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Marguerite Mariscal_Momofuku_web

Spotlight: Marguerite Mariscal of Momofuku

Marguerite Zabar Mariscal is the CEO of the food brand Momofuku. Marguerite joined Momofuku in 2011 as an intern. She took on design and communications for the group and was named Brand Director in 2016. In 2018, she was promoted to Chief of Staff and Creative Director. She became CEO in 2019.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Highlight: Let’s start with the basics. Tell us a little about your background and how it led you to Momofuku.


Marguerite Mariscal: My family runs a food store on the Upper West Side [Zabar’s] that has been there since the 1930s, so I grew up surrounded by food. My uncle also owns food stores on the Upper East Side, so I worked for both stores.


My grandfather always told his kids not to go into food, that the margins are terrible, you work on holidays, etc. So my mom became a lawyer. My aunt became a doctor. But the generation after that, we’re all returning to food in one form or another. I have cousins who work for the family business. I have cousins that work for Walmart—all these different iterations of CPG or food.


I never really thought I would get into food. I was an English major. But I saw an internship to work for Momofuku. Growing up in New York City, Momofuku was a big deal. I went to the original Noodle Bar in 2004. I went to Ko for my birthday in 2008. To me, what Momofuku was trying to do was always way more than just food.


“To me, what Momofuku was trying to do was always way more than just food.”


It was always about how you can use food to have conversations around broader issues, how you can discuss cultural differences and bridge gaps. So when I saw the internship, I applied—that was October 2011, and I've been there ever since. 

Highlight: One thing that stood out to me in your profile by The New York Times was your preparation for the opening of Bar Wayō. You prepared a pocket-sized booklet for all of the bartenders, cooks and servers with “aphorisms distilled from a Neil Young album (‘rust never sleeps’), the science fiction movie ‘Gattaca,’ and a book on leadership written by Bill Walsh, the former head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.”


And, to me, that screamed English major and I loved it so much—the thoughtfulness that went into that. It's a really good example of the ways in which Momofuku is more than food, and I wonder if you might elaborate on that. Why is it important that [your team members] have this context, that they see their work as something more holistic than a restaurant operation?


Marguerite: When I started, there were the restaurants, which were all in New York City at that point. [Momofuku now has restaurants in Las Vegas and Los Angeles as well.] There was a food magazine called Lucky Peach. Dave [Chang, Momofuku’s founder] had just done a show on PBS called Mind of a Chef that was very different from the typical kind of “cook and stir” programming that people were used to.


So even when I started back in 2011, Momofuku was always more than restaurants. It was communicating in a lot of different ways. 


A lot of what we are now doing–whether it's through CPG products, Dave's media presence, podcast, live cooking show on Netflix—that universe is more than food. It is food, but in all these different permutations. That dialogue, that education, all the things that we're able to do by being more than a restaurant, is very symbiotic across all the different parts.


For example, we have 700,000 people on our email list for CPG. We have the ability not just to sell people noodles or chili crunch, but also to answer questions like “How do you use it? How do you store it?”


That ability to communicate and educate is a differentiating factor for us compared to our peers, and it's what helps take our products from being something you bought once, to becoming part of a routine, which is super important to our goal—to change the way that people eat. Education is such a fundamental part of that.

Highlight: Do you feel like there's something special about the kind of people that are drawn to working in the food industry? What makes the people in this industry special or different in your opinion? 


Marguerite: One of the things that we have in our booklet is that our goal is to “outcare the competition.” I think for people that work in hospitality and food, caring is such a huge piece of it. Whether you're taking care of people because you're feeding them, you're waiting on them, or you're providing ingredients they use at home, I think for [people who work in food], care is super important and that's why they're drawn to it.


I joke that the only industry with worse margins than restaurants is CPG. No one's in it because it's a phenomenal business model. I think you really have to care about the product itself and what you're selling and the people that are receiving it. 


“I think you really have to care about the product itself and what you're selling and the people that are receiving it.” 



Highlight: So it makes sense that you would invest in product testing–not just with Highlight, but with all the ways in which you're making sure that your innovation is consumer-led.


Marguerite: We always say that the reason we have open kitchens in our restaurants is so that the kitchen can actually watch people eat. If the server asks, “How was your meal?,” everyone always says, “It was good.” But by watching people eat [from the kitchen], you can actually see if they’re devouring it, if they are leaving one part on the side, etc. 


In CPG, you don’t have that direct connection to your consumer. To get that one-to-one feedback, we rely on tools like Highlight and our community group on Facebook. That honest feedback on the products helps us get [the products] ready for a broader audience, with whom you have a less tangible connection. Bridging that gap is super important for us as a company. 

Highlight: I wonder if you might talk a little bit about Momofuku's journey from restaurant to retail. They’re both food, but they're extremely different industries, with very different challenges. I wonder if you have an especially vested interest in the retail side, given your background?


Marguerite: I've always loved food, but I’ve always loved grocery stores. Whenever my family would travel to a different country or a different city, we’d always walk around grocery stores. It's such a good way to see how people eat. 


It’s funny to think about now, but Zabar's was one of the first places to sell espresso machines in the United States. [The Zabar’s team] were bringing what they found when they traveled internationally back to the States at a time when no one was drinking espresso at home.


