Momofuku CEO: Restaurants ‘need to diversify’ after COVID

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Nothing exposed the fragility of the restaurant industry like the coronavirus pandemic.

With global business shutdowns and fears of new infections, many people simply stopped going out to eat. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. restaurants have shut down or temporarily closed.

If there’s any silver lining to the situation, it’s that COVID-19 has made restaurant executives realize they must adapt their operations. Many are ginning up new business models and adopting new technologies that will, they hope, make their businesses more resilient to future calamities—assuming they survive this one.

Marguerite Zabar Mariscal, chief executive of Momofuku, a chain of Asian-American eateries cooked up by star chef David Chang in 2004, says the old ways of doing things will no longer suffice. “We need to diversify,” she said at Fortune’s virtual Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit, a conference that caters to early career businesswomen. “It’s the only way we can continue to provide income” to workers, she said.

Mariscal, who started at Momofuku as an intern in 2011 and eventually worked her way up to the top job, said she aspires, ultimately, for half of the chain’s revenues to be non-restaurant. She said she set this “maybe impossible” goal with founder Chang.

Toward that end, Mariscal’s team is exploring new ideas, like striking up partnerships with other businesses, offering cooking classes, and shipping food and spices directly to customers. She said a major focus is to break the constraints of geography and give fans “a Momofuku experience where they are, as opposed to being every once in a while when they come to Las Vegas, or visit Toronto,” where the chain has restaurants.

Mashama Bailey, chef and partner at The Grey, a Savannah, Ga.-based restaurant that specializes in Southern cuisine, also spoke on the panel alongside Mariscal. She agreed that diversification will be paramount for restaurants.

Finding other revenue sources is “the best way to offer security,” Bailey said, emphasizing job protection. She said restaurants needs to make sure “that people who work in this field can still view it as an industry and not just as a hobby or a way to get to another goal.”

“Whether it’s catering, whether it’s events, restaurants have always had other means to make money to complement what they do on a daily basis,” Mariscal said. This just like that, except the imperative of the pandemic lends far greater urgency.

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