Chris Johnson, the man poised to bring nuked noodles to the masses with an instant ramen cooker, occupies a 9th floor office on Capitol Mall that overlooks downtown Sacramento. His desk is free of clutter, the white walls are bare, everything is neatly in place — aside from a broken coat rack angled precariously, the casualty of a recent outburst.
“I was beyond upset,” Johnson laughs. “The coat rack was the closest thing to me. The poor thing got destroyed.”
Johnson says he’s not typically prone to tantrums, but when Good Morning America pulled their on-air plug of his Rapid Ramen Cooker on Aug. 20, just two days prior to the scheduled airing, Johnson lost it. He hung up the phone, lifted the coat rack and slammed it into the ground several times, until one of its legs flung off.
Johnson, who also runs his own corporate staffing firm, The Johnson Group, has a history in business, though the cooker is his first invention. It’s a square, microwaveable bowl that cooks ramen in four minutes. The idea came to him at lunchtime. An avid ramen consumer frustrated by years of choosing between what he calls “pasty and undercooked” microwaved noodles or a tedious fifteen minutes standing at the stove-top, he committed to finding a solution. What Johnson evidently lacks in patience, he makes up for in ingenuity.
According to Chris Johnson, 3-minute ramen actually takes roughly 12 minutes to prepare from the time you start boiling the water to the time you are ready to eat.
“What I found through my research,” Johnson says, “is that when there’s excess space and excess water, the microwave heats the water and doesn’t actually cook the noodles. My design is the actual perfect dimensions of the depth of water and the size of the bowl. When it worked, I was like, this is a freaking winner.”
Johnson set his sights on executive success from a young age. In his youth he was a skilled basketball player, but his father had coached him on “always having two dreams.” It was after watching Eddie Murphy in 1992’s “Boomerang” that Johnson unearthed his alternative career goal. Though he may be a far cry from Murphy’s womanizing Marcus Graham (Johnson has been with his wife since the age of 14) he found Graham’s fast talk and business savvy enviable.
“Here’s this black guy that I could identify with that was a businessman,” Johnson recalls. “He had his own office, he wore a suit. His success was impressionable on me as a kid. I was like, ‘I’m going to be a businessman. That’s my second dream.’”
During high school, Johnson began renting halls and security to host teen dance nights in Stockton and Elk Grove and reaped up to $4,000 a night. In college, he started his own modeling agency, once supplying 50 extras to the 2001 film “Training Day.” After graduation, he worked with an engineering group and then a large staffing firm before starting his own staffing agency, The Johnson Group, in 2006.
The cancellation by Good Morning America was devastating: Johnson had just ordered 70,000 ramen cookers to prepare for the onslaught of calls he expected to get from national retailers. Television had been kind to him up until this point. In November 2012, his coverage on KCRA went viral after being picked up on aol.com. He had also recently wrapped up the filming of an episode of ABC’s hit entrepreneurial showdown, “Shark Tank,” though the episode had yet to air. Despite a year of moderate success, however, Johnson was struggling to move his product.
The annual consumption of instant noodles is 95 billion packages worldwide. The U.S. is ranked no.6 for ramen consumption. (Source: World Instant Noodle Association)
After Good Morning America canceled Rapid Ramen’s on-air spot, Johnson propped his coat rack back up against the wall and devised a plan. As he retells the story, Johnson flips to a checkmark-riddled page in a black, spiral-bound notebook.
“So here it is,” he says, pointing to a message he wrote to himself, “One hundred calls, no matter what. Stay focused. Don’t be a weenie.”
After having made 57 calls (100 ended up being too lofty a goal, considering the time difference on the east coast) Johnson had set up in-person meetings with Walmart, Walgreens, CVS and Kmart. Of those four meetings, three of the vendors committed to purchase orders this April for the 2014 back-to-school season. The fourth, CVS, rushed to purchase and began selling the Rapid Ramen Cooker last month.
Since then, Johnson has expanded his operation and is distributing in 10 retailers nationwide, including Safeway, Whitmans and the Navy Exchange. He’s also garnered some celebrity after a successful appearance on ABC’s “Shark Tank,” where Johnson turned down three offers before negotiating a deal with pugnacious business mogul Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks. Cuban offered a $150,000 investment and a $150,000 loan in exchange for 15-percent equity in Johnson’s company.
Chris Johnson went through more than 200 packages of ramen during the initial testing phase for the Rapid Ramen Cooker.
On the evening of October 4, when his episode of “Shark Tank” aired, Johnson received about 30 orders per minute. A week later, he says, the rate slowed to about five per minute. Johnson also received patent-pending confirmation for the Rapid Mac Cooker and Rapid Rice Cooker, and he’s been talking about collaboration and cross-promotion with two of the nation’s top ramen companies.
The Rapid Ramen cooker is about fast food, but for Johnson, success is about much more than money and fame. In 1992, his boyhood hero, Eddie Murphy, described in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times that “Boomerang” was a film “revolving around the lives of successful black people who work for a successful black company” — a portrayal that Johnson says needs more public attention.
“It has to be known that to be successful in life, you don’t have to dribble a basketball. There’s still an element of success in being an athlete, but for my black community, that’s the number-one way,” says Johnson, before closing his eyes, briefly, and reopening them in a hard look of certainty. “I can’t afford to have silent success.”
Bright orange walls and ergonomic chairs. A black conference table flanked by a half-dozen scruffy-chic men (zip-front sweaters, double-pierced ears, turn-of-the-millennium tattoos) and three times as many digital devices (nobody brought just one).
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