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  • Jeff Miller

6 challenges facing foodservice R&D and Culinary departments in their innovation


What is your definition of innovation? I ask this question in presentations and get a variety of great answers. Some say it is a new, creative idea. Others shout out products like the iPhone or Tesla, where a transformational change is created in an industry. Still others have said any product that makes another industry obsolete, such as streaming video vs. video stores that are extinct like Blockbuster. I’m not going to say those definitions are wrong, but the definition I particularly like is “Innovation isn’t just a creative idea, it’s a creative idea that sells”. The reason this is important in foodservice is that we’re trying to get consumers to come into our restaurants and choose our brand and our products over competitors. This in many ways is what is at the core of new product development or product improvement. How do we create great products that drive customers to choose our brand and drive sales? Additionally, if you're a supplier to these big brands or desire to be - it's extremely important to understand what barriers can be in the way of your product getting to market at your customer's operation.


R&D (I’ll use R&D from here out for any department labelled Culinary, Commercialization, Product Innovation or Product Development, and the entire process involves many departments to achieve success) is in a constant balancing act within foodservice, trying to achieve many different and sometimes competing objectives while developing a new product. Here are a few of the challenges faced, and some mitigating thoughts on how to deal with them.

Too Many Meetings! This has certainly changed in the time of COVID-19. Time is so precious, and yet it sometimes seems like corporations can’t function unless they use up 75% of your valuable time in meetings. Alignment meetings, kickoff meetings, status meetings, informal check-ins, formal check-ins, hand-offs, one-on-ones, team meetings, standup meetings, company town halls, conference calls, video calls, vendor meetings, product tastings, product approvals, competitor tastings – they all add up to the point where it is hard to get on the bench to actually develop a product! As a department – you can work to minimize the meetings your team needs to be a part of – look to give more autonomy and empowerment, and decide with your cross functional teams to figure out what meetings can be reduced in frequency or pared back. You will be surprised what you actually need versus what is in place just to make everyone feel informed and included. As an individual, try commanding a portion of your day, say the first 3 hours to be meeting free. For some, this may mean coming in an hour to an hour and a half earlier to get time to yourself. Push other calls and meetings to times when you are naturally less productive - for me that is after 2pm!

Delivering day to day while keeping an eye on the future. You have to be both in the present and far into the future at the same time in many roles within a foodservice company. In R&D that manifests itself by having to ensure any current marketing calendar work is completed and pulled through, while at the same time looking at items 1-2 years out as well as 3-5 years out. This can make prioritization challenging. Some R&D teams segment this by level, with entry level focusing on nearer projects, and more senior people having the chance to think bigger picture and further out. Others will look at it in more of a time based model with say 60% of time on near term, 25% on mid term and 15% on long term innovation.

Gold standard degradation. This was always one of my pet peeves. How many times have you worked on a project, only to have it launch 2 years later gutted of many of the attributes which made it an attractive product or platform in the first place? No company intends to water down products as they go to market but the fact is that the newer and more innovative an idea is, the more likely that many teams will look to force it into existing models of ops and cost and consumer understanding. That is the path of least resistance. When you have an idea, a really interesting and revolutionary idea that can also drive sales it will take an internal champion with passion and fortitude to keep as many of those attributes that make it special as possible.

Cost. Need I say more? Everyone works within cost constraints. I used to think certain brands had it easy, they had higher priced items to the consumers and therefore they could use better ingredients. The truth is that everyone has challenges developing compelling products within cost. It’s best to think about where you want to put that cost, and what actually matters to the consumer. Many times we in R&D can get caught up in something we think is important, but the average customer may just not care that much about. If that is the case you may need to take a hard look at what adds value to the product, and what is just a nice to have that you can remove without affecting the gold standard. Increase your supplier base and work with additional vendors – you may find more affordable solutions out there.

Operations. Products that people will buy are one thing. Products that your restaurants can make are another. Many products in my career were fantastic all the way until they got to the restaurant. Items and skill sets we thought would be easy to introduce were a nightmare. As with many innovations, it helps to bring in other departments early and ask for their help in solutions. Additionally, if you are going to introduce a new skill set to the restaurant, make sure you can show the operations a pipeline of additional items that will be able to use that skill set, so they see value in taking the time to introduce it as more than just a one-off.

Guardrails. These can be different company by company. Some companies require products that are portable and can be eaten while on the go in the car. Others require a certain number of SKU’s that their assembler can handle. Regulatory concerns can come into play, when looking to make certain claims. Nutrition limits can also be a guardrail, as well as any other brand initiatives like clean label policies. When writing your R&D brief, ensure you’ve checked the list of every desire from other departments up front so that minimal re-work will be required.

Whether you work in R&D, a cross functional department, or supply these big brands it's important to understand the challenges faced in new product development. These are just a sampling of them. With proper forethought, creative thinking, and perseverance you can overcome these challenges to create exciting new innovations that sell.


If you're a supplier looking to support your customers better or break into the foodservice market, check out my new online program 3 Steps to Turbocharge Your Foodservice Sales!


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