How the Trendiest Grilled Cheese Venture Got Burnt
Forget Mars colonies and AI. Kaplan declared he had “developed a set of technology that allows us to make the perfect grilled cheese.” The innovation was as meaningful as it was miraculous: the sandwich had “that nostalgic thing,” Kaplan explained. Grilled cheese sandwiches were the fast food equivalent of Proust’s madeleines, priming them for disruption.
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I feel like this is a perfect example of premature optimization, or solving the problems you think you have, and not working on the problems you really have.
And regardless of if this applies to software or to grilled cheese sandwiches, the base of the problem is this: you’re working on the things you want to work on, rather than the things you need to work on. This often leads you astray.
The surest sign that you’re working on the wrong problem comes from when other people start copying certain features:
Chains like Starbucks copied many features that originally distinguished The Melt, such as its digital loyalty program. Though The Melt may not have behaved enough like a restaurant, other restaurants have begun behaving like tech companies, eroding the startup edge that had initially given The Melt an advantage.
“[T]echnology was the promise, and it also may have been the Achilles’ heel,” said a former Melt employee, who declined to be named. “That’s where the arrogance was: We’ve got all this money, we’ve had success in our individual careers in the past, so we can’t get it wrong.”
The ex staffer told me the experience had been humbling. Given the chance to do it over, “we should have been spending a lot more time on the food, the customer experience, the management, and the operations.”
Read: we worked on the problems we wanted to solve, rather than the problems that would have made us successful.
“I think if you’re looking for the angle of, like, what went wrong, I would say that nothing went wrong,” Kaplan told me when we last spoke. “But what we did learn is that the quality of the food is the most important reason why someone comes to a restaurant.”
Don’t work on the problems you want to work on. Work on the problems you have. Sometimes this requires slowing down and realistically looking at the problems in front of you–and prioritizing those problems.
After all, an electronic loyalty program which automatically rewards you discounted food doesn’t matter if your food is crap.