Innovation can be as life-altering as the Internet or as unexpected as the semi-sticky glue on a Post-it. The restaurant industry has always been a rich source of innovation, and this year’s National Restaurant Association Restaurant Innovation Summit, November 5-6, in Cleveland, is designed to teach you how to innovate, with workshops and presentations by some of the foremost innovation experts in the country. To whet your appetite for innovative ideas already at work in the industry, we’ve gathered lots of clever examples. Hopefully they’ll spark some ideas for your operations.

Take the Big Mac outside

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London is home to the first McDonald’s to go, the order-kiosk equipped, take-out-only McDonald’s. There is no seating, no artwork, no cashiers or registers (it’s card only), and only best-selling items are on the pared-down menu. The size of a small garage, it looks like an ATM vestibule, but a small kitchen in back is in view. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Luna)


Labor saving, space saving, safety enhancing

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After 50 years, Arby’s traded in its oven-plus-hot-holding cabinet platform in 2015 to ovens that cook and hold the chain’s iconic roasts in the same chamber. Employees no longer need to transfer roasts from the oven to the holding cabinet, and by outfitting the new ovens with temperature probes, the company further reduced labor. Staffers used to have to record temperatures 50 to 60 times a day on clipboards (washing hands and donning gloves each time). The probes record and download temperatures automatically now. (Photo: Kenneth Hamlett Photography)


Drive-thru only

chipotle

Chipotle is adding drive-thru pick-up-only lanes to select units in six states. You can’t order from a “Chipotlane” – you can only pick up what you already ordered online. The drive-thru lanes work for customers and third-party delivery people who would rather not get out of their cars.


The beauty of ugly vegetables

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According to the USDA Economic Research Service, more than 30 percent of the food produced in the U.S. goes uneaten, much of it deemed too “ugly” to sell in retail. 21 Greenpoint, a Brooklyn restaurant, has a hit on its hands with its well-advertised “21 Sunday” brunch and dinner menu options made of ugly vegetables and food scraps that otherwise would go unsold and into the landfill.


Food halls as innovation incubators

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Galley Group’s six food halls give multiple budding restaurateurs the ability to try their concepts out in a high-volume incubator/accelerator setting. Guest concepts pay no rent and no fees. Instead, for 30 percent of top-line revenues, the hall covers advertising, equipment, upkeep, and utilities. As other food halls open across the country, this style of foodservice operation is likened to food trucks without the trucks.


Starbucks invests in innovation center

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To speed innovation and customer service improvements, Starbucks created its Tryer Center where headquarters employees – and soon employees throughout the company – are encouraged to submit and try out ideas for improving store operations, menu items, service, and more. In the last year or so, the company has tested more than 130 ideas at the center, with many already in stores including the Cloud Macchiato. The mantra is “idea to action in 100 days, then learning and improving.”


Career path for rehabilitating youth

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Chad Houser, founder of Café Momentum in Dallas, is a champion of hiring and training youth transitioning out of the justice system. Since 2015, Houser has trained hundreds of newly released teens through his year-long apprenticeships at the high-end venue. Their new skills give these kids a career path and a road to financial stability. And the program provides Houser with a consistent pool of good, eager-to-learn employees.


Ghost kitchens: an evolution

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Zuul Kitchens in New York City offer shared kitchen space to established restaurants allowing them to fulfill their delivery business without interrupting their brick-and-mortar business. Zuul pays for the building, utilities and even washes the dishes. (Photo courtesy of Corey Manicone)


Kiosks and delivery boost Panera’s sales

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With digital order kiosks in stores and the launch of self-operated and third-party delivery nationwide, Panera is enjoying more than 1.7 million digital orders a week, with digital sales representing more than 35 percent of total business. Mike Bufano, CFO and executive vice president, cites an optimal “desire-to-friction” ratio as inspiration – increase customers’ culinary desires and reduce every friction in the way they can fulfill those desires.


Pancake selfies – ready to post

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In 2015, Holiday Inn Express hotels launched the Pancake Selfie Express, a mobile pancake truck with a crowdsourced name of “The Stack Station,” a machine that puts customer selfies on the actual pancakes. The nine-city tour resulted in more than 16,500 pancakes and 33,145 on-site customer engagements.


