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I have been thinking quite a bit lately about a comment made by Chef Jeremiah Tower during our recent podcast conversation.  He stated: “The restaurant industry needs an Einstein Moment.”  There are numerous ways that we categorize these occurrences:  Eureka moments, aha moments, or light bulb moments; but what we are referencing are those points in time when we suddenly understand the solution to a problem or the need for something that no one has pondered before.  With all of the challenges facing the restaurant industry today, it would seem that Chef Tower is spot on; but where do we turn for that flash of inspiration?

One thing is certain – we are overwhelmed with the problems of the moment and seem unable, or unwilling to move through the storm to blue skies that might exist beyond.  Those who have confidence in their abilities will often times say: “Give me some time to think, to reflect on my experience, to chat with a few friends, and I will find a solution to the problem.”  When we are able to set aside the pressure of the moment and let our imagination wander, there will be greater opportunities to find solutions and to define a new direction – one that might create even greater opportunities. 

I have been struggling to dig deeper into Chef Tower’s statement and have come to a few conclusions:

  • I don’t have the answers for the restaurant challenges of the day
  • I do have a better understanding of how we might collectively approach those challenges

There are a variety of ways that people, throughout history, have approached Einstein Moments – inspiration that leads to positive solutions:

  • OBSERVATION – Newton supposedly observed an apple falling from a tree and thought about earth’s pull – the result was an understanding of gravity.
  • EXPERIENCE – Horst Shultze, a young bellman at a hotel used his experience of working his way through various positions to eventually land the position of CEO of Ritz Carlton Hotels and their approach towards Total Quality Management.
  • TRIAL AND ERROR – Thomas Edison had thousands of failures before he was able to perfect the light bulb – the world has never been the same.
  • BUILDING A DEEP PORTFOLIO OF KNOWLEDGE – Doctor Salk, an accomplished researcher and virologist was able to build on his knowledge and that of his peers to develop the first vaccine for polio.
  • BEING BORN WITH THE GIFT OF VISUALIZATION – Steve Jobs was always able to envision devices and services that only he knew the world would need before they came to that realization.  The resulting products of personal computers, smart phones, clean and addictive MP3 players, and tablets are an integral part of our lives today.
  • DIGGING IN AND WORKING THEIR WAY THROUGH IT – This is the method that every professional chef has used for generations.

One thing is certain, as described simply by Albert Einstein:

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Ah – stay with me:  you might be thinking that the current challenges that restaurants face are all driven by the pandemic – so, we didn’t create them.  Certainly, the pandemic is a major curve ball that was not anticipated, but the effects on our businesses are crippling to this degree because of some deep seated issues that have been around for decades:  a labor intensive business, low profits, high rents, ingredients with a short shelf-life, unpredictable business volume, high cost of ingredients, and the list goes on.  In the end, the restaurant business did not have the resources or the wherewithal to weather this storm.  Our country will get through this crisis, but there will be others, maybe not as severe, but there will be others.  The Einstein Moment must begin with a realization of the “cause” so that we can find better ways to avoid curve balls in the future, or at least better deal with the “effects”.

Restaurant folks are pretty good at problem-solving when we can approach the issue in a logical manner:  “business volume is down and labor cost is out of whack so we change our operating hours and reduce the amount of labor needed – problem solved for the time being.”  But when the boat is leaking from a dozen different spots, then logic is far less effective.

“Logic will get you from point A to B.  Imagination will take you everywhere.”

-Albert Einstein

The industry’s current situation requires imagination that can lead to a Eureka moment and a new direction that attacks the root cause of leaking from a dozen different spots.

“Knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be.”

-Albert Einstein

Relying on what we know may simply not be enough to pull our industry out of the weeds, build on its solvency, and set the boat right as we move forward into uncharted waters.

Somehow the restaurant industry as a whole (ideally), or at the very least small groups of community restaurants need to make the time to step back, take a deep breath, put aside the pressures of the moment and let their collective minds wander.  What we are looking for is not a solution to a problem so much as it is a rethinking of how we perceive our businesses.  

If we are looking for those flashes of insight it is important to define periods of time when we can “incubate” our thinking – stop focusing on the current problems and allow your mind to observe, listen, drift a bit, take in your environment, share with others, tap into other interests, and give your mind a chance to breathe and clear ample space for new thinking.  It may mean that we need to engage with other stakeholders and rather than state your time-tested approach – open yourself up to their feelings, needs, and thoughts.

“The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design (and longer term challenge solving) we will have.”

-Steve Jobs

Think of some of the great new directions (and products) that came out of this “Eureka Moment” approach:

  • When asked what consumers thought about buying record albums in the 1990’s and beyond, it was discovered that they were miffed that they had to purchase an entire album to get the one or two songs that they really liked.  The result was Napster – a free (illegal) service that allowed people to download individual songs to their MP3 player.  The industry responded by filing lawsuits and taking Napster to court rather than listening to consumers and addressing the real issue.  Along comes Steve Jobs and Apple – iTunes is born and the recording industry is suddenly re-invented.
  • When asked what they felt about the decades old taxi industry – customers expressed their dissatisfaction with standing on street corners trying to wave down a cab.  The resulting Einstein Moment gave birth to Uber built on the technology of a smart phone. The taxi business was re-invented.
  • When customers were asked about the service they received from their banks – they expressed dissatisfaction with hours of operation and their ability to access service when they were not at work.  The result was an Einstein Moment that led to drive-thru windows and ATM machines that were available 24/7. The banking industry was re-invented.
  • And when it was observed how much time and effort was involved in shopping for everyday purchases – Jeff Bezos responded with amazon.com that gave customers access to nearly everything imaginable, available 24/7, delivered to your door in a few days, and now with Prime – without the cost of shipping on every purchase. The retail business was re-invented.

This is what Chef Jeremiah Tower meant when he called for a restaurant industry Einstein Moment – a time when a major paradigm shift results in reinvention, not fixing a problem.  Who will be our Albert Einstein, our Steve Jobs, or our Jeff Bezos?  When will we take a step back and allow our minds to wander, to incubate, and to think clearly about what the restaurant business can and should be like in the decades to come?


Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

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