Friday, January 21, 2011

Innovation and Competition

Here in DC it is restaurant week, which can be a fun time of year. Normally high priced restaurants offer a three course fixed price (pre fixe if you must) menu for the comparably affordable price of $20/35 for lunch/dinner. I've been looking for a few good vegetarian options since my wife has been a lifelong vegetarian. Flipping through OpenTable's listing I was struck by how little innovation there is in the food industry at the moment.

First, I should say that it is nice that so many restaurants do offer at least some semblance of a veggie option, however the clustering was kind of shocking. Virtually every restaurant, almost regardless of the type of cuisine, is offering a mushroom risotto for its main course. Nothing against this, but would you really want to eat at six different fancy restaurants in search of the perfect mushroom risotto?

This isn't limited solely to vegetarian food of course. Virtually every self-respecting haute cuisine restaurateur is offering a beet salad now. It hits all the trendy points: it's seasonal, local, and in most cases organic. Since chefs are a transient lot they tend to incorporate many of their competitors' best dishes into their new restaurants, with a few modest modifications to avoid allegations of outright theft. Think pork belly too, which is now on the wane but was a de facto requirement on restaurant menus just a bit ago.

What's interesting from an entrepreneurial standpoint is that this situation is only a temporary equilibrium. It won't be long before some enterprising restaurateur recognizes the lack of novelty in restaurant menus today and will come up with something new and great. Or new and terrible - the restaurant industry is nothing if not volatile. Even at a small, local scale, entrepreneurial vision drives change and improves and enlarges the options that we as consumers can choose from. Or to borrow a phrase (thecomingprosperity):
... sustained prosperity depends on novelty. It depends on invention in the face of change. It depends on creativity with limited resources.

More fundamentally--most fundamentally--sustained and sustainable prosperity depends on entrepreneurs.

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