Restaurants have been under tremendous economic pressure, suffering from business losses during the Covid-19 pandemic. And there’s now a staffing shortage, as long hours and low pay have driven many away from the industry.
Bloomberg columnist Bobby Ghosh explored how restaurant dining may change in an Instagram live interview with Rene Redzepi, owner and co-owner of Noma, Copenhagen’s two-Michelin star restaurant world-renowned for its experimental fermentation lab. Pandemic restrictions shut down Noma twice, forcing Redzepi to create additional revenue streams outside the traditional dining room.
Below are highlights from Ghosh’s interview with Redzepi.
Ghosh: What did you learn about how people were feeling about returning to restaurants?
Redzepi: Restaurants, you don’t need them to stay alive but you need them to feel alive. That was very, very clear, that people were ready to go out. You know they say it’s the catch-up effect, and that definitely happened here in Copenhagen. People were everywhere, they were in piles to get a bite to sit down, have a glass of wine and meet other people.
Ghosh: When you began to think about reopening the proper dining space and planning your menu for the reopening, did you have any particular thoughts or concerns about whether people’s habits in restaurant dining might have changed in the course of the year that they were all locked up?
Redzepi: Yeah, so we went through the first lockdown, opened up, we were open for about five months and then it all came back and we had to close (again during the second lockdown). On the second lockdown, we were shut for six months and, in that time, we were very worried about everything, I mean we still are, but I guess we’re a little less worried now than before because we’re finally open again. We did think “Would people even sit for hours in a restaurant? What is it that everyone wants?” Besides that, people in Denmark, they started really cooking at home again. Takeaway offerings had become quite common, even from some of the best restaurants, something that would be considered completely impossible five years ago. If you had takeaway as a fine dining establishment, you sort of sold out in a way and that was starting to happen.
But I decided with myself, and that was a personal decision, is that in my life I need this creativity, I need to have guests, I need to work on a menu on a daily basis, so during the lockdown I went to work every day in the kitchen as if we were going to open the following day. We actually made two full menus and one of them will never be served because we ended up being closed throughout it. And then we said “OK, let’s just open up and see what happens, will people still want to come out?” and we opened up our reservations knowing that we would cater only to 100% local crowd and it’s gone really well, really really well.
Ghosh: The thrill of being in a nice restaurant and being able to talk to people and enjoy a meal is incomparable um and I do appreciate the value of fun after the year and a half that we’ve all had. Can you give us an example of a dish that you have in your menu now that reflects this attitude of fun, the surprise.
Redzepi: Swedish saffron believe it or not, it’s really, really strong and tastes amazing. We make this fudge with it and we found out that you can actually use the sort of the cutting of walnut as a wig for candles because the oil content in the walnut makes it flammable. And so we basically shaped or molded this little toffee into a candle. It sounds complicated but it’s quite easy to do when it’s hot and then we put this walnut light into it and it comes to the table when they’re drinking coffee and people think it’s you know for coziness and then as it burns out people are then instructed to eat it that’s a that’s a moment where that’s fun you know it’s creativity, it’s delicious it surprises people and it just really makes it makes a difference to people you can feel that they’ve been needing something like that.
Ghosh: What have you learned that you didn’t already know about restaurant economics over the past year that now factors in your thinking about what Noma is and what Noma needs to be in the future.
Redzepi: Oh man, you’re hitting something that we’ve been talking about for the past two years because, particularly in the last year-and-a-half, restaurant economics, they’re terrible. We’ve had 18 years of operation and we’ve had an average profit of 3%. It’s just enough to keep us running and keep painting the house, so during this pandemic we did think to ourselves “Are we going to continue like this for another 18 years, where we don’t have any money to change anything, even if we want it?” You know we’re going to have to find different ways of operating so that we can have a different economics in it. We have to figure out a way if we want to be here for another 18 years because you know it won’t continue like this. So we have definitely thought of many many things and recently we launched this thing that we call Noma Projects. Noma Projects is a sort of a platform to launch a myriad of things, it’s a for-profit company, but we only want to attack projects that also connect to some sort of a worldly issue, and the first project one is is a vegan and a vegetarian garum sauce that you use as a flavoring to add umami to your vegetarian and vegan cooking. It’s a way to help people eat more vegetarian so that’s project one, that’s something that we worked on almost almost since the first lockdown that happened to us we were like we need to step into this.
Ghosh: About six months ago, I did a piece about restaurant economics and the pandemic. I talked to your friend David Chang of Momofuku. We’re saying that we have to figure out more ways to find revenues outside of the dining room. You know, can we get 50% of the revenue from outside of the dining room where the margins are larger to sustain, to underwrite the amazing creativity that goes on in your kitchens? Is that possible? Have consumer tastes or consumer behaviors now changed in a way that will allow that kind of thing?
Redzepi: I think what happened during the pandemic is that it’s been considered more OK for restaurants of say Momofuku caliber or Noma to actually think of ways to put better economics into the system. That has opened a new door and for us, we’re grabbing that opportunity, we need to, definitely. Our industry needs to, in general. It’s an industry that’s under copious amounts of pressure, we deal with poor profit margins, low incomes, people are overworked, they’re underpaid, there’s bad management and a lot of it is a result of there’s simply no money in the industry, people can’t afford to do maneuver any new way they want, and we don’t have any business training either. It’s very interesting what’s going on. I think a lot of creativity is going to come out of restaurants in the next couple of years.
Ghosh: Now in addition to being a chef, you’re a thinker in your line of work. Through MAD Academy, which used to be anyway your annual gathering of of great chefs from around the world, you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about your industry and the future of your industry. I imagine that during the course of the past year, year-and-a-half you’ve had many conversations with the kinds of people who would previously have come to that conference. What are some of the common themes, the common challenges for fine dining establishments?
Redzepi: I think in food in general, the most common problem, and I think it’s going to continue for a while, is that there’s a gigantic staff shortage right now. I think in the pandemic, a lot of people have had an opportunity to rethink their life and say “OK, am I in this industry for the next 20 years or is this a moment for me now to start studying or become a farmer or something else.” That is really the biggest issue that we have right now, there’s no question in my mind. This is something that at MAD we’ve been discussing for almost a decade. If we’re not able to help transform (and this includes myself by the way I’ve spoken about this many times) this gigantic lack of leadership that we face as an industry where we have a poor ability to actually just manage ourselves, manage our restaurants and be supportive of people, that will be the first step that needs to happen which is slowly happening. But then providing better pay and better work hours, that are related to economics. I see our industry being far from that, unless we figure out a way to either charge more that there’s more value towards foods and people that work in the industry or we find other revenue streams. Those are the big, big questions that we are dealing with at MAD. At Noma, I deal with this as a employer myself, how to actually be an inspiration, but how to also provide for staff that are having children, and how can we have everyone stay here for 40 years in this industry? That’s really hard questions.