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Imitation doesn’t equal innovation

It’s the rare restaurant company that has a research and development line item in its accounting statements. This omission demonstrates a lack of understanding of the importance of R&D to the bottom line, as creativity and innovation in food items are crucial to differentiating one concept from another. Restaurants should be in the creativity business, not the imitative business.

Yet what passes for creativity these days is looking for items that seem to have market traction and then reproducing them as quickly as possible. This is why we have a sea of sameness.

Large chains have extensive processes to develop menu items and keep the pipeline full. This usually consists of large-scale consumer market research that screens for items of interest. The results are analyzed and “food platforms” are created. A brief is then presented to the concept’s internal development chefs who create menu items for the platforms.

The same process is used with outside suppliers who sell ingredients or other products.

These items often are given a short development time and a longer time for market testing. The entire process can take a year with the shortest amount of time devoted to the dishes’ creation. Fred Brooks, the computer scientist and product developer, wrote: “Improving your process won’t move you from good to great products. It will move you from bad to average.”

The bulk of these processes are what is called applied research to develop specific items. Rarely in foodservice is there true, basic research. You don’t get a new signature dish by demanding one in 30 days.

L. Gordon Crovitz wrote: “Don’t underestimate the unexpected. Accidental discovery is a major factor in many areas of innovation. Accidental discoveries led to corn flakes, microwave ovens and Post-it Notes.”

Serviceable journeyman menu items can be created through applied research, but breakthroughs need a true research process.

Achieving a breakthrough idea requires a strong understanding of a brand’s equity and how patrons use the brand. It involves not only experimental kitchen time but also grounding in food chemistry, as well as lots of discussions with chefs outside the organization with different ethnic food, ingredient and preparation knowledge.

This sounds like a tall order. But there is a conference hosted annually by The Culinary Institute of America at its Greystone campus in Napa Valley, Calif. It provides the participants with a primordial soup that maximizes accidental possibilities.

I went for the first time last year to the Worlds of Flavors Conference, which was about street and comfort foods from around the world. I watched chefs from different foodservice segments interact and vigorously debate ideas. They observed cooking demonstrations and hands-on participation in kitchen-class settings. One attendee said, “Worlds of Flavor delivers more inspirational ideas than I can actually produce in a year of R&D work.”

I congratulated a manager of a major company for having six of its chefs in attendance who clearly were learning a lot. I asked how many of those chefs would be at the next conference, in November. This conference will explore all aspects of the Japanese culinary tradition. The answer stunned me: “No one. I can’t make a business case for the 2010 conference.”

This statement shows a total disregard for the value and significance of true R&D. It takes an investment of time, money and talent, and is absolutely necessary to differentiate yourself from the pack.

I urge readers to investigate the opportunities future conferences hold for their future prosperity.

Malcolm M. Knapp is a New York-based restaurant consultant.

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