Since new developments are the products of a creative mind, we must therefore stimulate and encourage that type of mind in every way possible. George Washington Carver
If you look at, you know, the limitations of creating new products, you’re only limited by the technology that you have to work with. Homaro Cantu
(insert customer made illustration of chart showing a typical new product life cycle.)
The new product cycle is a very interesting thing. Usually it all begins with a small team within the organization developing a new idea. Sometimes in smaller organizations it’s not a team but just one person. In the case of small, family owned restaurants like ours that person is usually the chef. This person is the member of the team that loves experimenting for hours in the kitchen trying out new recipes, new sauces, or cooking up new ways to present menu items that already exist. Sometimes it’s the marketing people like myself that comes up with a new idea. I can tell you from experience that this sort of thing s just one of those things you have to do all the time in order to get good at it. It’s a matter of practice, experimentation, and open-mindedness.
Right now my brother Steve is experimenting with a whole new way to cook and present the falafel plate and wrap. The falafel plate now comes with 5 pieces of falafel patties, hummus, tahini sauce, tomatoes, pickled turnips, lettuce and pita bread. For those of you reading that aren’t familiar with Falafel it is a globally recognized dish that is made with garbanzo beans (chickpeas). We grind these beans after cooking them rest every morning with tahini sauce and fresh spices. The patties are then deep-fried in order to produce the falafel. After trying fresh-made falafel in Lebanon a few years ago my brother was inspired to make our recipe better. Right now we are experimenting in Pasadena, and if all goes well the new recipe and presentation, now coming with 6 pieces in the plate, will be introduced at all our stores.
And such is the way we conduct business in small family-owned restaurants. One person is inspired by a trip to Europe or another local restaurant and an idea is born. As perfectionists we won’t rest until we improve on the concept until it’s good enough to launch. In my case I recently created 3 new items: The “Big” Family Meal, The Mediterranean Feast, and the Mediterranean BBQ Special. All of these brand new items are set to launch with the re-designed catering menu. This new catering menu took me about 10 months to make. I worked on it every day, little at a time, and almost every single week. We did a grand total of 5 photo shoots, takes and re-takes, about 60 hours of post-production photoshopping, and about 30 hours of graphics and font production. As you can imagine, this takes a tremendous amount of brain fuel and patience to deal with.
The way this all started was through experimentation and research. I looked at the numbers and the Family Meal was doing so extremely well compared to the other items. Usually that’s a good thing, however it was performing disproportionally well when compared to the other items, to the point where it was skewed at about 85% for the Family Meal and the rest of the gross sales of the entire catering menu consisted of the other 11 items. When the one most popular item is eating up 85% of the sales, you have to ask the right questions. In this case, the right question would be why? Why is one item so popular when compared to other items? The answer was that this item was priced at under $20 and gave a family a lot to eat. It came with a whole chicken and sides and was an amazing deal. Why not build on that concept and build a few more items that are around the $20 or $30 mark and expand on that?
The real art of creating such menus and new items is the patience required to wait until he right time in order to launch it. You have to show it to the food department, the kitchen people, the wait staff, the cashiers, and the line cooks. You have to get everyone’s opinion slowly and gradually, as the process moves along. We do this because you have to iron out all the kinks before you launch the product. You never know how the cooks might have an issue with a particular product. You should also run it through your managers as they often have great ideas on improving the product. For example, my original idea for the Big Family Meal consisted of 2 whole chickens and just 2 sides. The developed product eventually featured 4 sides and was basically a “double” portion of the Family Meal we already had. The Family Meal is a whole chicken with 2 large sides. So the thinking was that the “Big Family Meal” has to be a double portion of the current Family Meal so as to not confuse our customers. Now I never thought of that when I was developing this product. My thinking was to make a 2 chicken combo product with as few sides as possible, because I figured people can simply add sides but can’t take it away. My team members and brothers convinced me otherwise.
