Innovation is a word that gets tossed around a lot these days, almost to the point where it loses its meaning. If every new menu item, piece of technology or restaurant design is touted as the most innovative ever, what truly is innovative? We think we found 50 answers here. Not only are these ideas imaginative and inspiring, they work hard to improve business and set trends. In compiling this roundup, we spotted several hotbeds of creativity in bar service and drink menus, chic decor on the cheap, sustainability solutions and hyperlocal marketing. Maybe one or two will spark a great idea for your restaurant.
1. Noodles to go
Spaghetti Incident, a new full-service Italian place with a takeout window in New York City, borrows its name from a Guns ’n Roses album and its concept of serving pasta to-go in paper cones from Italy’s 1950s street-food scene. To hold up to the hustle and bustle of New York streets, owner Emanuele Attala and his partners developed a sturdy, no-spill carrier with a lid. The curved sides help guide the strands of spaghetti around the fork, facilitating twirling and lessening the risk of losing even a single caper on the ground, Attala says.
2. Grocery bag? Check!
St. Paul, Minn., gathering place Saint Dinette offers a complimentary grocery valet, so guests coming from the nearby farmers market can relax over brunch instead of rushing home to put away perishables. The cold storage is limited though, so the restaurant draws the line at holding refrigerated food; patrons with dry goods are on their own.
3. Preopening for locals
When Nando’s entered its second U.S. market this May, it made an effort to not only alert residents, but win them over. The chain treated those living and working nearby as a “priority market,” says Director of Marketing Sepanta Bagherpour. For the few days leading up to its Chicago launch (and at each opening since), the chain invited neighbors to come try its peri-peri chicken. But unlike traditional launches with comped meals, it ran as a pay-what-you-want operation, with all of the money being donated to a local nonprofit.
4. Coffee in the fast lane
Thomas Hammer Coffee Roasters, a 17-unit coffehouse based in Spokane, Wash., offers a separate line for drip-coffee orders. The “speed lane” is open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. for guests who want their morning joe sans frills; they simply leave about a dollar and pour it themselves.
5. Virtual pie case
Eight-unit Chelo’s used to display its fresh-baked pastries in pie cases. Recently, the Rhode Island chain went high-tech, replacing the cases with digital boards displaying messaging and photos of the pies (which are kept fresher in the kitchen) and allowing easy updates.
6. Self-serve brews at the bar
Beer and wine drinkers at New York City’s Genuine Liquorette don’t have to wait impatiently for a bartender—they can reach into a self-service refrigerator off to the side of the bar, take glassware and openers from a shelf and bring their drink to the table. A designated server stationed at the fridge takes the guest’s credit card and keeps count. Genuine Liquorette also has a security guard for over-imbibers.
7. Extra-meaty steak basting
While most steakhouses brush meats with butter, Chicago’s RPM Steak instead repurposes some of the trimmings left from in-house butchering. “We use all the dry-aged beef fat, which has been rendered with black pepper and garlic, and brush [that] onto our steaks,” says chef-partner Doug Psaltis. “It’s incredible flavor.”
8. On the (coffee) rocks
Booze-infused ice cubes have made a splash at bars. Queen of Cream in Atlanta, an ice-cream-and-coffee concept, takes a page from that playbook, freezing the cold-brew coffee it sells by the cup into flavored cubes. For $1 extra, guests can boost iced-coffee drinks with the frozen shot while Queen of Cream boosts checks.
9. It takes a village to raise a wing joint
To stimulate economic development and employment, the village of Obetz, Ohio, franchised a Buffalo Wings & Rings last December. “It opens up an opportunity for us to partner with other cities that want to invest in their municipalities ... instead of having their tax dollars sitting in a bank,” says Nader Masadeh, CEO of the Cincinnati-based chain. “There’s a need out there for it, and we are trying to build our brand around that need.”
10. Bespoke oysters
Chefs work with farmers to grow custom produce, so Jeff Tunks, chef-partner of Washington, D.C.-based Passion Food Hospitality, contracted with a Maryland oyster farmer to produce two bivalves tailored to his salinity preferences. “The Big Daddy was developed to enjoy raw; it’s oversized, buttery and sweet, with a deep cup that holds lots of briny liquor,” Tunks says. It joins Pure Passion on the oyster list at DC Coast, Acadiana and PassionFish.
