As food and beverage manufacturers know too well, new product development is an expensive, time-consuming process. 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. 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 is in Rome, Georgia.
While both restaurant and R&D work present different challenges, goals, and expectations, Landry prefers the flexibility found in the research department. 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 says. "You work a year and a half to two years to build a chicken sandwich for a customer, the chicken sandwich seems very 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 explains. "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 is 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 recalls. "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 its 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 adds 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 concedes. "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."
Add that to the estimated 75% of new product launches that fail within the first four years, according to a 2017 McKinsey study. 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 what area of the store you want to be in," Landry explains. "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 points 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 admits they can be a lot harder to find than most people realize. And it's not easy to find the right supplier to provide those ingredients.
"Let's say a customer wants a Ricardo Pepper or a Peruvian Pepper," he says. "What is the volume needed? Say you need 500 pounds of that particular powder. You have to do the research and find what ingredient supplier has that particular pepper in the form you need it: dried, for example."
That challenge isn't going away anytime soon; 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 says. "There's nothing to do but try to keep up."
One recommendation for brands is to take a more analytical and strategic approach when selecting industry trends to implement. It's a matter of deciding what you're going to chase vs. this is interesting, 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 says.
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 says. "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 protien, and it's going to be here for the next ten 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's culture.
"We pride ourselves on a culture of collaboration across all departments," Landry says. "Sometimes we have a lot of people in the room discussing things, and we get a lot done because everybody has a different perspectives. Especially with regulations constantly changing, 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 says. "And it's one I'm highly involved with 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."
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