David Chang Says Big Data Can Save the Restaurant Industry

The Momofuku founder just wants to know more about you.

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Restaurateur, publisher, and entrepreneur David Chang believes that data could be the salvation for what he views as a fundamentally flawed restaurant industry. In an onstage discussion at last week's SXSW Interactive, Chang laid out the core principles that he credits with the success of his ever-expanding Momofuku brand, as well as his vision for the future.

Since its inception as a single location in 2004, Momofuku has taken the food industry by storm, launching restaurants around the world, along with several books and a magazine. Now Chang, who currently oversees several hundred employees, is setting his sights on the next wave of expansion.

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Credit: Reviewed.com / Dave Kender
David Chang onstage at SXSW 2015

Though he didn't divulge too many concrete details, part of his plan involves an app that can analyze customer data to create a better dining experience, and tech in general seems to be central to his vision. At several points during the conversation, Chang derided the restaurant industry for its inefficiencies and poor use of technology.

“It’s about doing customer loyalty and using that data to reward our guests," he said. "It’s all about collecting data on what the customer wants. It’s so simple.”

One of his biggest pet peeves: lines of people waiting to get into a restaurant.

“From a business perspective, it’s stupid,” Chang stated. He believes restaurants should either use smarter scheduling technologies to avoid lines in the first place, or at least engage in some form of commerce with people while they’re waiting.

"The coolest thing that ever happened was the Taco Bell app." Tweet It

While identifying the problems may be straightforward, Chang was quick to acknowledge that developing the solutions was more challenging than he’d expected.

“I didn’t think anything could be more difficult than opening a restaurant. But making an app is harder,” he admitted.

What might we expect from a Momofuku app? Chang was reluctant to spill too many beans before the official launch, but he did heap praise on one foodservice pioneer for its innovation in the app space: Taco Bell.

“The coolest thing that ever happened was the Taco Bell app. Direct me to the closest Taco Bell and they’ll start making [my order]? I haven’t eaten there in 15 years, but when I read that I was like, that’s totally rad!”

A customer-facing app isn't the only way Chang thinks the restaurant industry can use tech to improve the customer experience.

“This business is so dumb,” he said. “The profit margins are so bad.” The key, he believes, is addressing inefficiencies in places like food shipment and point-of-sale interactions.

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Credit: Reviewed.com
Momofuku has expanded its reach into a number of publishing projects, including the Momofuku book and Lucky Peach magazine.

Ambitious ideas are a staple of Chang's leadership style. “Momofuku is no longer just a restaurant group,” he said, hinting not so subtly at an expansion of his culinary empire. But in regard to his myriad upcoming projects, he’s surprisingly sanguine at the prospect of failure. “We’re going to make a lot of mistakes,” he said.

The value of failure was a theme he returned to several times during the discussion. And if someone with David Chang’s track record can embrace failure as a risk—and even a necessary step—in pursuing new ideas, perhaps that’s a lesson for the industry as a whole.

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