11. CSA takes to the seas
Community Supported Agriculture counts both chefs and consumers among its fans. Now the model is being applied to seafood with Dock to Dish, founded by a former restaurateur. Chefs pay a membership fee and agree to take deliveries of whatever local fishermen catch off Montauk, N.Y. So far, it’s the more nimble, high-end chefs, including Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin and Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern, who are buying in. But founder Sean Barrett plans to make the idea workable in fast casual when he opens Dock to Dish to Go in New York City next year.
12. Recycling an idea: Scraps on the menu
WastED, a pop-up by New York chef Dan Barber devoted to upcycling food scraps, has inspired dishes on the menus of other restaurants. The latest: a wastED veggie burger at Shake Shack made with vegetable pulp reclaimed from a cold-pressed juice operation. It’s topped with lettuce, melted cheese trimmings, bruised-beet ketchup and honey-mustard mayo and served on a bun made from day-old bread. A percentage of the burger’s sales was donated to City Harvest.
13. A good match
Jax Cafe, a Minneapolis dining institution, prints personalized matchbooks on-site for guests. Owner Bill Kozlak says it’s one of the many special touches that creates lifetime customers. “Sometimes I ask: Is it worth it to spend $50,000 to $60,000 a year on this,” Kozlak says. “And the answer is always ‘yes.’ Many guests rebook for special occasions and say the matchbooks were top of mind.”
14. Fishing floats
Denver seafood restaurant Stoic & Genuine reused floats from Japanese fishing-boat nets in a decorative glass wall. “We found a guy in Alaska who combs the beaches for these glass floats that come ashore,” says chef-owner Jennifer Jasinksi. “We bought a bunch, and a local company built the lighted sandwich wall.” Wooden sand fencing adorns the ceiling. “Everything hints at being at the beach.”
15. Walls of poetry
The walls at chef Daniel Patterson’s Plum Bar in Oakland, Calif., are covered from floor-to-ceiling with pages from poetry books. The team—including Patterson himself—chose thousands of verses and put up three layers by hand, sealing them with a glossy finish.
16. Serving bowls
Asian-inspired Yellow Fever in Los Angeles builds its menu around rice and noodle bowls. The theme is echoed in the fast casual’s design, where melamine bowls in assorted sizes and neutral colors decorate the walls. “We tried using the same bowls we serve in, but they were too heavy to hang,” says co-owner Jeff Nitta.
21. Tapping the bitters trend
Putting wine and cocktails on tap eases bottlenecks at the bar and delivers value to guests. Best Intentions bar in Chicago has a new take on taps—dispensing bitters on draft. The bitters go into several retro drinks, including an old fashioned and a champagne cocktail. But customers also can order $4 shots of bitters to add to any beverage.
22. Sriracha at the pump
The spicy trend shows no signs of slowing; over the last five years, mentions of “spicy” on restaurant menus increased 14 percent, according to Technomic. And younger consumers are differentiating the types of spice they want, often pursuing popular ethnic variations. To appeal to that crowd, Chicago-based Protein Bar swapped out the traditional ketchup and mustard pumps in its self-serve stations for two trendy Asian hot sauces.
23. A saucy game of dice
At Breeze, an open-air restaurant atop Bangkok’s Lebua Hotel known for its five-course tasting menu, interactive elements are part of every meal. This summer, Executive Chef Sam Pang presented a pair of dice with his Ohmi beef course. Guests rolled the dice to determine which of nine sauces would accompany their dish. Call it grown-up eatertainment—and a boon for the indecisive.
24. New ways to use trays
Instead of having customers repeat their order as they progress down the build-your-own line at chef Jose Andres’ fast casual, Beefsteak (with two locations in Washington, D.C.), staffers use a marker to write the guest’s name and order on the food tray upfront. If the line backs up and staff lose track of who has what meal, the name is on the tray, adding a special touch to service.
25. Crowdsourcing the sports bar
B-Dubs TV, Buffalo Wild Wings’ internal TV network, got personal. The wing joint has called upon athletes and spectators in high school sports and recreational leagues to upload their action videos of “awesome plays, fanatical fans and cheery cheerleaders” via the chain’s Hometown Highlights website. The clips are reviewed by BWW staff; those chosen may air at 300 participating units or get uploaded to the website.
26. A way to keep warm
Chicago beer-and-bacon concept Kaiser Tiger has a large, bustling outdoor patio with bocce-ball courts, tables and occasional live music. To combat the unpredictable Windy City weather and extend the outdoor-entertaining season, the restaurant keeps a basket of fleece blankets by the door to the patio, inviting guests to snuggle up and stay outside on chilly days and nights.
