W hen the economy tanked seven years ago, innovation became the panacea that was going to cure everyone's fiscal ills. Business leaders and politicians tripped over each other in a race to the microphone to let everyone know they were ready to lead the charge toward innovation, which ultimately would spark the economic growth the U.S. so desperately needed to break free from its economic tailspin.

If only it were so easy.

You see, much like value, innovation is in the eye of the beholder. Foodservice equipment manufacturers can develop the most technologically advanced products in the world and tabletop manufacturers can create the most elegant eye-catching serving vessels known to man but if their supply chain partners can't find operators who know how to use these products to the best of their ability the efforts will not feed the factories' addiction to topline sales. The same applies to operators. They can tinker with their menus or designs ad nauseam, but if these efforts do not resonate with their target audiences it's all for naught.

Being truly innovative requires doing the hard work, the little things that politicians and business leaders never speak of. It requires sitting down with customers to understand what works for them, their pain points and what products or services would make a profound impact on their businesses. That information is the intellectual capital that funds innovation.

It seems to me that Jason Sem, FE&S' 2014 DSR of the Year (page 16) follows that approach quite well. Sem's sales steadily continue to climb without his doing anything too flashy, save for cruising San Francisco's Bay area in a Mercedes while rocking some stylin' black-rimmed glasses. Simply stated Sem's successful because he thoughtfully listens to his customers, diligently researches potential solutions and then dutifully follows up. Sem transforms his customers' challenges into solutions that drive their businesses forward.

Further, it's an approach Colorado's Jefferson County School District follows to help feed less fortunate students who participate in the USDA's Summer Food Service Program (page 34). Realizing students had no way to make it to their schools during the summer months Jeffco School's Linda Stoll shifted her problem-solving skills into high gear. Working collaboratively with the transportation department, the decision was made to retrofit a school bus to deliver meals to students in need in their neighborhoods.

True innovation requires sharing information. Foodservice operators need to invest the time to describe in detail the challenges they face to their suppliers. Taking this step can be a challenge for a demographic that already feels stretched in terms of time, money and other resources. For their part, suppliers need to set aside their blind pursuit of topline sales, actively listening to what their customers tell them and resist the temptation to simply sell a product for a price and move on to the next transaction.

Indeed, innovation does not necessarily require developing new products or services. Often it means transforming existing resources to create meaningful value.