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BUSINESS MONDAY: Spotlight on Shiro Ramen & Market—“Meshiagare!” (bon appetit!)

While many new restaurants are opening up optimistically, others are struggling to support their staff and make a profit. Here’s the story of one establishment that has been feeding locals and visitors for 23 years.

“People come in every day and say, ‘I had no idea this place existed. How long have you been open?’ I’m constantly amazed by that, after being in business for 23 years and having the market since 2018.” — Harry Yu

“I’m a very traditional, hard-working guy,” begins Harry Yu, owner of Shiro Ramen & Market in Great Barrington. “But I’ve been taught by hard reality when it comes to running a restaurant business.” That reality has forced him to make challenging choices to stay alive in a town where locals are having an equally hard time keeping up with inflation and tourism from out-of-towners is often dependent on the weather.

“I can diagnose the problem,” he continues, “but I don’t know the cure.” This “hard reality” is a growing problem for many Berkshire restaurants, given that food and housing costs continue to rise, employees disappear, and expectations exceed what any owner/manager can hope to provide and still stay in business. As Yu readily acknowledges, “I cannot be the only one who feels this way.”

While many new restaurants are opening up optimistically, others are struggling to support their staff and make a profit. Though the warning bells have been sounding, and loyal locals are making great efforts to keep their favorite places open, our “hard reality” as customers is that unless we start stepping up more consistently, the doors may continue closing.

Coming to America

Encouraged by his father to leave his home country, Harry Yu moved to the U.S. at age 24, filled with “the American dream” most immigrants carry on their journey here—and the belief that leaving China would provide greater freedom and possibilities.

Hearing that Cantonese speakers on the West Coast often looked down on those who spoke Mandarin (referred to as putonghua or the “common language” by residents of Hong Kong and southern provinces), Yu spent his first year in New York City and other spots up and down the East Coast. During this time, he worked 14-hour days in Chinese restaurants where the food was as cheap as the pay. “You could get a bowl of lo mein for $7.95, compared to a plate of spaghetti and meatballs at a neighboring Italian restaurant for $12.95,” he recalls.

The lure of Great Barrington

Yu came to the Berkshires a year after immigrating, planning to settle in Northampton based on an article in “The Berkshire Record.” The “positive energy” he observed in Great Barrington at the time swayed him, however. He remembers seeing people dancing in the street during a drumming festival and meeting “so many interesting artists, musicians, and photographers.” It felt like the right place to launch a business.

Harry Yu, taking a rare break in his Great Barrington restaurant and market. Photo by Robbi Hartt

So he moved to Pittsfield instead of Northampton and opened Shiro at 105 Stockbridge Road (Route 7) in Great Barrington in 2000. For many years, he enjoyed “being part of the restaurant community where you got treated to dinner by other restaurant owners and then reciprocated”—a stone soup arrangement in which everyone contributed to the pot and reaped the benefits. Those days stand out in his memory as some of the best years of his career.

Challenging economic realities

“I came here as an entrepreneur, chasing the American dream,” he acknowledges, “and for many years, I was successful.” Things started to change in 2008. The economy took a downturn, and his life changed with it. “Things were okay in the very beginning when workers were available and affordable,” he shares. Food costs were also manageable then. You could buy chicken breast wholesale for 50 cents per pound and a five-gallon barrel of oil for less than $5. Now, workers are nearly impossible to find, and that same barrel of oil costs over $40.

”World-class ramen. As good as any I’ve had in Japan. And right here in GB!” says Michael Mah (Facebook review). Photo courtesy Shiro Ramen & Market

Like many restauranteurs, he experienced a surge in business during the pandemic. Many New Yorkers relocated to the Berkshires, and people placed take-out orders, aware of the need to support the local establishments so they would survive. “I stayed open the whole time, and people were grateful to have a place to go for good Asian food,” he notes.

Soon, though, Yu was forced to make changes to make ends meet. He recalls a friend telling him, “You’re trying to be fair to the customer, but you’re not charging enough to break even. What’s the point if you don’t survive?”

So he adapted, becoming a one-man (manager/chef/employee) show and turning half of his restaurant space into an Asian market. His market is still one of the best places to find items like mochi, wontons, ramen, kimchi, teas, and sweets.

“Quality is all I cared about when I first opened,” Yu says, “but it’s impossible to operate a business that way today. Convenience means more to most people than quality now.” He stopped serving hibachi (with all its fanfare), and when he could no longer find a chef to make fresh dumplings by hand, he substituted the best-tasting dumplings he could buy.

“Every good ramen must have a good spicy sauce to go with it!” You can add authentic Lanzhou style sesame spicy sauce to your ramen, free of charge. Photo courtesy Shiro Ramen & Market

Yu’s wife, the former chef, decided to get her nursing degree and change careers, so they stopped offering cooking classes. They also gave up their liquor license and cut back on their hours. Yet, on any given weekday afternoon, you’ll find customers popping in with a strangely sporadic steadiness—some ramen and sushi orders here, some packaged sesame seeds and noodles there.

“I could count on 30 percent margins in the beginning, but there’s been 30 percent inflation since then. The new reality is that you take a loss Monday to Friday when it’s mostly locals coming in, and hope to make up for your loss with out-of-town business on Saturday,” he explains.

Where’s the motivation now?

Why does he do it? “It’s my temple, and I’m Buddha,” he smiles, tongue-in-cheek. Then, getting serious, he says, “I’m here because I put money into it and because I still have a lot of loyal customers who come in ritually to enjoy their jasmine tea and pastries, or get advice on which dumpling wrappers to use for the latest New York Times recipe, or buy my food, knowing that it tastes better than what they can find in regular grocery stores.”

Well-stocked shelves—and cooking tips from Yu—await. Photo courtesy Shiro Ramen & Market

“I still believe we’re providing something important,” he insists, “whether it’s sharing soup base/broth, recipes, or helpful tricks for making yam noodles.” But he misses the days when they offered cooking classes and shared their efforts together, banquet-style.

Despite his current reality, he has no regrets about starting his business 23 years ago. “What I feel sad about is that I gave my best years (age 25 to 52) to this business, and I don’t feel appreciated by the town,” he confides. “Speaking for all local business owners, I have to say that running a small business is much harder than people think. Some of us barely earn $100 a day.”

“Here is my life,” he says (meaning Great Barrington). “That’s why I care.” After investing 20-plus years of his life, along with buying the building, he feels compelled to stay. “I go to Dalton to sleep because I can’t afford to live in South County, but all of my hours are spent here.”

“Wonton soup, fresh made at Shiro!” Photos courtesy Shiro Ramen & Market

Is “the dream” still worth it? “Yes,” he replies. At the end of the day, “being a little store owner” has allowed him to raise and educate two sons and enabled his wife to start a new career. “When my kids are asked, ‘Are you American or Chinese?” they say, ‘We’re American,’” he adds with pride. “My whole family are citizens. That’s my greatest credibility.”

“We work hard,” he concludes, “and we need visitors who enjoy other local businesses to support them, too.” So, whether you’re looking for ramen—“The best ramen anywhere!” one Google reviewer raves—or need ingredients for your favorite recipe (he drives to Albany or New York City on most Sundays to stock his shelves), Harry Yu hopes to keep being there for you—doors open, dumplings sizzling. (See the sample menu below.)


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