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Collaboration is the Heart of our Kitchen

Insights & Innovation |  7.16.2019

We recently opened our new headquarters building, situated along the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. With it came a renewed energy around innovation and collaboration that was baked right into the design. In addition to serving as our global headquarters, 2400 Market is also our culinary research and development center.

The vision for the new space placed the kitchen at the center of activity for our employees and visitors, who can witness and, at times, be involved in the process of fine-tuning new menu items. Walking through the doors of the new kitchen, visitors quickly see a space designed to increase collaboration. Our culinary innovation and development teams concept and test new menu items, then work with the operations team to seamlessly launch those items into thousands of locations.

Our development chefs have the benefit of seamlessly testing a recipe in operations. At our Simple Spoon food hall, employees and visitors enjoy fresh, authentic recipes in a modern environment using the latest consumer technology. 

Our innovation team is made up of development chefs, product developers and system and standards experts who work together to launch and maintain new recipes, menus, concepts, and brands. To dive into how this collaboration works and what our clients can learn from it, we talked to Heidi Hogan, Vice President of Product Development in Culinary Innovation; Chef Marion Gibson, a Culinary Development Director; and Simple Spoon Chefs Joe Ricci and Tom Medrow.

Built for Innovation

Our new headquarters is home to a shared kitchen that’s used for everything from culinary development and innovation, to daily food operations for our employees, to education and demonstration. “I believe that the kitchen really is at the heart of the home,” says Gibson. “And that’s true here. People gather around the kitchen and in the food hall; it's the place to be.” With help from a giant window, employees can watch what’s happening in the kitchen at all hours of the workday. As they look upon the happenings, there are a multitude of activities they can witness. But one thing these activities have in common is an increased level of collaboration. The space was designed for teams to come together. 

While the operations and development teams have their separate sides of the kitchen, they share space and equipment, opening the door for face-to-face conversations. The culinary development team, which is responsible for creating new menu items, can go straight to the operations team and ask for real-time feedback, making the process more efficient. 

“During the design, we built it and broke it and built it and broke it,” remarked Hogan. “It looked really good on paper but now we've been here for over six months and it's working. We're so proud.” The space had to be designed so there wouldn’t be competing priorities and each team can accomplish what they need to. “There's a lot of activity happening, and that truly is where the rubber hits the road on the relationship and partnership between operations and development” says Hogan.

The Product Development Cycle

So how does this collaboration turn into tangible concepts? “We run what we call a new product development process for innovation and that starts and ends with insights,” explains Hogan. “That includes consumer and operator insights that we take into consideration when we're building anything.”

By having the full closed loop of testing under one roof, we’re able to save time in getting concepts up and running. Hogan explains that it’s different than taking a new concept to a location to test it. “It just helps from a complexity perspective. Once we get a finished product, we get immediate operator feedback on equipment and process. It allows us to work through things and process them on the line.” As Gibson explains it: “It’s like an ‘instant pilot’. We can spend less time testing menus and concepts to figure out how everything will function in our client accounts. We’ve been able to simplify the whole product development process.” By testing and refining the process in our own kitchen, we’re able to get new menus and concepts into our clients’ kitchens more quickly. 

A New Way of Working Together

The new kitchen and collaborative space enhance this development process. As Gibson puts it: “We get excited and like to challenge ourselves. But then we come back and we say: ‘Alright, now someone has to go make this out in the world.’” In an operating environment outside of our own kitchen, a multitude of pressures from speed of service and other factors can mean that a recipe can be more of a nuisance than a success if not set up properly. 

We have the ability to test new snack and beverage products through The Marketplace which offers grab-and-go options and easy purchasing through self-checkout kiosks.

Hogan explains that one decision to change something in development can have repercussions for several teams. “It requires communication back to all of the cross-functional teams. Not just ‘Hey, we're making this decision.’ Because there's implications everywhere.”

Gibson agrees. “There is a ripple effect in everything we do during development – we never want to make decisions in a vacuum. This partnership has been a great way for the operations team to be involved in the development process and vice versa. It gets us all thinking in a much more cohesive way.”

One example of how this collaboration has resulted in a better product was when the team wanted to put a plant-forward spin on the traditional creole flavors of Cajun rice. Gibson and her team made a new dish in the kitchen and felt as though they had a revelation, but were concerned the recipe wasn’t translating well to instructions. Since plant-based meat alternatives are still relatively new and different, they asked the operations team to make a batch to see what worked and what didn’t.

Chef Joe came back a couple days later with his notes, leading to everyone talking about the recipe, asking questions, and making tweaks. The chefs fell in love with working with this new type of protein; however, the team needed to fine-tune to optimize the recipe for recreation across locations. “It's a matter of thinking through how it will be executed in the field, and if that matches our intention for the dish,” remarked Chef Joe.

The expression “too many cooks in the kitchen” doesn’t really apply here. According to Chef Tom, “The more eyes and hands you can have on it at once, the more room for improvement.” Changes can be anything from confirming the size of a portion, to the order in which the recipe is prepared, to the types of equipment needed, but all these small tweaks get the team closer to creating a winning concept. This on-the-spot proof of concept leads to a better process and ultimately, a better product.

We communicate to our accounts and locations the lessons we learn through such collaboration and testing in the kitchen. As Chef Tom explains, “the things that would affect us can be disseminated to any other location that may be experiencing something similar.” Learnings from the first iteration of a concept or menu item can be applied to future development, ultimately leading to greater consumer satisfaction.

Tapping into Employee Expertise

One huge benefit of using our headquarters as our center of product innovation is being able to tap into our employees to gain new perspectives. Hogan explains, “On any given day, we have more than 1,000 people we can now tap into across multiple segments and demographics. From an ideation perspective, everybody's in one building. We can pull many people much more easily into the ideation process.” 

One example of successfully tapping into our employees was when we were testing a new concept for our higher education locations. We were able to pull in employees who were recent college grads and closer to the consumers we were catering for. These employee voices paired with the feedback we receive from external consumer panels arm us with the insights we need to bring successful concepts to life.

"Everyone has a deeper sense of ownership on the final product, and everyone feels like they had a hand in it."
- Chef Joe Ricci

Our employees feel more invested in what they’re trying, because they in some way or another affect its success or are affected by its success. As Chef Joe explains, “The guests that come and eat at the headquarters are, at one point or another, a part of everything that we do in the kitchen, whether it be on the sales team or the marketing team. Everyone has a deeper sense of ownership on the final product, and everyone feels like they had a hand in it. It's great to serve guests that have that kind of investment into what you're doing, an emotional connection to the food that you serve.”

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