David Chang earned his place among the food elite by consistently finding new ways to challenge diners’ palates. Drawing on both the cuisine of his youth as well as a keen sense for how to bring his vibrant imagination to life, he’s been offering foodies a chance to discover and indulge exotic flavors since 2004 with the launch of Momofuku Noodle Bar. Since then, his relentless obsession with exploration and experimentation has revolutionized everything from fried chicken to ice cream to noodles and has earned him a dedicated audience through two seasons of a documentary series “Ugly Delicious” and a popular podcast, “The Dave Chang Show.”
Chang understands food as more than just a critically acclaimed chef. Over the past 16 years, he’s presided over the growth of Momofuku group, seeing it expand to more than a dozen dine-in restaurants, a quick-service concept, a culinary lab, and a partial ownership stake in Christina Tosi’s Milk Bar. The group’s growth has turned him into an expert in the business of food service, offering him critical perspective that he’s had to use to navigate through COVID — including the shuttering and consolidation of a few of his restaurants.
As part of our Office Hours Q&A series on @AmericanExpressBusiness on Instagram, we asked David to share his insights on the business of food to help budding and experienced restauranteurs understand how to think about operating in the new normal.
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 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.
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.
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 favor 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 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 popularized 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.
Normalized 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.