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"Food Innovation" is a hot and sexy term in marketing circles, print media, social media, etc. Food companies and restaurant chains like to stick this term on R&D departments, corporate headquarters and business cards. Food innovation connotations almost always represent a positive business process or profitable business outcome. But truth be told, food innovation can have a messy, ugly side to it, that many food executives don't want to deal with.

The messy side of food innovation was recently highlighted in a recent Wall Street Journal article titled "Innovation Is Messy Business" written by Daniel Michaels (1/24/2013). To understand the messy plate side of food innovation, it is important to recognize a few U.S. business failures. Failures always clarify reality, and should represent positive food business building blocks. A successful business manager, chef, or food scientist needs to embrace the role of both successes and failures in the new product business cycle.

Innovation missteps

Michaels' article listed a few missteps:

  • Red M&M candies were discontinued in 1976 because of concerns over red dye. They returned 11 years later;
  • Car air bags. When first introduced, they were too powerful and resulted in some child fatalities;
  • Smartphones. Nokia's first smartphone in 1996, the Communicator, could email, fax, and Web surf but was too thick and heavy for mass adoption.

And I have seen similar product processes over the course of my career. A great innovative idea is shelved, only to be resurrected years later as a successful new product. The right "opportunity window" needs to open.

A current technology misstep: Boeing's Dreamliner airplane

Michaels highlights Boeing's Dreamliner as an example of how (technical) problems often mar technological advances. He states that nine years ago, Boeing Co. executives decided to take the biggest leap in airline technology in a generation to develop this airplane. They promised it would burn less fuel while flying further and offering more passenger comfort than existing models (all true). The plane represented a real industry game changer, and showed Boeing's commitment to innovation. It also generated record sales orders.

The game changing shadow

As Daniel points out, today Boeing is struggling to master its innovations. The plane's body and wings, made of plastic reinforced with carbon fiber, have proven unexpectedly hard to produce and attach. Most recently, lithium-ion batteries that provide auxiliary power have caught fire — resulting in plane groundings and delayed deliveries.

Lessons for food and restaurant industry

My caution to the food and restaurant industry is this: Don't use the innovation term lightly. And don't place it on your R&D business cards if you're not committed to both the glamour and messy sides. Culinary chefs and research scientists need the daily assurance that top management is truly committed to calculated risks. And always remember, incremental innovation is merely line extensions at best often used in LTO promotions. True food innovation is usually technology driven, and often called a "Game Changer."

For more information on implementing a "New Product Innovation Culture in your company," Food Technical Consulting (www.foodbevbiz.com) is providing on-site hands-on corporate 2-day workshops and coaching sessions – and a yearly 3-day industry workshop in Denver on "How To Implement New Product Innovation Business Processes and Principles in Your Company," March 18-20. Contact me at dsuderman@foodbevbiz.com or 303-471-1443. A course manual will be available for sale to international small business operators who cannot attend.

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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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