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The One Question Foodservice Leaders Need to Ask Before Innovating: Is it Real?

By Matt Mueller

When you are involved with innovation at your company, you lose count of how often you hear, “You know what we should do? [insert any idea here].” Then, without a moment to lose, you are Alice falling down the rabbit hole of no return. 

Alice In Wonderland

Maybe that’s a bit dramatic. However, it’s true. Industries are moving so fast that we do not spend enough time vetting the ideas before pursuing them. We are quick to say, “Great idea!” Then, we send our teams off to execute these new ideas, usually without taking anything off their plate and expecting them to accomplish it on top of everything else.

Looking For Signs

I wholeheartedly believe that we must walk our stores and restaurants with customers—allowing them to lead the way. This is where we get our richest insights that pave the way for ingenious ideas that can revolutionize industries. Walking the foodservice locations with customers, almost without fail, they would not recognize our limited-time offers even though we had beautiful signs wallpapered everywhere in the location. We spent millions of dollars on these signs, yet no one ever sees them. 

We were growing frustrated with the lack of customer awareness, and then, one day, we went to a merchandising expo. We discovered many cutting-edge concepts as the team, and I walked the expo floor.

There were automated replenishment systems, augmented reality, holographic displays, and much more. But there was this one display that caught my eye. It reminded me of a holographic baseball card crossbred with a video screen. The images popped off the screen, and the animations demanded the attention of passer-byers.

It was a no-brainer; this sign would solve my problem of customers needing to look at my sign. Months of development went into creating a cool and relevant sign for our customers. There was no way they could ignore our signs any longer!

Oh, but they did. After a week of testing in busy Manhattan stores, we did not get any new impressions or increased sales because of the sign. We had a very specific problem and a great innovative solution to solve it. What went wrong?

On the last day of testing, I left the stores frustrated and confused. I returned to my hotel that evening, answering emails while walking down the block.In the distance, I could see an orange blur growing closer and closer towards me. Eventually, I had to look up. The orange in the distance was a Monk standing before me on the sidewalk of a Manhattan block.

It was so odd, so surreal. He put his palm out in front of him and presented me with a bracelet. It was a wooden mala bracelet that monks typically wore. I knew that this moment was profound. I considered this the universe giving me advice: slow down and be mindful of your innovation

The speed at which we move and the vast number of projects we tend to work on cloud our judgment, and we don’t criticize it until after it fails. Imagine if we criticized before we began?

Mindful Learnings

In my hotel room that evening, I sat and meditated for the first time in years. And it was the first time I ever meditated with a business intent. I asked one simple question to myself that evening, “Where did I go wrong on this concept?” It hit me like a lightning bolt down my spine—the problem wasn’t real! Sure, it was a problem that I spent millions of dollars on signs customers weren’t looking at. However, no one cares about that problem except me. It’s not a real problem that anyone else will get behind. 

But why didn’t I see this before? It was simply a case of us moving too fast on too many initiatives. We never stopped to ask if this was what we should be working on or if there were other priorities we should tackle first. And we definitely didn’t think about what we needed to table from our existing workload. The speed at which we move and the vast number of projects we tend to work on cloud our judgment, and we don’t criticize it until after it fails. Imagine if we criticized before we began?

From that moment on, I began to analyze each idea through the “Is it real?” filter. 

Ask one simple question from three angles, “Is the problem real?” Customers, Company, Employees. For instance, my problem was that customers were not looking at my signs. I needed to ask, “Is the problem real?” from all three perspectives.

  • Is it a real customer problem? NO
  • Is it a real employee problem? NO
  • Is it a real company problem? YES
"Is it a real problem?"

If you have less than two that are “Yes,” you are not dealing with a real problem that needs to be solved. Just because I want people to look at my sign doesn’t make them look at my sign if I just design it better. But what if I flipped my question? 

“How do I get customers to look at my sign?” 


“How do I solve a customer and employee problem with my sign?” 

Once the question changed, we were able to find a win-win-win. Customers would come to the counter of this foodservice location and, in their interaction with employees, would have to choose product thickness. Employees would ask customers, “How would you like that sliced?” Which customers regularly responded, “Thin?” Almost like it was a question. The employee took their interpretation of thin and sliced it…thin. It required employees to walk back and forth to the customer to confirm the slice was to their liking, “You mean like this?” That was usually received a reply, “No, no, a little thinner.” It reminds me of a great YouTube video by Cheetoh Studios about the Deli experience. It highlights the problem and the dire need for a solution for customers and employees. 

Cheetoh Studios, Deli Scene

Developing a sign that shows the thickness of the slice helped everyone! Here are the benefits for all three parties:

Customers: They have more confidence answering the question, “How would you like that sliced?” and it saves them time at the counter since they no longer need the employee to make multiple adjustments for each item.

Employees: They can save multiple trips back to the customer to validate the slice thickness and not get as frustrated with customers, creating a better customer experience. 

Company: Save labor dollars by employees completing transactions quicker, and they look at my sign!

This made it a no-brainer problem for us to tackle and create a sign that could illustrate thickness options for customers. We gained near immediate acceptance from customers and employees because the problem was real and worth solving. Before you start any new initiative, ask this one question from three perspectives (customer, company, and employee), “Is it a real problem, and is it worth solving?” Do this, and you’ll avoid most rabbit holes on your path.

Innovator Matt Mueller

Matt Mueller

Thanks for reading! My goal is to provide an insightful, simplified, point of view on innovation, CX and insights to help you create positive change in everything you do. 

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