Chen’s.
Today, Chen is a serial restaurateur in Wilmington. He’s been the owner of Nikki’s Hibachi Steakhouse since 2002, an award-winning Japanese sushi restaurant with several locations across the Wilmington area. In addition, Chen is a sushi master chef and owns a product distribution center, which distributes Japanese food products throughout North Carolina and South Carolina.
After returning from Japan, Chen decided to take his newfound knowledge and interest in ramen and open a ramen shop in Wilmington. Chen and Santos, who also doubles as a real estate agent with RE/MAX Essential and helps Chen scout out new business locations, brainstormed ideas and created Fun Bowl. Its menu boasts various ramen options, poke bowls, boba, crab rangoons, and vegetable spring rolls, and is established in downtown Wilmington on Front Street.
In October 2023, Chen expanded and opened another Fun Bowl location in Landfall. The new location occupies a former Starbucks, but because of the building design, the appliances needed to make ramen cannot be installed. So, the menu is exclusively poke and boba tea.
The upside is the Fun Bowl Landfall location has an expanded boba tea menu, including slushy boba tea, fresh juice boba tea, and milk and tea-based boba tea. Some flavors are only available at the Landfall location. This change has also allowed Chen to leverage his poke selection more with its bestseller being the pork belly fun bowl.
“He makes that pork right there in his big steamer from scratch,” Santos said. “He ferments it, and he cooks it in there for 20 hours until the meat is coming off the bones. He also makes the noodles from scratch at that location. Everything, down to the ingredients, down to the sauces, down to the broth, is made from scratch at that location.”
On the horizon, Chen will open his third Fun Bowl location in Monkey Junction in February 2024. Chen intends to open six or seven Fun Bowl locations in the Wilmington area, stretching from Hampstead to Porters Neck.
"Really, as the demand becomes available, that’s how we’ll execute and continue opening,” Santos said. “We’ll see what the future holds.”
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