We recently sat down with David Chang, chef and founder of the renowned US restaurant group Momofuku, for an intimate conversation on the current crisis, future opportunities for growth, and thinking beyond four restaurant walls. Read on for more insights from his chat with Clayton Ruebensaal, our EVP of Global B2B Marketing, below.
Starting a restaurant has been a path for so many who have wanted to pursue the American Dream, to own their own business. Do you think COVID-19 has or will diminish the role of restaurants as opportunities for prosperity? If so, how can we get back to it? How does it change?
COVID unequivocally changes how we eat and, as part of that, restaurants’ role in our eating habits. Restaurant dining is no longer confined within the four walls of the restaurant, and that has implications beyond traditional restaurant dining. One of the biggest issues I see most restaurants facing is their ability to reclaim lost business from significantly decreased corporate spending. This business comes from expense accounts, corporate catering, team happy hours, and private dining.
While I can’t say for certain how the industry will bounce back, I do believe that the restaurant business model simply has to change unless key legislation passes in order to provide further relief to business owners. Until that happens, I do think that the industry will favour of new partnerships. I’d place my bets on the future of delivery along with the idea that restaurants will become the marketing manifestations of something else.
How do you see dining experiences evolving? Do you think, as lockdowns finally ease, in-person experiences will bring restaurants back? Or will the landscape have radically transformed so much that owners — even of fine dining establishments — should think about how their product changes for takeout and delivery?
Absolutely. Until we have a vaccine or powerful therapeutic, we really won’t be returning to in-restaurant dining the way we are used to. Frankly, there’s really no point in longing for the return of what we thought was normal, especially as the model was in dire need of change anyway. For now, though, we must focus on ensuring the safety of our employees and diners, especially as the core business is reliant on takeout and delivery.
What does the post-COVID-19 kitchen look like? Will lingering concerns about safety disrupt how a kitchen is run or how a menu is constructed?
This is something we have thought about and worked tirelessly on at Momofuku in the past few months. When COVID hit, we needed to figure out a way to run our restaurants in the safest way possible for both our guests and employees in this current situation and beyond. Until then, we would not reopen our restaurants. Our team’s efforts are manifested in our safety protocol that we made publicly available.
We are undoubtedly changing the way we think about the food we’re making, not only to follow kitchen safety guidelines but also to adapt to the new restaurant model which focuses on takeout and delivery. The goal now isn’t to make award winning food; the goal is to make food that is nourishing, is able to travel well, and is simply delicious.
Economic and financial crises are often watershed moments for technological adoption – many businesses take a big risk on tech in order to survive, and the successful platforms and services get popularised and adopted on a wider scale. Do you think that will be true for the food industry? For example, do you anticipate ghost kitchens, enabled by delivery apps, to become a big trend emerging out of COVID? What else?
Change in the industry is not only needed ― it’s inevitable. Due to COVID, I think the middle will get squeezed while the dominance of fast food and the restaurant chain industry will continue. In fact, I think they will only grow stronger. Meanwhile, there will be a continued focus on delivery, but I can see delivery models and logistics changing in new ways.
Normalised remote work combined with decades of increasing housing prices and living costs have inspired some folks to flee major cities for suburbs with less diversity of cuisine. Do you think this trend opens up an opportunity for pioneering restaurant (or food truck) owners?
If you take a look at urban cities like New York or San Francisco, most restaurants are getting priced out unless they’re able to make a thousand dollars per head ― the fixed costs of a restaurant are just getting more expensive. In some ways, what’s happening right now is a forest fire of sorts that is clearing out things both good and bad. When destruction hits, though, we have the opportunity to hit reset and try something new. For places like New York, I think this may allow a new generation of talent and voices to have the opportunity to build businesses that should have always been around in the first place.
What insight would you offer a restaurant owner who has had to shut down because of COVID, wondering whether or not to try again? How would you guide them to refocus on the next opportunity?
Imagine what 2035 looks like and, for those who had to shut down, consider this as your guiding principle. For those who are still open, make those changes now. Ten to fifteen years of restaurant industry evolution just happened in six months. Anyone who goes back to the same model run in February 2020 might make it, but I won’t put my bets on it.