27. Dessert-drink pairings take flight
At Gamlin Whiskey House in St. Louis, the choice between an after-dinner drink and dessert is not an either-or decision. Proprietor Derek Gamlin teamed up with nearby Clementine’s Naughty & Nice Creamery to offer a shareable Boozy Ice Cream Flight—three ice creams paired with three 1-ounce whiskey shots for $40. Clementine’s already was using some of Gamlin’s cocktails to inspire ice-cream flavors, so the flights were a natural next step. “We like to partner with local businesses to bring fresh ideas to our guests,” says Gamlin. “It’s a great way to experience the St. Louis food scene.”
28. Homegrown menus
Mellow Mushroom tailors each of its restaurants to the local market through menu, decor and other elements. In sync with that mission, the 170-unit casual-dining chain invited employees to help curate its new Homegrown Picks Menu. Servers, bartenders and cooks submitted personal recipes for pizzas, appetizers and cocktails using all in-house ingredients. Nine were chosen for the chain’s systemwide menu, which accounted for $1 million in sales during its run, says a spokesperson.
29. Communal comments
When servers at Coda in Boston drop the check, they include a notebook to jot down feedback on everything from food to ambiance to the server’s tattoo. Engagement is a two-way street, as guests are free to leaf through the notebook, which feels like peeking in someone’s diary.
30. Pizza via text
Domino’s AnyWare campaign plays into the hands of its mobile-loving millennial consumers by allowing ordering from practically any device. The chain expanded its pizza-emoji ordering beyond Twitter to mobile; diners with their numbers stored in Pizza Profiles can place a preprogrammed “Easy Order” with a single text—giving the chain customer data, too.
31. Barstool built for two
When couples want to eat at the bar, they often have to wait until two adjacent seats are free. Amy Morton, owner of Found Kitchen in Evanston, Ill., solved the issue with bar-height seats that two can share. Morton, a descendant of Morton’s The Steakhouse family, remembered a similar stool in her grandfather’s original restaurant, took an old photo to a furniture-maker and had the seats custom-made for Found. They grace both the bar and the chef’s table, which guests can reserve for date night.
32. Paleo promotion
On Wednesdays, Table & Main in Roswell, Ga., cross-utilizes ingredients on hand to create a paleo-friendly meal, such as Breakfast for Dinner (sage sausage, poached eggs and sweet-potato hash browns.) It’s fueled business on a slower night with new customers, say the owners.
33. The state of the plate
Many who visit Bluestem Brasserie in San Francisco are tourists or business travelers, say owners Adam and Stacy Jed. To connect with guests through their culture and food memories, they offered an American Road Trip menu every Thursday. It featured a sandwich, entree, dessert and cocktail inspired by a different state. The Oregon menu, for example, included Pinot Noir-braised short ribs, while a Miami-style Cubano was the sandwich served on Florida’s day.
34. Customizable walls
Instead of artwork, Ampersand, the 600-square-foot private-event space within Chicago seafood restaurant Kinmont, covered its walls in chalkboard paint. Those renting the room can personalize the space by writing their menus on the walls, posting a marketing message or jotting ideas during a meeting. “Probably the most central tenet of the Ampersand concept is the ability to customize the entire space to best accommodate the event taking place as well as the audience in attendance,” says partner Chris Freeman. Some guests get very elaborate, says one server, hiring chalkboard-stencil artists to spend upward of two hours decorating the whole room in illustrations.
35. Set house rules for social posts
When it comes to managing negative user-generated posts, Michael McCathren, manager of interactive digital marketing at Chick-fil-A, said at the September FSTEC conference that adding a “House Rules” tab to the brand’s Facebook page has been a game changer. It explains that the page was created for fans to exchange information about promotions, meals and experiences and lists a number of reasons Chick-fil-A may elect to delete a post, such as any that “include profanity, hate speech or attack another member of our community.”
36. House cocktails in a bottle
Guests who want to score one of the Daily Dozen bottled cocktails at Cured in San Antonio have to get to happy hour early. The housemade “cocktail sodas,” which serve one and sell for $10 a bottle, include Basil and Watermelon Rum Mojitos, Vanilla Mint Crush with Vodka and Texas Peach Pops with Bourbon. “We change the flavors daily and seasonally, and because of the handcrafted process, we limit the batch to 12 bottles a day,” says Chef Steve McHugh. “The small number makes them a hot commodity, and we often run out quickly.”