Similarly, I love that at Momofuku, we’re exposing people to something different that is not part of their routine—but we’re hoping to create a routine with our products. 


For years we've been thinking about how to grow and what growth looks like. Momofuku is a unique restaurant group in that we’ve had everything from fried chicken sandwiches at Madison Square Garden to two Michelin starred restaurants. And so for us to add another piece to that—what you're eating at home—feels very organic to us.

Highlight: When you have an idea brainstorm, how do you know which ideas you want to move ahead with and which ones to leave on the whiteboard? 


Marguerite: Everything is a balance between gut and data, especially as we continue to grow. If we had asked people back in 2018 if chili crisp was a smart area to go into, the Nielsen data wouldn’t have supported it. Air-dried noodles weren't a staple of the American grocery store. 


“Everything is a balance between gut and data.”


So some of it is just your gut feeling that these things will work—and because they have worked historically in other parts of the world. That being said, I think we're really fortunate to have 20 years of restaurant experience in flavors. And not to say that [restaurant and retail] is one-to-one, but we have 20 years of knowing what flavor profiles have worked in a multitude of price points across a multitude of cities, so we have a pretty good database. 


The key is: how can you convert that experience into the products that we make? We have a lot of amazing flavors that we use at the restaurants that aren’t translatable to sitting on a grocery shelf. So for us, it's leveraging what we know is delicious, and backing that with data.

Highlight: You could drive yourself crazy trying to predict the next trends, and trying to figure out what consumers are going to want 12 months from now. Do you think that's something the team at Momofuku really pays attention to, or do you tend to rely more on your knowledge of what tastes good, combined with your intuition and the data? Is paying attention to trends a good strategy?


Marguerite: We look at trends less for flavor and more for understanding what's important to the consumer. For example, easy meal solutions are a buzzy term right now, so we want to provide dishes that fill that need, whether it's family cooking or someone cooking for themselves. 


This is stuff we test with Highlight, too. For example, what do consumers care about when it comes to sodium content? 


At the end of the day, the data shows what we already believed, which is that taste is king. And that's where we have the advantage. As much as we pay attention to trends, at the end of the day, the question is: Is it delicious? And then everything else follows from there. 


We talk about this a lot at Momofuku: There are a lot of things that are fundamentally delicious. Dave has this article in Wired called “The Universal Theory of Deliciousness.” One example would be crispy rice: there's a word for crispy rice in so many languages because it's so valued as a delicious thing. We know that across the world, it is delicious. So we look for what is being embraced or has been embraced in Asia and across the world because if you find those commonalities, those are the keys to what's going to work in the US as well. It might take time, but the fact that it's delicious is undeniable.


“It might take time, but the fact that it's delicious is undeniable.”

Highlight: Your team has the expertise to know what “good” looks like. But when you are talking about retail and CPG, how do you approach conversations with potential retailers? How do you talk about distribution and why you should be on the shelf? Does that go back to a data conversation? 


Marguerite: I think data obviously plays a huge role. In 2021, we fully started our retail journey, which was less than a year after launching the product. We always knew we wanted to be on grocery shelves, because if we talk about changing the way that people eat or redefining the American pantry, you have to meet people where they are.


We're lucky to have data to back up the products, and we’re fortunate that it's not just us, but a huge diversity of products that are entering the “global flavors aisle,” as it's called.


Retailers did an off cycle reset in 2020 or 2021 because they needed to change what the global flavors aisle looks like. Now they know it’s one of the fastest growing categories in grocery.

Highlight: What are you most excited about for the future? 


Marguerite: We’re at the beginning of our journey. We’ve launched so many products. We look at other companies that have one product and we think we're crazy. So what I'm most excited about is less about new products and more about continuing to push into national retail—how we price our products, how we design our products—to reach a broad audience.


Pre-2020, we started to realize how few people we actually fed in our restaurants. This [move to retail] has always been about reaching a broader audience. For me, that's fulfilling what we set out to do. So I’m excited to see that progress through the end of the year and into 2025.  

Highlight: It all comes back to human centricity. We all want to see revenue growth and market penetration, but to see food do what it's meant to do, to take care of people, at scale like that, is really exciting. 


Marguerite: Yeah! We've spoken to so many people who feed our noodles to their kids. We have so many stories of kids asking for our noodles by name. That’s just very cool, that there's a generation of kids growing up on this product. It’s very cool to be part of someone's routine and even part of their upbringing.

Highlight: Is there something that you wish you had known before embarking on this journey? Is there a piece of advice that you would give to founders just starting out today? 


Marguerite: I was surprised to learn just how much you constantly have to be looking to the future. As you scale, everything doesn't necessarily scale with you. You have to constantly be looking to the future to even maintain what you're doing today.

Highlight: What's your favorite Momofuku product and why? 


Marguerite: We're launching new sauces soon. There's this Sweet & Savory Korean BBQ sauce, which is like a galbi marinade in Korean cuisine. 


The “sleeper favorite” that I use the most is definitely the Savory Seasoned Salt, which is only available on our direct-to-consumer site. It’s a better version of salt and pepper that I put on just about any protein I'm cooking. It's my favorite thing. 

Not in New York? No problem. Order Momofuku’s products via their website, or find them in grocery stores like Whole Foods, Target, Kroger, and Publix.


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