Reporter's Notebook

Insights about the success of powerful industry execs

When I think about the rise of some foodservice chains – Starbucks and Chipotle, in particular – I recall a conversation I had years ago with Daniel Burrus about “decommoditizing” products or services. Burrus is a futurist, business strategist and the author of six books, including “Flash Foresight: How To See The Invisible and Do The Impossible,” and “Technotrends.”

Though Burrus was not talking about restaurateurs, his message goes a long way in explaining how Starbucks and Chipotle positioned themselves for business stardom with signature products that were far from rare: coffee and burritos and tacos. The founders of those companies – Howard Schultz of Starbucks Corp. and Steve Ells at Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. ­– are ranked Nos. 1 & 2 on NRN’s newly released The Power List, our take on the 50 most powerful people leading and shaping foodservice today.

Listen to what Burrus had to say and the implications for Schultz’s and Ells’ success (and then return by hitting the BACK button on your browser).

WELCOME BACK and don’t get hung up on Burrus’ example of moving to "all natural" ingredients to gap competitors only to move to "all organic" once they catch up with a 'natural' product line. The ingredient pedigree is not the point; the process of thinking about how to add value to your product or service is.

Burrus advocates that everyone weekly briefly “unplug” from the present to consider emerging developments and create or update a list of certainties, or “hard trends.” His long list of ‘hard trends’ includes the growing interest in more healthful lifestyles.

The futurist also advises such unplugged analysts to differentiate “linear changes,” or those that are not likely to reverse course, from those that are cyclical in nature.

“Once you get a ‘smart’ phone, you’re not going back to a ‘dumb’ phone,” he said, citing a linear change in a BigThink.com video on YouTube. “Once people in India get refrigeration for their homes, they're not going to say, ‘We don't need refrigeration.’”

Burrus says too many people and companies are frozen in place by concerns that what they don’t know may cause them to make mistakes, when they could just as easily dwell on what is certain and the opportunities associated with that knowledge.

There were plenty of uncertainties swirling around Chipotle’s Ells and Starbucks’ Schultz as they set out to create dynamic businesses based on twists to common products. But they chose instead to move forward based on what they knew.

In Schultz’s case, it was his understanding that some cultures had long appreciated coffees with pedigrees in a variety of different drinks and that a new kind of  “third place” outside of home and work might catch on, even as others, including bars and clubs, began to lose their appeal to many consumers. And for Ells, it was his detection of building consumer interest in how food is produced and his realization that some diners would stand in line and pay more for made-to-order meals perceived as being of higher quality than what was then offered by most fast-food sellers and on a par with more costly full-service-restaurant fare.

Business neophytes and veterans alike could do worse than to take a cue from coaches like Burrus and successful entrepreneurs such as Ells and Schultz who have intuitively decommoditized their products, in part, by recognizing and acting on hard trends and linear changes. The ones who do, might just create the future they want - not the one they fear - and, as a bonus, one day find themselves on The Power List.

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Reporter's Notebook is NRN's newsroom blog, where our editors give their points of view on news happening in the restaurant business.

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