Monday, March 13, 2017

Attack of the IHOP Whipped Cream Dispensers

It was 1988 and I had a cash flow problem. Money was running low so I took a consulting job with IHOP I really didn't want.

A little background: the over-arching business problem of a breakfast restaurant chain is they are only busy in the mornings. This is a hard enough marketing challenge for breakfast-heavy restaurants like Denny's but especially difficult when your name is as limiting as the International House of Pancakes. The marketing team at IHOP were always trying to think of ways to increase lunch and dinner business.

That day in 1988, Genius One, in a stroke of insight, said to Junior Genius Two, "Let's add a Chinese Chicken Salad to the menu!" Junior and all the sycophants in the lab nodded gravely and commented, "Great idea" and so on and so forth. "Arse-kissing", the devilment of clear thinking, was leaning against the wall, twirling his black mustache.

Genius One called me and asked if I could develop the product, "Fast," he said, "We're having a franchisee meeting in a few weeks—and we'll pay bonuses." I needed the money so did I argue? "And" he added casually,"we don't want to add ingredients to our inventories." What did these guys think I was—a magician? Well, yes they did because that's what one had to imply in order to get work in those days. 

Even the photo of the current
president features a stack with a dollop.
Time passed in a cloud of Asian salad dressings while I tried this with that and that with this, formulating always with a calculator in one hand and a scale in the other. Hanging at eye level was a list of all the ingredients IHOP kept on hand because those are the ones I could use. It was hard turning pancake mixes and breakfast ingredients into something Asian and I'm not going to divulge all the magic here. Note however that the salad would be one of the few items on the IHOP menu that wouldn't come with an optional "dollop" of whipped cream.

Let it be noted that I did the job....almost no new ingredients, food cost exactly right, flavor profile pretty good (IHOP good) and no slowing down the cook line. In fact, the cook line might speed up a bit because the BTU load of food on the grills was reduced. 

The day of the franchise meeting dawned and the marketing group was crazy nervous. The intent of the meeting was to energize and inspire everyone. Much back patting took place. The marketing people were the stars of the show, presenting the marketing strategy for the year ahead: ads were shown, new products evaluated.

I came on stage with Genius One and he presented the dubious strategy while I had the salad and ingredients to show. The booing started almost immediately. Franchisees looked at each other in disbelief and either laughed or got angry. To say we bombed would be a gross understatement.
At first there was silence. Then a lone voice asked, “Where would we put the whipped cream?”(1)
Other voices joined in—
CHINESE CHICKEN SALAD??? Are you out of your minds?? they asked. That was the question that should have been asked in paragraph three by Junior Genius Two; the corporate executives; or even me if you were looking to pass the buck. They never even bothered to taste the salad or admire all the technical details.

In the end, it was the strategy that flopped and I'd still stand today behind the architecture of the salad. I remained on good terms with the marketing geniuses and worked for them on more successful products in other companies.

Along with my Danny Kaye flop, that fateful franchisee meeting haunted me for years afterward. I had nightmares about the franchisees in a mob, chasing me with their whipped cream dispensers.

"Get her!" they shout.

(1)IHOP employees don’t always respect and revere the dollop as they should. In the memoir The IHOP Papers by Ali Liebgott, she states “...the whipped cream cans are usually flat because Tim and Kristen suck the gas out of them to get high.” Who knew?

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