Some ideas are big ones, right from the start. Others start small and grow into something more significant as they are cultivated, enhanced, championed and fine-tuned. Food Management’s annual Best Concept Awards program highlights those our editors think exemplify some of the best creativity and innovation in the noncommercial marketplace, and at this year’s MUFSO Conference, we held a summit panel with most of the 2013 winners to explore that process.
The conversation was wide-ranging, touching on topics from concept ideation to strategies for obtaining buy-in from administrations or clients, from project management to the roll out and continuing operation of new menus, services and venues to ensure their ultimate success. Here are a few excerpts distilled from our Summit panel.
John Barrett, assistant director, Turner Place at Lavery Hall, Virginia Tech
Bob Clark, executive chef, Bon Appetit Management Co.
Bill DeSoto, executive chef, Restaurant Associates
Brian Finn, senior director, program development and deployment, Sodexo
John Miller, system director, culinary wellness, Henry Ford Health System
Angelo Mojica, MPH, RD, CEC, director of food and nutrition services, UNC Hospitals
Van Sullivan, manager, retail dining services, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Maureen Timmons, director of dining services, Northeastern University
Beth Winthrop, MS, RD, CNSC, national development director for wellness, Sodexo Campus Services
Our goal here is to talk about the concept development process, how new concepts are first envisioned, then proposed, refined and executed. In your own experiences, how did your concepts first start out? Let’s also focus on the development differences between custom concepts and those that are going to be rolled out to a large number of client locations.
Winthrop: The beneficial ideas often start out the same either way—Simple Servings began in the field, at Northern Arizona University. We have a process in which innovations that are tried on a given campus can be submitted in a Sodexo awards program. At the school, there was a large group of students who had various allergies, including sensitivity to gluten. The initial concept looked to provide offerings for that group, but also to show how students could learn to prepare such meals for themselves, using simple recipes and ingredients readily available in supermarkets.
There was a basic need beyond just developing a special menu: a lot of kids at that age do mainly restaurant eating and not much cooking. If you have allergies that can be quite difficult. So the goal was to make the idea of cooking for yourself feel achievable, that they could take care of themselves.
When the program was submitted as an innovation, our offer development group said, “Yes, this has real potential for our clients,” and began developing it so it could be adopted more widely. But it didn’t start out that way.
Miller: At Henry Ford Healthcare, our Livewell program also started at a single location, at West Bloomfield, which was a new facility. We started with Henry’s, a café used in the acute care facilities within the system. We were looking to re-invent it to comply with Partnership for a Healthier America guidelines and to support the integrated wellness approach we emphasize at Henry Ford.
We visited a number of different retail operations, in healthcare but also other segments, looking at concepts like buy-by-the-pound or by-the-portion deli concepts that might work in our cafés. But we also knew we would have to adapt these kinds of ideas for our production needs, to ensure efficiency. Our project team included three dietitians, two retail managers and me and we kept refining the approach over several years.
Clark: The chefs at Bon Appetit experiment all the time and we are constantly sharing our ideas at weekly manager meetings and in our internal newsletters. Our menus need to recognize criteria like seasonality, sustainability and so on, but we encourage a lot creativity.
We frequently do “pop-ups” and moveable stations that are customized to individual client communities and these are very shareable. Many good ideas are generated this way, but sometimes I think that if you try to blow up a good concept too big, it won’t work as well. Our best concepts are usually specific to the communities they serve.
Adapting to the consumer
DeSoto: Restaurant Associates is based in New York City. There’s so much going on there all the time in terms of street food and ethnic food that a lot of good ideas start out that way. I like to try some ideas out at a Chef’s Table, with a limited number of portions available on a given day. This gets people excited, and also lets you test concepts to see how well they work out.
I agree—you always have to adapt a concept to the customer population. If you work in a financial institution with a lot of traders, service has to be very quick—traders don’t want to wait because if they’re not at their terminals, they’re losing money. Paninoteca, a gourmet meatball sandwich concept, fits well in that kind of environment and our production system is geared to speedy service.
