Restaurant Innovation That Goes Beyond Menu Items

We hear frequently how innovation is a mainstay for business survival and growth. Innovation helps restaurants stay competitive and those involved in operations and sourcing need to always be looking for the next thing that grabs attention, differentiates, and brings value to their patrons.  

So where is the first place we look for innovation?  Usually it is product.  What is the newest, greatest thing to hit the market, that other people don’t have? This is certainly a tried and true strategy, and we all love the latest, greatest thing.  But what if I told you it is not the only place where you can find innovation, that if you go to the next food show and not find a product that dazzles you, that there are other channels to bring something new and different to your customers.  

It’s all in the way we think about business. Our natural inclination is to start with product with sales and marketing, listing out the features and why our thing is all that. We gravitate that way in our thinking towards other areas of our business, including looking at new products to add to our menu. This is a great strategy but shouldn’t be the only way we bring innovation to the table.  We do this by shifting our mindset away from a product focus to one simple word … Value.  It is a basic premise that no matter the cost of the item, the purchaser expects they are receiving an equal or greater value in the goods or services received for the money or other item of value exchanged. 

Let’s take a look at some non-product ways of bringing value to our customers and spark some innovative thinking beyond your menu offerings.

Innovation Through Service

Bringing customers value by reducing friction

If you think about it, most innovations that we know of came about from problem solving, finding the process that takes away pain points and reduces friction.  That is where innovative thinking should start.  From the time a person steps in the door to when they leave, were they confused, frustrated, uncomfortable, or delayed?  Was the menu confusing or the ordering process complicated?  Those are a few customer pain points to jumpstart your innovative thinking.

  • Are you paying attention to the things that may be frustrating your customers?
  • What are the things that are obstacles in how you serve your customers?
  • What would make your customer’s experience more comfortable and easier?


Innovation Through Team Operations

Bringing customers value through simplicity, avoiding hassle, saving time

As part of a group that has a strong operational background, I can’t neglect that the way a team functions is also ripe for innovation in the systems, process, and procedure; the backbone of any restaurant.  Friction points that are in back of house trickle to front of house, and so we can find these internal friction points by observing our teams and identifying activities that distract them from delivering value and ask; where were they confused, frustrated, uncomfortable, or delayed. 

In our business, we’ve had many conversations with restaurant operators on issues they are having with fresh produce, and as a result, have found innovative ways to mitigate those problems.  It may be helping customers train their teams on cooling requirements and rotating of fresh inventory, discussing the pros and cons of fresh cut vs. commodity produce, shipping concerns. This reduces the friction points involving produce, something that increases value to our customers with increased shelf life, safer product, and happier customers.  

  • What are the things frustrating your team members?
  • Are there processes that could be made more efficient that are slowing down team members?
  • Do team members have the training and resources to do their jobs well?


Innovation Through Brand 

Bringing customers value through identity, appeal, aesthetics

When someone goes about their daily life, what comes to mind when they think about your restaurant?  Just as we have impressions, memories, and feelings of the different people we interact with, so it is with business.  Each possess their own unique personality.  It is because the foundational principal of brand is simplification of decision-making and the conditioning of the brain for certain anticipated responses

This is a great way to usher in some innovative ways to create your brand image and personality.  We’ve seen examples of this with how staff greet customers, stunning brand art that everyone loves, merchandise a customer takes home, or the way service is carried out. 

Remember that brand is not just the logo, but the whole image of the company and how you make your customers feel.  When done right, and with thoughtfulness and innovation, guests will become fans and ambassadors of your restaurant’s identity.

  • What do customers remember about your restaurant after they have left?
  • What branded items do they take away from your restaurant?
  • How are you creating a community and following with the aesthetics and experience you bring customers?


Innovation Through Communication

Bringing customers value through information, connection, access

There are always parts of business that require communication to constituents, and sometimes keeping that communication clear, helpful, and engaging can be a great opportunity for innovative ideas.  That could be the messaging on how to navigate where to go, how to place an order, current discounts or events going on, basic labeling and instructions on getting drinks and silverware, or if the customer or staff will buss the table and the restaurant’s tipping policy. 

There is also the opportunity to communicate on social media and telling more about your restaurant’s story and convey its personality in new ways. Some brands use wit, humor and wordplay on more text-based platforms like Twitter, some use longer form content and photography to share more about the company’s culture.  There is very little holding back creative communication with these platforms.

  • How are your customers talking to each other when in your restaurant, what platforms are their go-to in talking to each other?
  • Are you reaching your customers with the communication platforms you are using?
  • What do your customers know about your restaurant, the story behind it, your purpose for operating it?
  • Is there a new, different way to tell your story?


Innovation Through Experience

Bringing customers value through hospitality, entertainment, connection

Another way restaurants bring their guests value is through the environment they create, and how a restaurant goes about doing this can be a great place for innovation, and even becoming incubation centers for community.  Many of us will retreat to the soothing ambient noise found in a coffee shop or turn to the dim lights and high end touches for a romantic date night. There are also restaurants that take advantage of their location and offer rooftop, or outside access.  I even have been to a restaurant near the beach that had a volleyball set up and other beach-related activities.  

  • What types of groups do you want visiting your restaurant?  
  • How can you foster the natural communities that are coming to your restaurant?
  • Is there an activity or type of entertainment you can offer your guests beyond food?


Innovation Through Community

Bringing customers value through altruism, commonality, providing hope

Many restaurants adopt programs that allow them to give back to the communities their restaurants are in. Some restaurants have a fundraising program for community groups, some give to different charitable organizations, and some have developed specific programs around a need they are passionate about.  At the heart of innovation is looking for a new way to address a problem, and so charitable programs are a natural fit for creativity and great way for all involved to incubate innovation.

  • Is there something you are passionate about beyond the restaurant that gives back?
  • Is there something you can do for your team that helps their work-life balance and/or careers?
  • Is there a way to integrate your operations into giving back to your team, community, or a cause?
  • Is there a need in your team or community that isn’t being addressed?