Momofuku’s Lean Six Sigma (with a side of Noodles)

David Chang

David Chang is a Korean-American chef and founder of the Momofuku restaurant group, which includes the Momofuku Ko in New York City (2 Michelin stars) and the Momofuku Noodle Bar also in New York. In late 2012 he also opened three  restaurants in Toronto as part of the Shangri-La Hotel – Noodle Bar, Daishō and Shōtō. What caught the eye of this blog was the role process design, execution and continuous improvement plays in not only this restaurant, but in every eatery both high-end and modest. The processes — serving, cooking, taking reservations, cleaning — are often either hidden to patrons (such as the kitchen processes) or are in plain sight but are not often thought about by non-Black Belts as “process,” such as the process of taking your order or serving the meal.

In an article in the Toronto Star by Michele Henry, we read about the impact poor or broken process design and execution plays in a restaurant:

A coat rack was the last thing on David Chang’s mind. Despite the “i” dotting and “t” crossing in the lead-up to Momofuku Toronto’s grand opening in 2012, finding somewhere to put diners’ coats just wasn’t on the legendary chef’s to-do list.
“We had so much space,” Chang says. “I just figured coats would take care of themselves.” They didn’t.

That tiny oversight trickled into a steady throb of logistical headaches as the much anticipated food empire tried to lay roots in Toronto. Despite food fans fawning and high brow accolades for the chef, Momofuku could not overcome the culture shock, staffing headaches, and bad decisions that hindered its Canadian invasion.

“We had a millions problems that didn’t work out as planned,” concedes executive chef Sam Gelman. It would take close to a year for Momofuku to live up to the reputation that beat it to the city. The cult of Momofuku was greeted hungrily by legions of fans jonesing for a taste of NYC cool when the Noodle Bar, Daisho and Shoto restaurants in the three-level, University Ave. space opened in the fall of 2012. Critics swooned and the opening day line up snaked passed the grand, headless dragon statue out front, around the corner from the five-star Shangri-La Hotel.

The frenzy kept up for a couple of months and Chang and his staff happily rode the business high. “It felt like we could do lots of millions of dollars,” Chang says.

But as the fall weather turned cooler, the lack of a coat rack at the ramen empire’s Noodle Bar became fodder for jokes, nasty comments on Yelp and an annoyance for staff. Management struggled to find a place for the piles of outerwear as irritated patrons struggled to slurp pricey bowls of ramen while teetering atop their Canada Goose coats. Hostesses whined at having to spend their shifts running coats upstairs. Hooks beneath the tables didn’t work. There was nowhere to hide a coat rack on the lower level without it falling over. Drilling into the heated concrete floor was not an option so staff tried gluing the rack in place.

“It was a pain in the ass,” says Gelman, who became consumed with the coat issue. He eventually gave in and placed a cheap, utilitarian coat rack just inside the front door and coatgate finally became a receding memory.

Interestingly the staff at Chang’s restaurants engage explicitly, according to the article in Kaizen events and huddles:

The chef makes no bones about surrounding himself with people, like him, who become furious with themselves for screwing up and who meet adversity with the rabid force of an excavator crushing a pop can. “We’re trying to cultivate that,” Chang says. “You can’t teach that.”

Taking that perfectionism to heart, Momofuku’s staff practice Kaizen and Hansei, the Japanese philosophies of continuous improvement and self-reflection. They gather at the end of each day, weary from their shifts, to talk about what went wrong, rehash and resolve. “We’re hypercritical of ourselves,” Chang explains. “We need to be our harshest critics.”

When Daisho’s family-style theme wasn’t working, staff reconfigured the table layout to make room for deuces.  To make couples happy at Noodle Bar, executive sous chef Vogels developed a cheaper, quicker version of the fried chicken by squishing a countertop deep fryer into his small downstairs kitchen and reworking the complicated recipe for drumsticks and wings.

When customers demanded the legendary crack pie, Chang crammed Milk Bar’s first location outside New York into the oddly shaped glass box on the building’s second floor in July.

Those who run the restaurant take customer requests — and issues — seriously.

In the face of an angry spate of Yelp comments about the temperature of the ramen broth, executive chef Gelman swung into action. With a laser thermometer holstered to his chef whites, he tested every bowl of soup that left the kitchen and wracked his brain over an alleged two-degree drop in soup hotness from the pot to the table.

Opening the Toronto trifecta, Chang says now, was the “hardest thing I’ve ever done without a doubt.” “It was like the myth of Sisyphus. The boulder got heavier and larger every week. But if our track record has proven anything, it’s going to turn out. Nothing happens overnight, so come back and ask us again in two years.”