Product development lessons learned from baking lasagna for the masses

A friend of mine is the owner and head chef of a catering company. He is a massive Italian gentleman who grew up in Italy before coming to the United States in his 20s. He then attended the Culinary Institute of America, arguably the top culinary school in the United States. He slaved away in the kitchens of prestigious Italian restaurants for awhile before deciding to start his company.

The catering company mainly serves at corporate events and the occasional wedding. The customer can choose whatever style of food that they want, but as you can imagine, a slow smile would creep across my friend’s face when the client chose Italian food. If you were ordering Italian food, wouldn’t you want the enormous guy who grew up in Italy and attended the top school in the land to be the one to serve it? When he started his company, he would get pumped every time he had the chance to unleash his mama’s Italian recipes on the customers. They were getting gourmet food at catering prices, after all!

Like any good chef, he would tour each event he catered during the middle of mealtime. He asked customers what they thought of their meals, and what he could improve. He began to notice a trend with his lasagna recipe. Although he would specifically buy ingredients to make his own recipe, the customers would give him a pleasant nod and say it was “good”.

“Good”! He was not trying to make “good” food, especially Italian food. He was trying to make great food! He picked his brain on what to do. Certainly, his cooking skills were not the issue. And he had honed the recipe over years. Creating a new lasagna recipe out of the blue had no guarantee of success. He was distraught over the fact that he could not make Italian food that the customers loved, from both a business and personal perspective.

(You may not enjoy this next part.)

Where to go next? He considered the problem from a completely different angle. Who was making lasagna that customers loved? Well, the lasagna that generates the most revenue must be doing something right. So, he went to the freezer aisle in his local grocery store. And then the solution struck him:

Image Credit: ABC Creative Learning

Freezers full of Stouffer’s Lasagna! Yes, the mass-produced, frozen stuff. He reasoned that they put millions of dollars into their test kitchens to make sure that their lasagna delighted customers. How could he do better? He bought a whole shopping cart full for his next event.

Fast-forward to mealtime at the next corporate celebration. My friend had just taken a massive risk by ditching his hand-crafted lasagna recipes. He instead plopped trays and trays of Stouffer’s into the oven. No prep, no complicated recipes. He took his usual tour, and the customers were thrilled. They called the lasagna “excellent”, “delicious” and all the other words that chefs are waiting to hear.

On one hand, my friend was relieved for his business. He had discovered a recipe that customers loved. On the other hand, he was disappointed that the customers would never appreciate his time-tested recipe.

He has now been doing this for years. I recently asked him, “How does that make you feel? To give up all your artisinal work for the cheap, mass-produced crap? That is the reason you got into the business in the first place, right? To cook for a living?”

He wearily answered: “I don’t even think about it any more. Here is the alternative: my friends from culinary school are all working at respectable restaurants. The ones that are making their own ‘gourmet’ recipes are STILL struggling to make it after all these years. I just shake my head when I talk to them. I am just happy that my business is doing well and I can pay my employees.”

The Moral of the Story

Perhaps there was some mix of spices on this Italian lasagna that customers were not familiar with. Perhaps the consistency was unusual. Perhaps there was a different type of cheese. Whatever the reason, there is a clear misalignment between what my friend, the culinary expert, would call “perfect lasagna”, and what the customers would call “perfect lasagna”.

So who is right? Perhaps it depends on the setting and frame of mind for the customers. If the customers were sitting in a fancy Italian restaurant on a Friday night, they might enjoy my friend’s lasagna (and pay $25 for it!). But at the booze-filled holiday party, they may want something else.

It immediately occurred to me that my friend highlighted one of the huge lessons I have learned the hard way with product development, sometimes called “the curse of knowledge”. If you are baking lasagna that your customers think is “okay” or even“good”, your lasagna is not successful. Even if you may have all the expertise in the world in cooking, it will not matter if customers do not enjoy your food. They will go find a caterer that serves food that they love.

In fact, I believe that my friend proved his true talent as a businessman with this story. The best chef is the one that makes food that people love. He took a step back, realized his own biases, and doubled down on his efforts to make his customers happy. It may not be pretty, but any catering company that is not soliciting feedback on its food is either out of business or will be soon.

I have struggled with this concept a lot. When you are creating a new software product, is it best to copy the user flows/designs/paradigms that other similar sites are using, or create new, potentially transformative ones? The user already has the challenge of understanding your new value proposition and deciding if it is useful to them. A new, unfamiliar design as well? That may be too much.

Also, if you are asking customers questions, please, please do not ask questions that encourage them to predict their own behavior. If you had asked any of these customers, “Hey, how would you feel about some frozen Stouffer’s lasagna at your next company picnic?”, every customer would be disgusted! They would say, “I want food from scratch! I can make Stouffer’s at home.”

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