Evolution and transformation are both powerful words. Some people may consider them to be synonymous, but they are not. Understanding the difference between the two can change the trajectory of companies and brands alike and place them on a road to greatness.

Evolution is inevitable. Outside forces tug at the fabric of industries, reshaping the contours of trade—and more often than not, change comes in small, even glacier-like increments. From time to time, an accelerant will hasten a shift in consumer behavior or revolutionize an industry, but such occurrences are rare. This is especially true of the restaurant industry, which from a technological standpoint, has a well-deserved reputation as late adopters. Technology has led to the evolution of restaurants, as opposed to restaurants revolutionizing technology.

The pandemic is the most recent consequential event in the evolutionary tale of the restaurant industry. Without its declaration and the associated government actions, we would not have experienced the accelerated adoption of digital transactions and off-premises consumption of restaurant fare. In all likelihood, the consumers’ use of restaurants would have eventually landed in the same place over time—the evolutionary tale was simply hastened, and the end-state (likely the same as it) otherwise would have evolved.

It is important to recognize that the evolutionary outcome for an industry, a brand, or a company is not predestined. The sum total of forces that will push and pull in different directions over years and decades—even centuries—are virtually incalculable. The intertwining of events and conditions make for a multitude of outcomes that might be calculable within a degree of probability, but never with certainty. Evolutionary forces favor some industries and brands, and therefore create disadvantages for others … so much so that extinction may be the outcome. Evolutionary forces are something many companies manage and react to. The best companies will anticipate these forces and assume more proactive positions.

On the other hand, transformation is a power yielded with intention—actions taken at a chosen moment, with planning and precision and the expectation for a certain outcome. Evolutionary forces may at times be at the root of transformation, but they are not a prerequisite.

Transformative action springs from inspired minds pursuing big dreams, but also can be hatched by companies in a state of desperation. The ill-fated transformation of Radio Shack is a salient example of the latter, while Amazon, birthed as an online retailer of books, is one of the most successful transformational tales we will see in our lifetimes.

When transformation is driven as a matter of survival, I dare say it is a reflection of leadership’s failure to identify evolutionary forces as they tug on their brands. Attentive and disciplined management, especially when well-tuned with the dynamics of their industry and the hearts and minds of consumers, can maintain a cadence of change and innovation that stays in-step with the market or even a step ahead. Transformative efforts launched when in survival mode are often preceded by a history of missteps that reflect weakness in understanding the evolutionary tale. Some of the more well-known stories include Kodak, Blockbuster, and Sears. I think many pundits would agree that Howard Johnson’s Restaurants (once America’s largest restaurant chain in the 60s and 70s, with more than 1,000 locations) is the classic example for the restaurant industry. The brand had found itself overshadowed by the then up-and-coming McDonald’s and other fast-food chains.

The most inspiring stories are those like Amazon: born not from desperation, but from a desire to grow exponentially and inspirationally. Within the restaurant industry, I am hard-pressed to summon examples that are close to that of Amazon. Perhaps this is simply a reflection of the nature of restaurants. We deal in a basic proposition, which is to prepare and serve food to consumers. There are countless variations on a theme for doing so, which gives our industry a palette of colors and textures that are richer than most other industries, if not all. I would submit that the greatest transformations yet to come in our industry may be made by brands that break the mold for what it is to be a restaurant company. 

The quick-service restaurant category played a dominant role in transforming the restaurant industry, and the earliest of quick-service brands and entrepreneurs who launched them can lay claim to being transformative agents. Ten or 15 years ago, I would have credited a new generation of fast-casual brands for transforming the industry. However, as the evolutionary tale unfolded, fast casual has become more akin to quick service, and I dare say that fast casual’s change in texture has not been due to Amazon-like transformation, but rather the work of brand leaders and teams in tune with the heartbeat of the guest and industry. Perhaps our industry’s ability to harness evolutionary forces tamps down the need for companies to transform.

But then again, perhaps not. After all, the most impressive transformations are not born out of need. For example, Amazon didn’t need to go beyond selling books. Within our industry, the legendary transformation of a company or brand will likely be rooted in a culture of never settling for being second best. The pursuit of being great in the hearts and minds of guests will fuel transformative thought, innovation, and a commitment to excellence. It is an exciting journey for all who embrace it.

Don Fox is Chief Executive Officer of Firehouse Subs, in which he leads the strategic growth of Firehouse Subs, one of the world’s leading restaurant brands. Under his leadership, the brand has grown to more than 1,200 restaurants in 45 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and non-traditional locations. Don sits on various boards of influence in the business and non-profit communities, and is a respected speaker, commentator and published author. He was recognized by Nation’s Restaurant News as 2011’s Operator of the Year. In 2013, he received the prestigious Silver Plate Award from the International Food Manufacturers Association (IFMA).  

Business Advice, Customer Experience, Fast Casual, Fast Food, Outside Insights, Restaurant Operations, Story, Firehouse Subs