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Does it have to take so long to bring products to market at big chains?

Many of us started in restaurants where if you wanted to have a new menu item, you could design it and test on the menu on the same day!  As an owner, manager or chef you could make unilateral decisions in relation to service, product offering or price.  As you scale up to large organizations, the hats you wear as a chef or restaurant manager turn into separate departments.  R&D/Culinary, Operations, Purchasing, QA and Food Safety, Guest Service - all the things you might do as an individual are done by separate teams.  Sometimes I miss the ability to be that nimble!

Nimble looks different when you have thousands of restaurants.  Many would say that the rule of thumb to bring products to market for large chains is 9 months to 2 years!  Now not every chain needs to do this.  There is a well known top 10 chain that is now known for moving so quickly they are considered the anomaly!  Congratulations to them.  So why does it take so long to launch a new idea at large restaurants for the rest of us, and does it really have to?

Below we’ll look at some common reasons why, and if you’re in large scale foodservice you understand these, or lament them.  If you’re looking to get into large scale foodservice it’s important to educate yourself on these challenges, as you’ll need to get passionate about solving them.  As a supplier to these major brands, it is important to know how you can help your customer tackle these issues head on.


Simply put, if you have thousands of restaurants, someone might have to install a line, or build a plant. You will likely need 2 suppliers or more over time to ensure a high quality, safe and consistent supply to the marketplace.  Scale like this is very hard to understand unless you have experience with it.  Let's look at an equipment example: you are installing a new piece of equipment in the kitchen - doesn't really matter what it is.  The equipment is complex, expensive, and requires electrical and plumbing.  You have 8,000 restaurants.  The manufacturer can make 500 a week, but only has installation capabilities for 200 per week.  You might need 3rd party installers to get all the way up to 500 installs per week.  Even then, that is 16 weeks, or 4 months, to install in 8,000 restaurants!  Not to mention all of the coordination that requires.


When you service a large body of the US population, it can be challenging to create menu items that solve a need for enough people and are still on brand and differentiated from your competition.  As a foodie you may be really interested in an idea, but you have to develop that trend or concept in line with your brand and also make it familiar enough that it won’t turn people away (see my post on differentiation).  New menu items must meet a certain sales threshold to be launched, and you have to be sure of that either through rigorous testing and forecasting, or by deciding as a company to really get behind a great new idea without all of the data.

Labor & Training - Remember when you were 17?  I barely do, and can say that even though I might have had a decent work ethic for my age I probably didn’t really pay attention, and if something wasn’t easy and intuitive, I either found my own way or simply didn’t do it!  Imagine a sea of employees, many of whom will pay attention to training and do a phenomenal job with new products, and others who will be harder to engage.  You have to develop products that work within existing skill sets, and then roll out solid training to your workforce on anything new.  That takes time, and it takes practice.

Complexity: Custom vs. Stock Product

We used to say when launching a new product you have to decide where you want to put the complexity.  Do you want to put it on the restaurant front line worker, or do you want to bring it back up the supply chain and put it on the manufacturer, or somewhere in between such as an assembler.  You might be able to move more quickly by getting a stock product, and having your restaurants deal with something that isn’t quite perfect for your operation.  Or you might spend the time it takes to develop a custom product, flavor profile, packaging size, cost structure, etc. to make life much easier in the restaurant.  This requires more testing, more time with the manufacturer, lead times for new packaging, more time for your commercialization, supply and operations teams to ensure you have a foolproof product.

Sell in process

You may not know that a big part of the time involved in launching products can be the sell in process.  Whether you have franchisee committees, leadership approvals, field team sell-in’s for marketing and ops, or variations on all three, selling in can take a lot of time.  I’ve worked for and with franchisors, who have to do a great job of proving the business case for new products and platforms to their franchisees.  This makes sense!  Franchisees have invested tremendous amounts of money and it’s their money and business on the line when launching new products.  They’re also the ones who have to execute.  Leadership is ultimately responsible to the board and shareholders, and field teams are on the front line dealing with the restaurants and customers when things go wrong.  It’s only natural to ensure you have buy in from all of these groups.  There are ways to streamline this process, and the more experience and trust you have between groups, the faster you can move.

Risk tolerance

At the end of the day, it all comes down to risk tolerance.  Is failure survivable?  Is it more important to move quickly, with all involved knowing that we’re going to have some  bumps and bruises, but we’re aligned on getting to that new product or trend quickly (see my post on doubling speed to market)?  Or is it more important to have as few mistakes as possible, to ensure a smooth launch with more predictable results, but taking longer and potentially missing the peak of a trend for your brand?  These questions are answered mostly within the culture of leadership and the culture they reflect to your organization.

At the end of the day, when you’re working with a large brand that has thousands of stores, of course it will take a decent amount of time to get something right.  There are ways to streamline this process, remove unnecessary steps, and focus only on what brings value to the customer.  Understanding the challenges above will help you focus on where and how you can speed up your process, or help your customer speed up their process.


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