Chef Coby Smith came to Arkansas Heart Hospital, a 110-bed facility in Little Rock dedicated to the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cardiovascular disease, in 2014. Just four years later his hospital café, Coby’s, would be featured on national morning news as an unexpected place to score delicious and authentic ramen.
Originally called the Heartbeat Café, the dining facility in the main building of the hospital did not offer anything cooked from scratch before Smith’s arrival. “Literally the onions came prediced and the cooks didn’t have knife skills,” he says. “All the food was from opening up a bag and reheating it.” Within two weeks, Smith had overhauled the menu by retraining the staff on how to cook fresh vegetables and meat, and by sourcing as much as possible from local farms.
“We are lucky because in Arkansas, it’s a long growing season so we have a lot we can source,” says Smith. As a lot of patient families come in from all over the state and prefer home-cooked meals, Smith says he introduced a menu with classic comfort food made healthier and cooked smarter. “I’ll never forget one of the first emails I received was from a hospital employee thanking me for the new menu because it was the first time the cafe food hadn’t upset her stomach,” he adds.
A year and half after the café’s menu was transformed, the location closed for eight months for an interior remodel. “The former café was completely enclosed with not many windows and a large metal pull-down door that separated the kitchen from the line,” he says. “It was really institutional feeling.”
While the space was being transformed, Smith was about to venture on his own culinary transformation. “I was having a remodeling meeting with the hospital CEO Dr. Murphy, when he suggested we serve authentic Japanese ramen,” says Smith. “Then he asked if I had a passport, because he was sending me to Tokyo the following week.”
Smith explains that Dr. Murphy, a cardiologist, bought Arkansas Heart Hospital five years ago and had to give up his medical license in the states. Ever since, he has been traveling and fell in love with Japanese food and culture.
Accompanied by Dr. Murphy’s assistant who is from Tokyo, Smith spent a week in the Japanese capital, eating at 40 ramen shops. “Dr. Murphy’s assistant was able to translate for me so I was able to speak with the various chefs who were very gracious and forthcoming with their knowledge,” says Smith.
Possibilities with ramen are endless, according to Smith, who in Japan, learned that each neighborhood had its own twist on the dish. Traditionally, ramen contains a lot of bonito fish, but Smith says that flavor wasn’t the right fit for the café’s clientele. Instead he developed a pork-based broth with roasted bones and locally sourced pork butt. “The broth takes about 16 hours to make,” he says.
For right now, the café sources its ramen noodles. “I’ve made them in small batches but we’re going through 1,200 orders of ramen a week,” says Smith, adding that the café does make vegetable noodles for low-carb conscious guests.
“We’re in the South so we put a Southern twist on our ramen,” says Smith. Popular ingredients include seared scallops, jumbo lump crabmeat, house-cured pork belly and crawfish. “Originally, we thought we would present 15 ingredients and make each bowl to order, but the station became so popular, so quick, we couldn’t keep up. Now 90 percent of guests just request ‘everything’ and ‘spicy,’ and we build three bowls a minute, 450 bowls a day,” he says.
The ramen station at Coby’s is currently open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. On those days at 10 a.m. Smith posts the ramen of the day in Instagram (@CobyRamen). It’s so popular, people drive 30 miles on ramen days, and have to stand in the lobby as the café seating fills up. “The former café used to do $20,000 a month and we’re doing $70,000 now,” says Coby.
“At first I didn’t know what to expect, but it’s been incredible. People are intrigued because it’s so delicious and so unique an offering for this area. Plus, I think people can tell that we’re not doing this to turn a profit,” says Coby. “We only charge $5.50 for ramen, and that’s really low. We want to make our guests happy. It’s been a positive culture change here at the hospital.”