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What is the trendy thing in foodservice equipment innovation and commercialization? And is the current trend in equipment development misdirected?

The answer to the first question is easier to answer, but the answer the second question is critical to the future business growth of new and old restaurant concepts.

Misdirected CEOs and COOs?

In my opinion, the trend in foodservice equipment development and innovation (and I am not sure it is innovation) is creating idiot-proof equipment. In other words, how can I develop a conveyor-driven impingement oven that can deliver both a medium and well done hamburger patty at the same time? It seems that some restaurant chains are committed to spending a lot of R&D capital to design such idiot-proof equipment. It makes me wonder whether CEOs and COOs want this equipment so that they can hire idiots. I am assuming that idiot-proof equipment will also reduce store-level training costs — i.e. they don't need to train the people on making the food because it is already idiot-proof.

What can we learn from restaurant reality shows?

I admit that I am a restaurant reality show junkie, and some of my favorite shows are "Restaurant Stakeout," "Restaurant Impossible," and Mystery Diners." And I can't recall one failing restaurant that was failing because the meat wasn't cooked to the right internal color. Restaurants and restaurant chains fail because of poor customer service, rudeness, bad menu, poor training, and customers getting sick because of food safety mismanagement.

The Chick-fil-A "6-Day Model"

By comparison, does Chick-fil-A succeed with a 6-day work week because they have more innovative equipment than the rest of the industry? I don't think so! In fact, I would say Chick-fil-A proceeds somewhat slower with innovation so that they can learn from others and mitigate their risk. Meanwhile Chick-fil-A daily chips away at excellent customer service, delivering the same high quality food daily, store cleanliness, providing free samples, and learning their customer's first name! Gee, this sound like a lot of hard work, but it also sounds like a recipe for a debt-free restaurant chain.

When is equipment innovation innovative?

Equipment innovation is innovative when it solves a "technical problem" and adds "shareholder value." I had the opportunity to lead an "Equipment Innovation Team" at Boston Market. Our team was assembled to solve multiple problems in a single equipment redesign. Some of those problems included inconsistent chicken cooking, wasted air conditioning energy, inefficient gas consumption, etc. Our job was to create a successful rotisserie oven where others (KFC) had failed.

In the true spirit of Innovation Teams, we selected a diverse team of technical skill sets, restaurant experience, and creativity. We implemented new product innovation processes designed to deliver new product innovation. And the results speak for themselves. The result of our new product innovation efforts were a new rotisserie oven that reduced HVAC yearly costs over $2,000, 40 percent more gas burning efficiency, consistent chicken quality, two new U.S. patents, and an operational cost advantage over KFC – that was stuck with "electric ovens." Our team also had to set up a production line for the chosen equipment supplier. Now that is innovation!

CEO accountability

I challenge restaurant Board of Directors and private equity owners to hold CEOs accountable for meeting new innovation metrics, and justification of money spent on equipment innovation — because the money just might be better sent delivering the Chick-fil-A "6-Day Model" or setting up a true "New Product Innovation Team." It's worked for other industries outside the food industry — I'm thinking Apple. I believe a lot of R&D resources and funding is misdirected in the restaurant industry, and more funding needs to be applied to food safety initiatives. I understand this because I also work as an expert witness, and I see the cases mounting.

Dr. Suderman teaches Innovation Workshops in corporate headquarters and convenient regional locations, and speaks internationally on innovation is such countries as Turkey, Korea, and Thailand. Please contact him at dsuderman@foodbevbiz.com for information on innovation workshops – and Food Technical Consulting's next industry innovation workshop entitled "Batter-Breading and Marination Technology" at JBT Food Tech in Sandusky, Ohio, August 20 -22, 2013. To register, contact dsuderman@foodbevbiz.com or 303-471-1443.

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Latest posts by Darrel Suderman
Darrel Suderman
Darrel Suderman, Ph.D., is president of Food Technical Consulting and founder of Food Innovation Institute. He has held senior R&D/QA leadership positions at KFC, Boston Market, Church's Chicken and Quiznos and led KFC’s development team of “Popcorn Chicken”, now a $1B international product –invented by Gene Gagliardi.
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