Five-Star Meal Kits Are Here to Stay
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As recovery from the coronavirus pandemic continues, Bloomberg Opinion is running a series of columns looking at crisis-inspired innovations that promise better living over the long run — from more resilient economies, cleaner cities and healthier offices to more flexible e-commerce and less unnecessary business travel.
For the fine-dining industry, the pandemic underlined the precariousness of a business model that relies on customers to bring their appetites — and their credit cards — to a place of purveyance where the rent is as high-toned as the setting. Restaurateurs would do well to remember this when gourmets are ready to go out again.
Covid lockdowns helped to break the taboo against delivering great food to people’s homes. Chefs now know that fine victuals, like fine vintages, can travel. In turn, discerning eaters know that they can prepare an exquisite repast in their own kitchen, with not much more than the bog-standard oven, microwave and stovetop. The world’s finest eateries now routinely offer gourmet home kits, with prices sometimes running to four figures.
And just like that, fine-dining restaurants may have reached a solution to their greatest quandary: How to wring more revenue from the genius of their chefs. After all, a three-Michelin-starred restaurant can only accommodate so many comers without losing quality and exclusivity — and the right to charge top dollar for a meal. Traditional brand extensions, from cookbooks to private catering, can top off the bread and butter with spoonfuls of jam. But there’s no getting away from the fragility of the business model.
As David Chang, the chef and entrepreneur behind the Momofuku chain, told me last fall, the restaurant business makes “more money for everyone else except restaurateurs — whether you’re a credit-card processor, or Google, or Yelp, or a reservation system, or a purveyor of beef, or a lawyer, or an accountant.”
Before the pandemic, Chang was among a handful of high-end restaurateurs experimenting with alternate revenue streams, including a high-concept food magazine and a collaboration with Kraft Heinz Co. on a line of sauces. The ultimate goal, he said was that “50% of Momofuku’s revenue had to come from outside the four walls of the restaurant.”
The lockdowns accelerated Chang’s development of ready-to-eat meals and forced him to range farther afield for business: Momofuku’s most celebrated dishes, like the signature pork buns, are now shipped across the U.S. Just sear the sliced pork belly for a few minutes and assemble the rest of the ingredients. A 12-pack goes for $119, shipping included. (Editor’s note: Totally worth it.)
Home kits can be far more elaborate — and expensive — than pork buns. During the Christmas-New Year holiday season, New York’s 11 Madison Park was offering a $475 multicourse duck feast for four. The restaurant struggled to meet demand; Inevitably, there was a waiting list.
Will customers still clamor for kits after we’ve all been vaccinated, and the best restaurants have reopened? Once we’ve returned to pre-Covid normalcy, those who can get a table at 11 Madison Park may well prefer to be served in its cavernous Art-Deco dining room rather than their own. But having invented, out of necessity, a new revenue stream to reach a much wider clientele, restaurants should not give it up when the good times roll around again.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.
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