Innovation is one of those ubiquitous terms that dominate the conversation in today's business world. From my perspective, innovation is a lot like art, meaning I can't define it, but I know what it is when I see it. Because let's face it, every company, regardless of their position in the restaurant community, wants to be seen as innovative in the eyes of their customers with the hopes that it will make their organizations successful for years to come.
But what does it truly mean to be innovative? What makes a product or a service innovative? When I arrived in Orlando for RestaurantPoint 2013 it was my intention to get a better idea of how the chain restaurant community defines innovation.
So during my various conversations with the chain restaurant executives present I tried to work in the question: What does innovation mean to you and your company? The answers were as diverse as they were thought-provoking.
What my informal research study taught me is that innovation is really in the eye of the beholder because it has to address a specific need. A supplier, for example, can provide the most technologically advanced piece of energy management equipment, but if the restaurant operator does not consider energy management a priority or if it lacks the resources to properly use this technology that company will not see this product as being truly innovative compared to an organization that monitors every kilowatt. If that same restaurant struggles to meet customer expectations because its wait times are too long, then innovation might take the form of a more streamlined menu that allows customers to make decisions quicker or a dual technology oven that enhances speed of service.
And true innovation requires the sharing of information. Restaurant operators need to spend the time with their suppliers describing in detail the challenges they face. Taking this step can be a challenge for a demographic that already feels stretched in terms of time, money and other resources.
For their part, suppliers need to actively listen and process what their customers are telling them and resist the temptation to simply sell a product for a price and move on to the next transaction. From there, the two parties need to work collaboratively to find out how they can resolve the restaurant's challenge.
When people talk about innovation they seem to see themselves as Steve Jobs standing on the stage in front of a worldwide audience introducing the iPhone. In reality, though, innovation is nowhere near as glamorous, particularly for an industry that still faces its fair share of economic pressures.
So how can restaurant chains and their suppliers innovate their way to success? Well, I think RestaurantPoint keynote speaker Neal Petersen actually described this best. "Success happens incrementally. You build it one day at a time and it takes a process. We don't give up our dreams because they don't fit the budget. We go back to the drawing board and we create. We innovate. Keep your eyes on the horizon and innovate. Look around you and decide who can help you build and innovate."