“From the beginning, the restaurant community has been warning people that there are going to be massive closures; it’s going to get bleak before it gets better,” David Chang said yesterday in a new episode of his podcast. “I don’t know if the world at large believed us, but it’s happening now.” Indeed, it does seem hard to believe that the usually resourceful Chang — whose empire includes two multi-city chains (Fuku and Milk Bar), 16 restaurants, and a rich history of experimentation (in meal delivery services and multiple forms of media) — is not exempt. But yesterday, the Momofuku group announced it would permanently close its restaurants CCDC in Washington, D.C., and Nishi in New York City as a result of COVID-19. In another adjustment, NYC’s 15-year-old Ssam Bar — Momofuku’s second restaurant — will soon leave its influential home in the East Village and move into a development at the city’s South Street Seaport, where it will combine teams with the existing Momofuku restaurant Wayo.
In other words, despite a billionaire investor, an international footprint, and the name recognition of one of the country’s most celebrated chefs of the past two decades, Momofuku was not protected from closing restaurants and eliminating jobs as a result of the pandemic. In some ways, the group’s size may have made it more vulnerable: In a note posted on Momofuku’s website, CEO Marguerite Mariscal says that doubling the number of restaurants in the company over a two-year period was “thrilling” but unsustainable; she describes plans “for a more nimble Momofuku that is better able to respond to future challenges and take even better care of our teams.”
The closing of Nishi, CCDC, and folding of Wayo into Ssam Bar (some of Wayo’s service elements and menu items will remain) reflect the harsh reality of the restaurant world post-COVID-19. (Prior to these closures, Chang had closed only one restaurant in the Momofuku group’s 15-year history.) They are, at a minimum, further proof that the recent spate of restaurant closures and industry job losses is not temporary, limited to a few months of hunkering down. Rather, for both independent restaurants and major restaurant groups across the country, these closures could be widespread and forever. And they may just be getting started.
In his podcast, Chang reiterates that the future of Momofuku doesn’t include growing with more restaurants, so much as consolidating and condensing. “We cannot be this vulnerable ever again,” he says. “There’s no excuses, and I hope the government helps out, but we cannot operate thinking the government’s going to help out. So we have to be proactively making decisions thinking that no help is going to come. That’s diversifying. That’s making sure not all our eggs are in one basket: restaurants.”
As Momofuku joins the scrum of restaurants making permanent adjustments to their business models to better operate amid social distancing, it’s increasingly apparent that these kinds of shifts may be the only way forward for restaurateurs. Some of Momofuku’s lasting shifts will accelerate plans the company has long worked toward: in particular, the true chainification and proliferation of Noodle Bar, a concept that Mariscal notes has the “ability to succeed in a world where more stringent procedures are the norm,” and more consumer products, like the new “Chili Crunch” and a soy sauce and tamari down the line. Of course, nobody knows if these moves will work. While the company contemplates things like meal kits, New York City diners will remember that Chang’s previous attempts to figure out delivery-only operations with both delivery-only restaurant Ando and startup Maple didn’t pan out.
The future of Momofuku will be different in ways that are smaller on paper, but perhaps just as fundamental. Ssam Bar is moving to the more corporate Wayo space in a new South Street Seaport development because, as Chang explains in his podcast, the Ssam Bar space with its “failing infrastructure of a building” is literally unfit for operating in a world where space to maneuver is essential for safety. The state of the kitchen didn’t stop Ssam Bar from being profitable pre-pandemic, but if Chang needs to effectively close a restaurant because it’s no longer safe, there may be little hope for restaurateurs in a similar position without the funds and fame. And although its staff may very well be able to return to work after the move and reopening, Ssam Bar is losing some of what made Momofuku — a restaurant group founded with a small, raucous East Village ramen shop — Momofuku.
And in the scope of the group’s history, these changes are happening fast; the kind of changes Chang says would normally take place over 10-15 years have happened in two months. “The question we’ve been asking ourselves over and over and over again is: What does Momofuku look like in 2035? Except we have to make that evolution now and not wait and change here and there in a linear fashion,” Chang says in his podcast. As more jobs disappear and the defining restaurants of the past decade change irrevocably, the question — and its potential answers — do look bleak, but with few signs of anything better on the way.
Disclosure: David Chang is producing shows for Hulu in partnership with Vox Media Studios, part of Eater’s parent company, Vox Media. No Eater staff member is involved in the production of those shows, and this does not impact coverage on Eater.