Food trucks are very popular right now, but the customers who like them are usually willing to wait—sometimes we see queues with dozens of people in line. But others won’t have the time for that, and you have to balance your concepts to serve both kinds of groups.
Finn: It’s a real strength when you can leverage intellectual assets at the grass roots level, to develop concepts that can be rolled out more broadly. But that said, sometimes you begin knowing you’ll do a national rollout. When we originally conceived Did You Know, we were looking to replace an earlier program for middle schools that had become dated. It had been very successful but was geared to offerings that wouldn’t match the needs of the new USDA requirements.
We sat down for an extended ideation session—the team included our marketing people, our creative agency, senior leadership and field representation.
Because school nutrition is so important for tweens, the age group we’re talking about, we wanted to make the cafeteria an extension of the classroom for them. At the same time, we tested various ideas and found they didn’t like them—they wanted the cafeteria to be a place to get away from the classroom, to chill.
In the end we had four concepts that we tested with 600 kids in about 30 focus groups around the country, sometimes even separating the boys from the girls. One concept emphasized the science of food; one was called Café Create and was artistic. The one they went for started out as “Cafeteriology.” It used fun facts about the food and exercise and tips of the week and eventually became became DYK Café.
Mojica: I formerly worked for a large management organization and when I came to UNC Healthcare it was a different kind of environment. To implement new ideas when it is a single organization, you have to focus on getting the entire team fully engaged.
We wanted to put in a patient room service program but couldn’t go the typical route because we had to remain labor-neutral. Our restaurant delivery is based on using the branded concepts and menus we have in retail. Instead of 17-20 entrees that’s typical in room service, we started with 40 and kept growing—there are more than twice that on the menu now.
I came up with an acronym, NEIDI—”No one Else Is Doing It.” When you tell staff no one else is doing it, they get excited and will work hard to be first. You make the project special.
Barrett: One of the characteristics of higher ed is that you have a 25 percent changeover in your customers every year. The window for big projects like our Turner Place at Virginia Tech is May through September. That has a big influence on your project management.
You have to have a clear vision of what you want to accomplish and you need to have a seat at the table with the architect, the general contractor, the sub contractors, the consultants.
When I started on the project, the building was nothing but concrete floors, steel girders and dust! You have to dive in head first, going through the blueprints and details to make sure everything is consistent with what your operating needs will be. It was a full time job—for one year I worked on nothing but Turner Place.
Timmons: It was beneficial to us to have worked with the design team members on other projects in the past. When we renovated Curry Retail at Northeastern, that was the case. We have project managers within each group—dining services, the management company and facilities— and we all knew our roles. It is important for each stakeholder to advocate for his or her area while collaborating to create the best outcomes for the customers.
Sullivan: At UMass we were in that same boat on our renovations. Sometimes it comes down to being incredibly aggressive with your project manager and contractors, leaning on them to listen to foodservice consultants who do understand the operating needs and have been through it many times before.
Miller: When it comes to large projects, one of my thoughts is—Don’t always try to do it yourself. As a team, you are able to put together a much better plan and will have more success in getting an administration to sign off on it.
The Partnership for a Healthier America program has guidelines for patient and retail offerings and we delegated different aspects of it to members of the team. I was the champion, but we knew that everyone on our staff were going to have to be the ones to go out and deliver the message once we started making the necessary changes. So they really needed to have the knowledge about everything we were doing and why were doing it.
Taking on big projects
Winthrop: The role of the champion is really important. You want to find champions on the staff as well. With Simple Servings, we found that a line person with personal experience with allergies can make all the difference to the students who see that they take the issue personally. They can inspire other staff as well.
Finn: That is certainly true when you roll out a program to a large number of accounts, as we did with DYK Café. In a way, we viewed it like a large catered event: success depends 80 percent on preparation and 20 percent on execution. So it really pays to do your due diligence in the development stages.
We took a “Good, Better, Best” approach—recognizing that not every location could have all the bells and whistles of the fully-implemented program at the start. But we established minimum standards necessary to protect the program’s integrity and steps each location could take to become better and then to reach the best level over time.