37. Putting beer on the map
The menu is a map at Local Brewing Co. in San Francisco. “We name our beers after places in San Francisco and use an old-school map illustration to show the location,” says co-owner Regan Long. Accompanying blurbs provide details on alcohol content and flavor profile of each brew.
40. Mix-and-match cocktails
The Promontory in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood simplifies—and customizes—craft cocktails by going “on the grid.” Guests choose a spirit from one column and a technique (carbonated, shaken or stirred) from another to land on a drink that suits their unique tastes. All cocktails are $10.
42. Real-time feedback
Earlier this year, Los Angeles-based Umami Burger tested an “Umamify the Guest” program. Instead of stuffing a survey into a check presenter or relying on Yelp, servers at Umami handed dine-in guests a coin at the end of their meal. Diners were asked to drop their coin into a jar that best represented their experience—stellar, good with room for improvement or bad. The jars were stationed near the exit, far enough from the host so diners would feel comfortable giving honest feedback, but close enough to spot a negative mark, affording the chance to get more details from the guest or server.
43. Tipping the cooks
To offset the disparity between the pay of front-of-house and back-of-house staff—the result of changing minimum-wage and tip-pool regulations—Alimento in Los Angeles was among the first to add a line for kitchen gratuity last December. “[It] is not a cure to the deeply problematic custom of tipping in America,” says owner Zach Pollack, but it does relieve pay-scale differences. A month in, kitchen tips were averaging 4 percent, he told Los Angeles magazine. Since then, Magpie Cafe in Sacramento, Calif., added two-tiered tipping to boost its kitchen’s pay. Table tents explain the model as well as suggest how much to tip servers (15 to 18 percent) and kitchen staff (3 to 5 percent).
44. These fries have eyes
Contemporary-casual Lungomare in Oakland, Calif., serves up a range of seafood—including trash fish such as smelts. To get diners more comfortable with this cheaper fish, chef Chris Pastena breads and fries them, mimicking french fries. As another nod to the popular side, smelts come with a red dipping sauce: romesco.
45. Paper and crayons 2.0
U.K.-based Ed’s Easy Diner has a 1950s vibe, but the chain entertains young patrons in 2015 style. Ed’s Junior Chef Challenge is a free gaming app that tests kids’ speed at building Ed’s burger and skill at stacking the layers correctly. High scorers are noted on in-store leaderboards.
46. Chef’s log
L’Appart, a station at New York City French market-inspired Le District, offers another twist on garnering quick guest feedback. Servers pass out a notebook with the menu clipped inside. Pages from the chef’s personal journal are etched into the notebook, creating intimacy and encouraging diners to fill the blank pages with messages for the culinary team.
47. A bowl of pie
Taking a cue from taco salads in edible bowls popularized by Mexican chains, Dallas-based Pie Five shapes its scratch-made pizza dough into an individual bowl, bakes it and fills it with one of four salads—chicken Caesar, Greek, classic Italian or spinach. The move aims to differentiate Pie Five in the build-your-own pizza segment and curbs veto votes from salad-craving guests.
48. Scents of place
Chef Nick Steffanelli partnered with a candle maker to develop custom candles scented to evoke the aromatic landscape and flavors of southern Italy—the region that’s the focus of his Washington, D.C., restaurant, Masseria. The blood orange, rosemary and sea-salt candles are lit at the host stand and in the restrooms. Masseria also gifts a candle to guests celebrating a birthday or anniversary; others can purchase them for $22 as a memento.
49. Countdown to Happy Hour
In June, Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails gave the people of Jacksonville, Fla., a reason to clock out a little early. The restaurant rolled out its Progressive Summer Happy Hour, starting with $3 drink specials at 3 p.m. After that, the drinks went up by $1 per hour, until 6 p.m. when normal happy-hour pricing kicked back in.
50. Trash tips for customers
When sustainability is key to your brand story, it takes clear messaging to get customers on board. To get waste in its proper place, fast-casual chain Sweetgreen points to compost and trash bins from the wall above—but those aren’t the only visual cues. Under the “Compost” label are sketches of food, flatware and bowls. And circular outlines on the bins themselves indicate where glass bottles should be recycled, not only providing guidance but cutting the risk that glass will shatter inside the bin.