Never before has innovation been as essential to running a successful quick-serve restaurant concept.
During what has turned out to be the most daunting recession in our nation’s history, innovation has been the driving force for the concepts that are beating the odds.
Often, the inspiration for innovation comes from the top, and that certainly holds true for the following leaders, who were selected from a wide-ranging list of successful operators.
These chain executives are making a tremendous difference in the quick-service industry, both inside and outside of their own brands.
They inspire their thousands of employees to improve products, services, or operations, and, as a result, are making a difference in their customers’ lives.
Though many operators have picked up the innovator baton since the recession began back in 2007, these industry stalwarts have made innovation a priority for years. And they wouldn’t have it any other way.
David Novak has been blazing innovative trails for more than 25 years.
Now that journey has him taking on the world.
As chairman and CEO of Yum! Brands Inc., parent of such brands as Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut, Novak says his company’s mission is to be “The Defining Global Company that Feeds the World.”
“I view our 37,000 restaurants—in 100 countries—as laboratories where we can experiment, learn, and share best practices on a global scale,” he says.
“Our scale is an advantage in so many ways. In just three years, our World Hunger Relief effort has generated massive awareness, volunteerism, and funds for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and other hunger relief organizations saving millions of lives.” To date the initiative has raised $60 million for WFP.
That’s a tall order for a marketing major from the University of Missouri.
During his 20-year tenure with the company, including 10 as its chief, Novak has more firsts than even he can count. But much of his success is rooted in his ability to inspire his team members to bring their A-game.
“In our culture, we believe that everyone can make a difference regardless of where they are or what function they work for. Some of our greatest innovations come from our franchisees,” Novak says.
“My constant challenge to everyone is to ask, ‘What can I do now to get breakthrough results in my piece of Yum?’”
Among the hundreds of innovations during Novak’s run is the iCHING internal business network, which allows employees worldwide to collaborate and share best practices; the Achieving Breakthrough Results high-impact leadership training; an aggressive international expansion program; and such popular menu roll outs as the Kentucky Grilled Chicken product line.
“Building knowhow is one of our How We Win Together principles that defines our culture,” he says. “It’s a key to innovation.”
“Breakthroughs come when we get people with knowledge thinking creatively. I also like to practice ‘pattern thinking’: the ability to make connections, pick up on consumer insights or trends, and apply what’s going on in the world to our business.”
And that business has been moving full steam ahead. Last year marked the ninth consecutive year that Yum opened more than 1,000 restaurants outside the U.S.
The company is ranked No. 239 on the Fortune 500 list, with revenues of nearly $11 billion in 2009.
And that’s the kind of innovation every stakeholder likes to see.
Jeff Harvey inhabits a world where innovation is the rule, not the exception.
Charged with bringing profitability and long-term growth strategies to Burgerville, the 39-unit gourmet burger chain based in Vancouver, Washington, the affable CEO has brought several innovations to the chain since joining the company in 2004. Though it already had a solid reputation for embracing sustainable values, under Harvey’s leadership it continues to push that envelope by increasing its base of local suppliers and offering more seasonal items.
Since its inception in 1961, the company has always maintained a commitment to fresh, local, and sustainable offerings through partnerships with local businesses, farms, and producers. It is a process the CEO wholeheartedly embraces and continues to grow.
In 2009 he introduced beer and wine, as well as monthly specials inspired by a fresh, seasonal ingredient.
Harvey also opened up the drive thrus to bicycles and introduced a mobile food truck, the Nomad.
“The Nomad food truck came from seeing a lot of well-trained chefs opening up their own food carts,” Harvey says. “I was struck by the vision of opportunity they saw, and it started me thinking about what street food meant to the rest of the world. I saw a huge loyalty among the patrons.”
Harvey also introduced a pilot program that lets customers know the nutritional value of their order when they receive the receipt.
In addition to overseeing the chain’s many food-related innovations, Harvey has been responsible for “greening” Burgerville’s restaurants, making them more energy efficient to operate.
Converting used trans fat–free cooking oil into biodiesel fuel, expanding its leadership development training, implementing recycling and composting programs, creating an affordable employee health care program, and encouraging the company-wide use of wind power are just some of the initiatives that have left competitors scratching their heads.
Harvey, whose background is in electrical engineering, is a self-described “information hound” and a “a lifelong student of transformation.”
“We’ve all had experience with incremental change, but transformational change is something very different. At Burgerville we believe your best strategy is an innovative strategy.”
It’s a safe bet that Harvey already is working on the next chapter in Burgerville’s “transformational change.” And if you’re wondering where his next innovation might come from, wonder no more.
“I am really intrigued these days with packaging, and I have been paying close attention to delivery models, or how you get the food to the guests.”