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Thirty great ideas: Part 1 in a five-part series

Abbie Westra, Director, Editorial, CSP

OAK BROOK, Ill.-- Large or small, an “a-ha” moment can change your business, your momentum and your morale. Inspired by the ideation stage of the innovation process, Fare has pulled together a list of great ideas from all corners of the foodservice and retail industries.

This collection is meant to inspire action for your next great idea. Whenever you’re feeling creatively stumped, just open this up and start ideating.

Following is the first installment of our 30 Great Ideas. Watch for the next issue of Fare Digest for the continuation, and get the March issue of Fare for the complete collection.

1. Menu Monitors
Research consultancies are constantly monitoring instances of ingredients on menus--and so should you. Among some top menu buzzwords: The appearance of peanuts on menus more than doubled (101.5%) from 2006 to 2011, according to Technomic. In the pizza segment, the firm finds growing instances of sweet, hot, smoky, spicy and even fruity flavors topping pies.

Fellow Chicago firm Datassential stated in its MenuTrends 2012 report that the increasingly popular Thai condiment sriracha is found 40 times more often at food trucks than at QSRs.

The top-growing sandwich protein at QSRs? Egg whites, followed by pulled and shredded pork (slow-and-low is in vogue).

2. Creative Vending
Forget the usual candy bar and soda. A crop of new ideas is stocking vending machines with very different products. In Brooklyn, the Swap-O-Matic consists of items donated by customers. When you donate, you receive credits that can be used toward “purchasing” other items in the machine.

At Lil Mart in Odenville, Ala., the Smart Butcher meat vending machine sells a wide variety of meat (New York strip, rib-eye, sausages) for $6 or less per piece. Kroger recently opened a 10-foot-by-13-foot robotic c-store at Ohio Northern University in Ada that dispenses as many as 200 items, including refrigerated foods. Meanwhile, in Europe, automats such as Febo are quite popular, particularly among youth. There have even been rumors of this format showing up stateside.

3. Brown-Bagging It
How do you encourage customers to purchase a combo meal? Bag it up for them. C-store chain Thorntons, Louisville, Ky., displays a 44-ounce fountain drink cup and a bag of chips packaged in a Thorntons Quick Cafe-branded bag. The guest need only grab the bag, pick a sandwich and fill the cup, and they’re on their way with a $5 combo.

4. A Room Key and a Toastie
It’s happened to us all: checking into a hotel late--and starving. A couple of Hyatt Place hotels in the Chicago area have installed high-speed Merrychef ovens and, upon check-in, front-desk associates ask guests if they’d like a freshly toasted sandwich to take to their room. The perk accommodates busy and late-night travelers and keeps their money in the hotel.

5. The New Cupcake
Here we have a curious collision of trends: the ongoing cupcake craze paired with a desire for creature comforts. Put them together, and you’ve got meatloaf cupcakes. Luckily the two have little in common beyond presentation, which is also quite portable. Cook meatloaf in lined muffin trays, or cut to fit after cooking. Place in a fresh liner, top with piped mashed potatoes and any additional garnishes.

Supermarkets are using them to draw attention to the deli, and Chicago food truck/restaurant The Meatloaf Bakery peddles options such as El Loafo Del Fuego: ground pork, chorizo, green olives, hot peppers and almonds, baked and topped with garlic potatoes.

6. Grilled Cheese Gourmet
From upstate New York c-store chain Nice N Easy to No. 2 coffee chain Caribou, grilled cheese is popping up on menus across the spectrum as a canvas for countless flavor combinations.

But these aren’t the sandwiches of your youth. Operators are filling them with every ingredient imaginable, from a grilled-cheese Reuben at Nice N Easy to The Brasserie at Milwaukee’s Melthouse Bistro: Brie, braised short ribs and pickled red onions on country French bread.

To jump on the grilled-cheese train, follow these tips from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board: Grated or shredded cheese melts better than slices, and cheese is best grated when cold and melted at room temperature.

Watch for the next issue of Fare Digest for Nos. 7-12. A special thanks goes to our team of innovators who helped us create this list: Joseph Bona of CBX in New York; Melissa Abbott and her fellow consumer-trends gurus at The Hartman Group in Bellevue, Wash.; Ken Toong of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst; Chris Koetke at Kendall College in Chicago; Dan Chiado and the rest of the team at Olson Communications in Chicago; and Aaron Noveshen and Judy Hsu at The Culinary Edge, San Francisco.

Abbie Westra, CSP/Winsight By Abbie Westra, Director, Editorial, CSP
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