When dining out at restaurants, we go for many different reasons, both functionally and emotionally driven. At times it’s about getting full, other times it’s about being healthy, and sometimes it’s about intimacy or fun.
This alone differs from many other businesses, like the airline industry, which is primarily functionally driven (getting from point A to point B being the focal point, along with things like safety and comfort).
The more the needs for an optimal experience vary and the more they seem somewhat endless, the harder it is to define focus areas or core pillars for innovation and success.
Innovation in the restaurant world can be thought of as many different things – encompassing the brand’s holistic concept, inventive menu creations, molecular gastronomy, the food’s explorative ingredients, location, décor, ambiance, service, among a plethora of others.
Which is most important to innovate on? Which is most important for success? Which will create the most impact for a memorable experience?
Similar to many other industries, the innovation techniques used by one restaurant might not have the success metrics needed for another, and unfortunately there’s no one secret formula, as much as some may try to force it or copy it from others.
To better understand the success drivers of the restaurant business in the context of innovation, we recently had a chance to sit down with expert foodie and the only person to have eaten at every 3-Star Michelin rated restaurant in the world (among many others), Andy Hayler, to better grasp the idea of innovation and success as it relates to consumer and business experiences.
We discovered that what seems to be the foundational elements for restaurant business success are also applicable to potential entrepreneurs battling with conceptual ideas, folks in the branding and marketing world, and for customers seeking an optimal experience (across many industries).
Firstly, know that most ratings (particularly Michelin) are obsessed with and purely focused on the food, and the food only. Imagine buying a pair of Nikes without the swoosh, solely for the benefit of the shoe and how that shoe feels against the ground when you walk. One could argue that this is leaving a lot of things that might otherwise make a restaurant successful off the table, and it might well be. As mentioned earlier, restaurant innovation can cut across various areas and articles, but ultimately, true foodies look at it from a pallet-bursting experience, which everything else trickles down from.
Food innovation doesn’t necessarily mean complexity or a trend, for example, “foraging (a technique that includes searching for wild food resources – like the woods, forests and other natural elemental places) is highly innovative, and we see a lot of restaurants currently jumping on the bandwagon for example … but saying there’s a trend, or something that’s better than the other in such a competitive, intellectual property adverse world is not possible … what is important is to understand your target and who you’re serving.”
This could be a major flaw in what marketers focus on today, when trying to get into the “next big thing” that’s not necessarily sustainable.
The restaurant business is very much a local business, and although on the world stage, restaurants aren’t competing against the world. According to Hayler, “innovation is based on your local crowd and tailoring the best possible meal to fit their needs.” Imagine if advertisers actually listened to and pitched you something you wanted to hear. It’s not an easy job, but the truth of the matter is that…something that works in New York might not work in Hong Kong” and generalizing concepts that are innovative elsewhere won’t work if you’re truly hyper-focused on taking into account factors people want in their lifestyles.
Steve Jobs once said, “simple can be harder than complex; you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.”
Similarly, in the restaurant business, guests want to be wowed, but at the same time understand what it is they’re eating. Changing an extraordinarily simple formula and presenting it in a way it hasn’t been thought of before with distinctive style can change not only perception but appreciation of the food, and in turn the thought of the restaurant. There’s no need to create the equivalent of algorithms for dishes and overdo as customers will sniff that out.
Focus on what makes you, you, and what makes you special. A large part of being innovative is believing it. It’s becoming harder to be genuinely innovative, and “when chefs can see what other chefs are doing, it’s increasingly difficult to be unique as the years go by, the ingredient combinations have been tried and new ideas can be quickly copied.”
Being different is no different in any other business. Once you’re able to own something, it can be reworked and reinvented countlessly, but it’s still yours.