Who Can Change the World? Is it You, Sweet Potato Fries?

Posted by Dave Burdick

This week, I've seen a few notes on the failure (and on the perhaps-too-early reportage of the failure) of mobile wallet apps. Why are they "failing?" A pretty reasonable guess is that they're not solving a problem that consumers have.

Fine—good reason. But, come on, we're talking about Google here. The new Google. The Google that no longer has time or patience for things that didn't make an impact. You're telling me that they don't know how to make me pay for beans with my phone? They can build robot cars and make them street legal and I'm still carrying around pennies?

Something I think about a lot is the incredible act of changing consumer behavior with innovation or salesmanship so impressive that it reorders priorities or invents new ones. Somebody asked me for an example of what I'm looking for today.

I told him that, for a simple example, I had my eye on a restaurant chain, Native Foods. It's a vegan restaurant chain. It seems to me for that chain to succeed, consumers' behavior has to change. Why? Well, about 3.2 percent of Americans eat vegetarian and 0.5 percent vegan. You don't have to be vegetarian to eat at Native Foods—while I follow a mostly vegetarian diet, I've been there with very carnivorous friends and they've dug it—but realistically it does take somebody who is vegan, vegetarian, or pretty openminded to spend money there and, ideally for the restaurant, become a regular.

I think it's awesome that a vegan restaurant chain exits, and I do know a fair number of vegans and vegetarians, but these are often folks who bristle a little at the idea of hitting a chain of any kind all that frequently. Maybe they'll make exceptions; I don't know, but no matter what, the success of Native Foods seems to depend on some combination of these changes in consumers' regular behavior:

1) People eating more vegan food.

2) Vegans and vegetarians eating at a restaurant chain location more frequently.

I could be wrong! (Work at Native Foods? Get in touch!) And this isn't to say I don't think it's going to work. I'm just saying that it's why I'm particularly interested in the success of the chain and the speed of its growth. These changes would represent real steps forward in, at the very least, consumers' carbon footprint. (If you haven't seen the recent studies, they're throwing around words like "catastrophic.")

But say I'm right. Is that behavior change coming from a place that solves a problem for consumers? In the sense that sweet potato fries solve problems, sure, I guess so. Is it solving a problem for the environment? It's a couple steps in the right direction. That's what I'm interested in—businesses getting out ahead like that, how they do it, why they do it, and what they learn and can share with the next round of folks who want to do well while doing good. 

Photo via Flickr (cc) user ironypoisoning.