In 2002, after an 18-month job running the F&B department of a well-known hotel in New Orleans, USA, I returned back to my hometown Mumbai, India. I always knew I wanted to start my own business.
After a few months of trying to work in my father’s business, I was bored. I needed to start something of my own, something exciting, something that would be my creation. Something that would make me feel worthy of my formal education and training in hospitality.
I started one of India’s first Italian chain of restaurants and home-delivery stores.
At the time, most people in the city hadn’t tasted pasta, and the version of Pizza they knew was far from what I had eaten in the west. So I decided that I would introduce Italian food to the masses. Create an Italian food revolution. I could see Pizza and Pasta being widely accepted by an Indian palette because of the commonalities between both cuisines.
Italian food used tomato, onion, garlic, cheese, and flour in a lot of their meal preparations and so did Indian cuisine. All I had to do was Indianize the Italian cuisine a little bit for it to work.
It did work! Below you’ll see a few pictures of pizzas and pasta with toppings of tandoori chicken, makhani (butter) chicken, schezwan vegetables (Chinese preparation) and Indian spiced vegetables.
Sounds crazy right? But, it worked. My customers loved it.
A few years later, after trying out several new dishes, I gave up experimenting and stuck to the same menu for a few more years.
I began to hear my servers and delivery boys say that our customers were unhappy and bored because they had been eating the same thing for a long time.
But, It’s not like we didn’t innovate, change menus around, introduce new dishes, have special promotions, etc. So then why were they getting bored with my food?
At the same time, the competition was getting fierce. Dominos, Pizza Hut, and a few other international casual-dining chains were entering the Indian food market with similar menu items and faster delivery service.
It began to hurt my business. I couldn’t compete with their big marketing dollars, large investments per store and their research and development for new menu products.
I was scared.
Luckily at the same time, I went to a conference where I heard how other big companies who were not from the food business were listening to their customers and creating products and services designed specifically for them.
I came back inspired. I wanted to do the same. It seemed like the most logical way about creating new menu items.
So I started to ask my customers what they wanted. Some customers didn’t have any suggestions, but most did.
I began experimenting again with their suggestions and came up with a few enticing menu items. The new dishes became a hit with my customers.
I was excited. I thought I had hit a gold mine. This simple process of listening to my customer and experimenting with new dishes to arrive at the final few recipes that my customer enjoyed seemed too simple. I wanted to continue doing it again and again.
But, a few months passed, and I fell back into my routine of being an owner, and my creativity took a back seat. (Sounds familiar?)
I was tired, stressed about employee issues, getting my books in order by the end of the month and so many other problems were taking up my time.
And, my biggest problem wasn’t food, but employees.
It wasn’t until I put all my energy into solving my employee turnover problem that I did some digging and found out that my employees felt like they didn’t matter. They said they’d be happy to continue working for me if they felt valued, appreciated and acknowledged for their work, and involved in bettering the business.
So, I decided to start a competition.
Whoever could create a new recipe that I liked by the end of the month would receive roughly $150 prize. But on one condition. The dish had to be created according to what the customers were asking for or suggesting.
I didn’t know that a usual thing was about to happen.
My entire team, both the front and back of the house got together to experiment with and find the perfect next dish.
The servers took it upon themselves to speak with the guests and take their feedback, something I had been trying to make them do for a few years. They then communicated their findings to the cooks, and the cooks got to work.
What was happening?
Feedback from my customer was channeling the creativity of my cooks to come up with innovative dishes that my customers would eventually like.
This was a cycle of innovation through a simple process of research and development that didn’t involve me anymore.
I felt proud. Like my children had grown up to finally understand the business. You have to give the customer what they want through your creativity and hard work.
It felt great.
A few months passed, and I had a bank of new recipes that I introduced depending on the season, but this time I knew each recipe would be a success because innovation began with asking the customer what they wanted in the first place.
Gradually, my revenues began to increase. My employees became more entrepreneurial in their way they were thinking as compared to how a typical employee who came to work just for the pay.
I began to see a culture of research and development take place within our existing culture.
And, my customers were happy that they got to try new dishes on the menu nearly every time they came back.
Everyone was happy, but most of all my employees felt valued for their initiative, appreciated for their creativity, acknowledged for their uniqueness and involved in the growth of my business.
They stopped looking for jobs elsewhere and decided they were most happy working for me.
I was the happiest person on earth.
Try creating a culture of research and development in your restaurant business. The above method makes it easy for restaurants of any size to create one for themselves. Make it easier to create new dishes and cocktails your customers would be happy to pay for again and again.
If you’d like to know more about the customer feedback process I spoke about, go here.
P.S. My intention at F and B Business School is to help as many food business owners like you. I want you to have a better life with your partner/spouse, more time to spend with your kids, more disposable income so you can do things like hire a babysitter anytime you want and create a safety net for your family. I want you to earn more so you can enjoy the good things in life. And work with employees you love who will go on to make your customers happier. And your happy customers will then go on to make a positive difference in your community, because of you.
You can create that change. Share this article with any food business owner who can benefit from changing the way they see and do things and adopting the industry’s best practices in their business, so they too can earn more, upgrade their business and enjoy their life.