Winthrop: We used an approach we called the “M3s.” Things you Must Do, things you Must Not Do and things you May Do. We used that to provide guidelines for food allergy issues where the bottom line is safety and consistency and accuracy are critical.
Mojica: While we were able to integrate the patient meal production with our retail production, we still had a full-blown rollout in terms of room service logistics. We spent a lot of time talking through the “Whys” of our program—why we were doing it, why it was so important to our patients.
Getting buy-in, not only from our team but also from the ancillary team, the nursing department, was really important. But there was a lot of enthusiasm and I found staff doing things they wouldn’t normally do. By the time it rolled out we had 300 project managers!
Timmons: Our operations are run by Chartwells and when we begin any dining projects we involve them immediately. They are the operators and it’s imperative to get their input at the beginning of the planning process and throughout the renovation.
Sullivan: All of the retail locations on the UMass campus are operated in partnership with other departments. You have to be proactive and really keep feelers out to know which groups are planning to renovate space. That’s when to ask, “How would food fit into this building?”
You want to partner up early, sell your capabilities. You want to have a good reputation for doing projects well—that makes it much easier to go to a busy administrator and say, “Here’s how we will finance it, here’s the business it will attract, here’s the green initiative,” and so on. If you want to sell a project, the best way to do that is to be known for doing a good job.
Our project, the Procrastination Station, is in the library. Six years ago there was no foodservice in the library and we fought tooth and nail to get a space with one electrical circuit and no running water. But we made it work and it was successful, it grew to $1000 a day.
As study habits changed, the big room that handled book returns wasn’t being used to capacity and the library came back and asked us to work with us on the renovation. So just staying the course and sticking to a vision goes a long way. When the Library Administration talks about the library now, the foodservice is part of the conversation, it’s a big deal.
DeSoto: The flipside of that is what we bring to clients is the ability to adapt to any space or facility that we’re given. We adapt to the mistakes of designers and take foodservice to the next level in spite of them. It may not be ideal, but we make the food talk. If the food is good, people are going to come for it.
Barrett: You also have to plan to execute with consistency. At Turner Place, the food was great the first week, but it’s your job to make sure it stays great, consistently. You have to create different ways to get feedback, especially criticism.
Sullivan: I don’t think anyone belongs in the industry if he or she can’t take criticism and learn from it. It’s not pleasant to ask 20,000 young adults what they think of your food, but you need to hear it. We have a “text and tell” feedback program and sometimes are aware of day-to-day problems even before the manager on site.
Clark: In my world the stations and concepts change every day. Keeping everyone on the same page is tough, but it’s a great challenge to have. We do a lot of walk-throughs.
Miller: One thing we’ve done with hourly staff is a volunteer program in which we give them a certain number of hours a week to work on areas of improvement that they have themselves identified. They bring an issue to us and we ask them to look at the process and see what can be done to improve it. They know the ins and outs better than anyone and can often find ways to make a program more efficient.
We do tell them up front that there are some ideas that may not be practical, because of financial or other reasons. But we have never had a solution put forward that was over the top in terms of cost.
Timmons: Marketing communications are critical over the course of any size projects, but especially during renovations. When renovating 30,000 sq.ft. in the center of campus, there are a lot stakeholders! We communicated often via social media and regularly sent pictures from inside the renovation space to keep the dialogue streaming throughout the project. At the site itself we posted large banners and pictures to show the progress being made and share additional information about brands, opening dates, hours, etc.
Finn: You also have to remember that there is always more than one target group and that the message can vary depending on whom you are communicating with. With DYK Café, we were looking to communicate with seven different groups. We had over a half million kids that that program touches and we were communicating with them in one fashion. There were 750 site leads, a couple of thousand workers, and the foodservice director who had to make sure the program got deployed correctly. Our senior leadership team had a different set of expectations. We had the external school administrators and potential new client partners who also to view things a little differently.
It’s really important to identify such groups up front and to make sure the message you are communicating is on target for the group you are looking to reach.