Food truck, innovation on wheels

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The food truck business is currently estimated at approximately $100 million annually according to Forbes, and growth is expected to continue. Although their origins can be traced back to the 1800s – New York pushcarts and Old West chuck wagons are forebears – trucks today are incubators for innovation, allowing entrepreneurs to try out concepts without the cost of a brick-and-mortar. Conversely, they enable brick-and-mortars to try out new locations.


Pizza anywhere you are

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Pizza and delivery have been synonymous for decades, but traditional delivery has meant customers need to be at a specific street address to meet their delivery person. Chains such as Domino’s now offer delivery to public areas, or hotspots, listed on the company’s smartphone app. Need more food at your picnic? Pizza’s on the way!


Nitro cold brew: the beer of coffees

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With the continued rise in popularity of craft beer, nitro cold brew coffee is capitalizing on the artisan appeal. From its debut a few years ago at Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland, Ore., the creamy foam and enhanced sweetness that results from injecting nitrogen into cold brew coffee is catching on across the country. The cost of equipment and training offsets with premium pricing.


Low tech, high return equipment

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The Kinaya brothers invented the Genius Pan when they were turned off by a subshop’s sad looking ingredient display. Rotate the rim of their pan insert and the screw-sided container rotates the bottom of the pan to the top so ingredients push to the top, always looking full and fresh. In another example, Flat Tech founder Tony Pike was inspired to find a cure for wobbly tables when his friend, after a tipsy table toppled his coffee, told him “Whoever invents a way to stop tables from wobbling will be a billionaire.” Pike’s system of hydraulic-fluid-leveling bases and feet is low-cost and ingenious.


Own the farm and the table

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Lots of restaurants offer farm-to-table cuisine based on the products they get fresh, direct from farms. Cleveland’s Spice Hospitality Group, which includes Spice Catering Company and Spice Kitchen + Bar, does the concept one better: For the past six years, the company has been operating Spice Acres, a 13-acre farm it leases in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. In addition to providing ingredients for its diners and clients, the company offers farm tours and on-site special themed meals.


Induction cooking: old idea is totally modern

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In the past decade or so, induction cooking, de rigueur in Europe, has become increasingly popular in U.S. restaurant kitchens for its speed, energy efficiency and lack of radiant heat into the kitchen. Did you know that induction cooking made its debut at the 1933 New York World’s Fair (despite having been patented in the early 1900s)? Some ideas need time to come into their own.


In-house ghost kitchen

fatburger

While most virtual, or “ghost,” kitchens are delivery-only operations for virtual restaurants, L.A.-based Fat Brands is using space in 15 of its Fatburger and Buffalo’s Express locations to make and market its Fla.-based Hurricane Grill & Wings. Using its own name online and logoed packaging, Hurricane Grills & Wings now delivers to a whole new market without a single new physical location.


Freshening up the Quarter Pounder

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It’s not easy to change, but it’s often worth it. The burger giant took a major plunge and introduced fresh, never-frozen beef patties in March 2018; today it’s in all 14,000 U.S. stores. Investments in new equipment and cooking procedures have paid off: Quarter Pounder sales are up 30 percent on average since the switch, with 40 million more sandwiches sold in the first quarter of 2019 than the same quarter a year before.


Honey, turn up the heat

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Since the introduction of a combination of honey and chilis as a pizza topping took off at a Brooklyn pizzeria in 2010 – suggested by an employee who made it for himself – hot honey has become a staple not only on pizzas nationwide, but variations are taking off with chicken, shrimp, sandwiches and other menu items at chains and independent restaurants.


RFID for PDQ service

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Instead of giving customers numbered table cards (that servers hunt for while juggling dishes), Utah’s fast-casual Blue Lemon restaurants install radio-frequency identification tags under every table. Typically used to trace and track retail products in the supply logistics world, the RFID tags send a signal to a screen that shows servers the exact table location for the order. The tags reduce service times by one to five minutes and they time orders too, calling attention to long waits.


Diners: disconnect!

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Hearth, a Tuscan-American restaurant in the East Village, New York City, offers diners a simple way to put their cell phones down and enjoy an evening of food and conversation the old-school way. Diners are invited to put their phones in a beautiful vintage box placed on each table.