How to innovate

For the secrets to a top-selling sensation, we asked the inventor of one of the industry’s biggest.

Dominique Ansel starts his day the way every operator wishes he could: With $1,000 in guaranteed revenues before the doors even open. But the chef and creator of the Cronut didn’t set out to concoct a best-seller. “There was no magic formula or marketing strategy behind this croissant-doughnut hybrid,” he writes in his book “Dominique Ansel: The Secret Recipes.” He was simply trying to make a doughnut, for which he had no recipe.

Ansel followed the same creative process and poured in the same amount of time and effort that he applies to all of the confections he invents for Dominique Ansel Bakery in New York City. And for that, he’s been called “genius” by Mario Batali and “a culinary van Gogh” by Food & Wine. “It was simply another creation,” he writes. “Nobody could have imagined what would happen next.”

Even if no one could have fathomed it, plenty of people in the restaurant industry would do anything to recreate that success. To find out what it takes to discover the next Cronut, Restaurant Business asked Ansel for his advice on how to conceive of something that’s never been done before, how to sell customers on the idea—and, more importantly, how to do it again. His answer: Start with curiosity. 

Practice your signature

The key to thinking up something “new,” says Ansel, is to create things with your signature on it. “In the world of fashion, you look at a dress and immediately you say, ‘This one is Chanel.’ It’s the heavy personal touch that is unique.”

Involve customers in the process

You have to find a way to reach out to customers and get their feedback, says Ansel. “I’ve found social media [to be] a great way to show guests what I’m working on and see their responses,” he says. “Every time we launch a new menu, we’re constantly asking our regulars what they think, and we often send out advance taste tests to our friends whom we trust in.”

Create a culture of innovation

Running a business that encourages innovation is not just about investing the money. “You have to budget time,” says Ansel. “You are not necessarily spending more on one type of ingredient versus another. It’s about pushing yourself and being a self-starter and teaching your team to do the same. The whole company must have a culture of innovation, which is not something you can build into a business plan.”

Don’t jump to judgment

Motivating employees to be innovative takes a lot of work, Ansel says. “You have to keep pushing, and give constructive feedback on why one thing may work and another won’t.” You also have to let them try, he says. “It may not be my favorite idea, but until I see it, I won’t judge too early.”

“You always start with just curiosity. You can’t start off trying to expand or increase profits. You need things to stem from passion.” 
—Dominique Ansel, Cronut inventor

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