As food and beverage manufacturers know all too well, new product development is an expensive, time-consuming endeavor. But today’s consumers are increasingly eager for new products, and they’re not always patient.
It’s a stark reality that Nick Landry, culinary development chef at Southeastern Mills Inc., is painfully aware of. Landry is a veteran of the food business, having spent 15 years as a professional chef and food innovator — 10 of them in research and development.
Southeastern Mills manufactures and distributes food products, offering gravy, baking, and seasoning mixes. The company serves food manufacturers and processors, foodservice distributors, restaurants, and grocery chains: the 80-year-old, fourth-generation, family-owned company operates out of Rome, Georgia.
While both restaurant and research work present different challenges, goals, and expectations, Landry prefers the research department’s flexibility. He often wishes, however, that consumers were more aware of what goes into a new product.
“It can be something as simple as a chicken sandwich,” Landry said. “You work a year-and-a-half to two years to build a chicken sandwich for a customer. The chicken sandwich seems simple to everyone, but it’s not.”
Landry also enjoys the wealth of ingredients and culinary professionals he works with along the way.
“In a restaurant, it’s a bit different because you’re working on menus, and you might have a select supply of ingredients,” Landry explained. “There are challenges with the ingredients, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with food scientists to work around these challenges. You learn so much from them, and it’s great that there’s so much more collaboration now.”
Learning to Overcome
But collaborating is not as easy as it sounds, as Landry was quick to point out.
“One time, we were working on the 100th revision of a project with a customer, and we ended up delivering a different product than they expected,” Landry recalled. “It’s not up to us to decide what the final product will look like; it’s up to the customer to tell us what they want.”
When a product isn’t what the customer wants, Landry and his team regroup to determine which revision took the project off track. Revisions can co-occur and include a broad spectrum of elements such as taste — whether it’s not spicy enough or it’s too salty, or price — if there’s a change in the cost structure. It can be anything, even providing a finished product to a test panel for feedback and finding out you missed the mark.
Landry added that every failure offers learning opportunities. And due to all these challenges, Landry acknowledges that launching a new product is not a fast process.
“Sometimes, it can take as long as 24 months,” Landry conceded. “Now, if you’re dealing with a large-scale company, whether it’s a chicken or seafood processor, those projects can be pushed a little faster because they’re in the retail space or they’re doing it for a foodservice distributor. But, overall, I’d say it’s 12 to 18 months on average.”
To make matters worse, a McKinsey and Co. study revealed that 75% of new product launches fail within the first four years. So how can companies overcome this challenge? One way, according to Landry, is product placement.
“I think it’s looking at the products on the shelves and judging which area of the store you want to be in,” Landry explained. “There are so many out there. You walk down the condiment aisle, and there are hundreds of different condiments. You must uncover what’s going to separate your product from all the others to make yours shine. It goes back to how you introduce the product — the marketing behind it, the packaging, and the sales pitch.”
Landry also pointed out that, for newer brands, grocery stores aren’t the best place to launch. He recommends considering selling new products online, whether through a third-party e-commerce site or the brand’s online storefront.
Challenges and Trends
One of the biggest challenges Landry’s R&D team faces is sourcing ingredients. He admitted that they can be a lot harder to find than most people realize. And it’s not always easy to find the right supplier to provide those ingredients.
“Let’s say a customer wants a Ricardo Pepper or a Peruvian Pepper,” he said. “What’s the volume needed? Say you need 500 pounds of that particular powder. You have to do the research and find which ingredient supplier has that particular pepper in the form you need it: dried, for example.”
That challenge isn’t going away anytime soon; shifts in food industry trends are cropping up with higher frequency.
“Change in the food industry is coming faster than we saw 20 or even 10 years ago,” Landry said. “There’s nothing to do but try to keep up.”
One recommendation is to take a more analytical and strategic approach when selecting industry trends to pursue. It’s a matter of deciding what you’re going to chase vs. this is exciting but a non-starter.
“Once we see something we like and enjoy, we conduct research to determine where it falls along the trend scale, whether it’s national or if it’s going to die quickly or it’s going to be here in 10 years,” Landry said.
The rising popularity of alternative proteins is a prime example of an emerging trend that broke into the mainstream.
“It’s crazy to think about what kind of protein we’re going to use tomorrow,” Landry said. “Will it be bug protein, or will it be a plant-based protein? We joke about it, but at the end of the day, the new trend is non-meat protein, and it’s going to be here for the next 10 years, so let’s start thinking about it now. We’ve had many discussions internally, and we’re looking at different proteins, and as the company grows, we’ll have to adapt as well.”
One secret to Southeastern Mills’ success is the company culture.
“We pride ourselves on a culture of collaboration across all departments,” Landry said. “Sometimes we have a lot of people in the room discussing things, and we get a lot done because everybody has a different perspective. Especially with regulations changing constantly, the regulatory department must be innovative too. Culture is everything.”
Landry couldn’t be happier with the business, and he’s excited about the future.
“Fifteen years ago, I never knew about this industry,” Landry said. “And it’s one I’m highly involved with it now. You must work together, work with your food scientists and your sales team and let your customers know you’re out there to support them. And that’s my biggest takeaway from this industry. Trust each other and work together. You’ve got to be passionate about what you do, stay involved, and stay on top of the latest trends.”
One of the biggest mistakes that companies can make is pausing new product development, especially during a challenging economic environment. A wait-and-see approach leads to a static product portfolio that can’t hope to outperform a competitor’s proactive strategy. Because your competitors are moving ahead, pulling back on NPD isn’t a viable solution.
With the launch of Formula Management, the TraceGains Networked Product Development Suite is now complete. The combined solution allows teams to go from manual processes to automated results by digitizing and streamlining new product development for better, faster innovation. Networked means companies no longer have to chase down suppliers for documentation because it’s already available.
There’s still time to take advantage of this on-demand webinar, where TraceGains CEO Gary Nowacki and Sales Engineer Ruben Galbraith share how Networked Product Development drives collaboration, innovation, and faster time to market. You can download the recording and slides here.