Step 4: Profit!
June 9, 2009 6:22 AM   Subscribe

I have a product idea for a regional restaurant franchise that I think would do really well. How do I go about making my dream of untold wealth a reality?

In all seriousness, I know that, even if everything were to line up perfectly, it wouldn't be untold wealth (maybe a couple of thousand if I'm lucky), but even before I get to that spot, I need some help. Here's the deal (and obviously, I will be as specific as I can while still protecting my precious kernel of an idea):

There's a popular food franchise in this region that sells a product of which I am a fan. I have a really cool idea that would use one of their most popular products, combine it with a common food item, and make a new, even more delicious product. I have made the enhanced product at home, it is terrific; I have served it at parties and people are stunned that the franchise doesn't sell it like this; in short, I feel confident that it would sell really, really well, especially since the enhancement uses a food item that is steadily gaining a ton of popularity in this area. It wouldn't take a major investment from the franchise owners to obtain the equipment to make this product, and it dovetails nicely with the overall product line of the company.

The big problem, though, is I haven't a clue what's involved inmaking this happen. Do I just look up the corporate address, send a letter saying, "Hi Company X, I have a great idea that will bring your franchises more revenue, call me to discuss?" If I do end up lucking into a meeting or presentation with the product development team, how do I protect my idea from being taken without compensation? How do I possibly determine what would be a reasonable compensation if the planets align and Company X decides that my idea is the best thing they've heard in forever? Is this something that one should retain a lawyer for, even if the compensation is only (potentially) a couple of grand?

I have a million more questions, of course, but mainly I'm just looking for a general idea of how these things go, and what early steps I can take to protect myself. YANML, I know; just a basic roadmap of where I should go from here would be very much appreciated.
posted by shiu mai baby to Work & Money (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Recipes can't be copyrighted and there's no such thing as patenting a recipe either. The expression of the recipe can be, but that's it.

So basically, even if you were the only person to realize (for instance) that fried pickles are a great idea, and Burger King should be doing them, there's no way to protect that idea. This is, in fact, one of the reasons why "trade secrets" exist.

You're mostly going to have to just rely on the company behaving honorably, or in lieu of honor, understanding that it'd be bad publicity for them to "steal" the idea from you. So don't give away your idea too soon, and make sure you carefully document the process so that it's clear that you proposed it to them.

I wish I could give more information regarding the specifics, but some companies have "idea bonuses" for employees, where if a great idea is implemented, they get a bonus of $500 or $1000. It's not much, but I could imagine they'd extend that to those outside their company. Most of the reward will probably be the pride factor of being able to say, "I'm the person that put fried pickles in Burger King's menu!"
posted by explosion at 6:56 AM on June 9, 2009

My gut tells me that there isn't a way for you to profit on this. It's one thing if you had a totally original, off-the-wall idea. But, if it's just a small tweak on what someone else is doing, then the instant that you prove it's profitable, they'll just start doing it. And, you'll get nothing.

Yes, it sucks.
posted by Citrus at 7:16 AM on June 9, 2009

Maybe this is just the "foot-in-the-door" for bigger things. Do you have any other training or experience that could make you a valuable addition to the restaurant / franchise HQ? Culinary experience could land you in their test kitchen; marketing experience could get you work in the marketing dept; etc.

When you go to them, I'd try to bring as much hard evidence as possible. Investigate the costs of adopting your recipe; perform market research to show that there is public interest (you've already done this with your friends - now do it with the general public and ask what people would be willing to pay for your food). The more support you have the more they'll take you seriously and won't just steal the idea. I know this all costs money, but "to make an omelet, you've got to break a few eggs" ...

Good luck!
posted by steeb2er at 7:48 AM on June 9, 2009

Man, the curiosity is killing me. If we promise not to steal your idea, will you tell us what it is? Is it Buffalo jo-jos?
posted by box at 8:22 AM on June 9, 2009

I wonder about contacting food blogs in the area to talk to them about it. Foobooz is great, and tends to even pay attention to the larger commercial establishments. They might have an existing relationship that can put you in touch. Additionally, Philly Weekly or Philly Paper might like to run your idea as a feature. If it is sufficiently regional for our neck of the woods, they might like the kitsch factor and wouldn't mind giving you the headline, "Yo Ritas [or whoever it is you are targeting], Shiu Mai Baby has a recipe that you NEED to buy!"

That, of course, identifies YOU with the idea, but also puts the burden on them to follow up on its (now) widespread popularity. You precede the article with a letter to them describing your interest in selling them your idea, then you follow the article with a "Hey did you see this, people like it, and you should totally buy it from me."
posted by greekphilosophy at 8:55 AM on June 9, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the answers, everyone. I had forgotten the can't-trademark-recipes rule, so I especially appreciate that bit of information, explosion. I don't have any interest in making a career out of this or being a food tester (even though I'd arbitrarily rank that as ONE OF THE COOLEST JOBS ON THE PLANET); this was really more of a hey, chocolate + peanut butter = win! kind of thing.

The food blog aspect is interesting, and one I'll definitely consider.

At the very least, I have found the information for the VP of Marketing online, and found this person's profile on LinkedIn, so I think I might try exploring that avenue. If I get shut down completely, c'est la, but if not, it might lead to something.

In a weird way, being reminded that recipes can't be copyrighted was oddly liberating. I mean, yeah, I'd love to scribble this down and have it be all TM SHIU MAI BABY, INC. forever and ever, amen, but on the other hand, the prospect of having to involve a lawyer made me tired just thinking about it.

I'll definitely report back here as things develop.

Again, my thanks.
posted by shiu mai baby at 9:53 AM on June 9, 2009

Most corporations have strict policies that refuse to even accept or listen to new ideas because of the potential litigation from something like this. The problem is sometime eschewed by corporations who list draconian policies on their contact form that any ideas submitted through said form become theirs with no need for recompense.

Short answer, you might just be better off suggesting this to them for fun, and seeing if they implement it.
posted by disillusioned at 10:31 AM on June 9, 2009

Best answer: Find out who is the product manager responsible for new menu items for the chain. Make samples of the improved food. Write up a business proposal. Send a really professional package to the company, with 8 x 10 glossy pictures, testimonials, nutrition analysis, sales projections, cost estimates, and the chart where the profit line breaks the barrier as it climbs wildly because of the new menu item. Go nuts, either making it accurate, or so crazy over the top that it's funny, in an adorable way.

Ask them for a meeting so you can allow them to taste the deliciousness of the food product. Decide what it's worth to you. Maybe you just want 1,000 in gift cards to the restaurant. Maybe you want a job. Maybe you just want to be able to go to Applebees and order a warm caramel apple crisp with New Improved MAGICAL Lingonberries!!!!!

You'll have fun and maybe something will come of it.
posted by theora55 at 5:30 PM on June 9, 2009

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