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5 ideas to supercharge menu innovation during the pandemic

In menu and product pipeline planning, it’s always important to have a healthy pipeline of new and innovative ideas in a variety of stages of development.  Every organization handles the innovation process in their own way, and I’ve always targeted 2 years of products “on the shelf”, ready to be pulled into action, perhaps with a little tweaking or updating.  It’s also extremely important to have different types of innovative ideas in your pipeline – from incremental to transformational or disruptive.  All of this has to be done while also supporting the key needs of the day to day business.

The foodservice industry has been one of the hardest hit industries as a result of the global coronavirus pandemic.  Restaurant traffic has ground to a halt, and according to Restaurant Business online 5.9 million restaurant workers have lost their jobs as of May 8th.  With this kind of crisis, it’s understandable why many organizations both large and small are focused on business continuity and the safety of their workforce, rather than what the next big idea is.  At the same time, businesses have been forced to quickly adapt to this new reality and accelerate innovations like online ordering, take out, delivery, and meal bundling.

As the pandemic evolved, a great deal of clients and customers have reached out to discuss what this means for new products versus existing products, and how much of their focus should be on new product development.  For restaurant brands, many have cut their marketing calendars for the rest of the year and are focusing on their core menu to manage the uncertainty, or even have reduced their menu to handle complexity with less employees coming into work.  For suppliers, “When is it OK to reach out to customers with a new idea?”, is a popular question that comes up.  We are all going to have to find new ways to create products, meet with clients, and surprise and delight our guests.

Here are 5 reasons to keep your eye on your innovation pipeline, even as the industry is in turmoil:

  1. Build your relationships - be a deputy innovation team! If you’re a supplier, you may have an opportunity to help existing customers with development that their team just cannot do.  Reach out to your contacts to see if they need help with near and medium term innovation.  Develop a stable of products you think will be needed so they are ready to share as soon as your customer is ready.  If you’re a restaurant brand, perhaps you’ve had team members furloughed, or working from home in a capacity that has limited product development.  Lean on your suppliers for solutions to beef up that pipeline of products.

  2. Doing nothing is not a strategy.  Of course, none of us know what the next six months will bring, and it’s difficult to forecast when things will go back to the popular phrase “new normal”.  It is precisely because of this that you should game plan for a variety of scenarios.  A narrow pipeline will not achieve this.  Put together a team and brainstorm several plausible future states.  From this – look at your existing pipeline – where are you thin?  What new ideas could address several of those potential futures?  Ideate and prioritize.

  3. This may be time for a renovation.  New products are a big part of many restaurant engines, but some of the biggest earners are core products.  Perhaps now is a time to take care of the base menu – and improve the quality of key core products.  This will help solidify your desired customer base, while building a stable foundation in which to build on new and innovative products and platforms.  Where can you improve?  What is that key core item that everyone wishes was better?  Now may be the time to improve and innovate within the core menu.

  4. Flexibility and speed will win.  A nimble innovation pipeline will be a huge asset as the crisis evolves.  The situation for restaurants changed incredibly fast the past 8 weeks as the industry has shut down, it will be just as fluid as business ramps back up  That kind of speed of change requires flexibility.  If your pipeline of products and ideas are low, you will be less able to quickly adapt to an evolving situation.  Now is the time to ensure you have a robust pipeline of ideas.

  5. Innovation is energizing.  Think about all of the video calls, the safety calls, the business updates, the news stories – everything you’ve experienced over the past 8 weeks.  It has been a lot to take in and it can be an extreme drain on your psyche.  A nice way to energize your team, whether you’re a supplier or a restaurant brand is to fire up the innovation engine and motivate them around a challenging objective.  As an example, we’ve recently ramped up a project around some really interesting new VIP sample kits for suppliers to share with potential customers and influencers as a way to break down some doors and create awareness.   It was such an invigorating project thinking through new ways of doing business and engaging with potential customers!  It certainly helped us focus energy in a positive direction.

In the next phase of this pandemic, R&D and Innovation leaders need to keep an eye on today, without taking their eye off the future, just as they always have.  Menu and product pipeline planning is a balance of long term brand building and short term sales needs.  You have to do both.  I hope the 5 ideas above have given you some thoughts as to how this could work for your business, and can benefit your business and your team as we move to the next chapter.


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