So you may not end up with the exact menu item you imagined, but you will often end up with something better through collaboration. The problem is we don’t have patience. It’s so easy to get angry when people keep giving you advice and direction about a concept you originally thought of. It’s hard not to take it personally, like an attack on your idea is somehow an attack on your person. We have to learn to distinguish between the two, especially if we ever hope to have peaceful teamwork.
Another example is the Mediterranean BBQ Special. My original idea for that was simply a whole chicken and a kabob plate. After speaking to one of our managers I was convinced it might be much better to offer customers any 3 kabob skewers they wanted and any sides they wanted with the whole chicken. The result was a beautiful new product we now have that combines our two current best-sellers: the chicken and the kabobs. I’m very proud of the catering menu. Not because it took 10 months to finish but that to me, it’s a symbol of effective and symbiotic collaboration amongst our team.
Sometimes, people will love the product you help create much more if you simply involve them in the creative process. You can come up with the idea and ask several people to help you make it better and better. The new product life cycle can start when you reach a certain point where people just can’t make it any better with their ideas and revisions. When does that point arrive? I don’t know because it’s difficult to say. Don’t expect perfection because perfection will never come. If you are aiming for perfection I can promise you that the project will never be completed. Aim to be exceptional rather than perfect. The time comes when the ship has to set sail. In the case of our new catering menu revision, my project began in January of 2014 with the first all day photo shoot at our beautiful store in Burbank, and ended with technical work in downtown LA to add digital files to my work, followed by printing it in a where house in west LA.
The introduction must be as smooth as possible. Make sure you have a few training photos of the food will actually look like, not just what it looks like in the promotional material. Do a practice run for a week before you officially launch the product. This is necessary for the cooks and cashiers to be able to learn all about the new product and iron out any glitches they may run into. It’s also important they learn the product by heart, so that they won’t be caught off guard when the receipt machine spits out the new product in the middle or lunch rush. That would be a catastrophe, not least because you don’t want customers’ first experience with your product to be a complete mess, with wrong orders or if the cooks make it the wrong way. So practice, practice, practice. Have the cooks make it for you and send the food to a friend or have a customer try it for free. Not only is this fun but it’s great practice for everyone.
The growth stage of the product occurs naturally when the product was the result of good customer surveys. For example, many years went by when customers would continually request us to make fresh-steamed rice for them. So what do you think happened after we introduced steamed rice a few years ago? You guessed it! It’s now one of the most popular side orders, with multiple families ordering it every day, especially with the whole chicken. The same with the tabouleh: we introduced it after multiple requests. Any time this happens you can expect to find it difficult to keep up with demand. Customers are so great because they are predictable. If they are requesting a food item repeatedly, you can expect them to be buying it from you once you launch.
The growth stage can be much higher on the curved graph if you push the new product with radio ads, video commercials on YouTube or television, and magazine or newspaper ads. The graph can also be extended. So after you launch the product follow up the launch by advertising the product. This will extend the growth stage and assure a successful launch. You don’t want to be embarrassed by a product failure.
The maturity stage represents that stage when it’s at the top of it’s success and is likely to start falling. This is true for most technology companies. Take the example of Apple and the iPhone. Every version of the iPhone peaks at popularity during launch, and even shortly thereafter. The curve goes up, up, up! Right now as I write this in September of 2014 Apple just finished it’s record-breaking launch of the iPhone 6, which sold over 10 million units. It is now selling in the Chinese black market for $2,000 each, a 500% mark-up. Eventually it will decline slowly, at which point Apple will launch iPhone 6.5 (likely called iPhone 6S) and then the iPhone 7. So the cycle goes on and on. But in the food industry the product does not have to decline so much after launch. It can be something that is high on sales, steadily, for many years after launch. Our kabobs were launched about 10 years ago and to this day are best sellers! They continuously rank in the highest grossing items of everything we offer. people simply can’t get enough of delicious, fresh and hot kabob that is made-to order!
So consider all of this on your next product launch. Hopefully it will be a very successful one. I wish you the best!