How to stay in front of the pack
Every baking and snack food company constantly hunts for the next big thing. With the process of innovation being what it is, often several companies will be developing similar products at the same time, and the edge generally goes to whichever one hits the market first. The problem comes with speeding up R&D to grab that pole position without compromising on product quality.
David Busken is manager of R&D for Oak State Products, Inc., a co-manufacturer of cookies and bars based in Wenona, IL. He grew up working in his family’s full-line, multiple-unit retail bakery. After graduating from the American Institute of Baking and Dunwoody Industrial Institute, he worked in dry blending product development with International Multifoods and then for Bunge in the areas of bakery fats and oils development, technical service and bakery/food service mix development.
In all, he has more than 30 years of bakery development experience, which he leverages for this exclusive Q&A for Baking & Snack readers.
Baking & Snack: What’s the No. 1 roadblock to innovation in cookies and crackers?
David Busken: Most often, it is the customer deciding what they want and what is good enough. Taking the lead and making the decision. Often, the product is made, and the decision as to whether it is good enough leads to delays for one reason or another. If the decision on if it is good enough is made and upheld, a product can be test-marketed and launched very quickly, relatively speaking.
In what ways does innovation reflect current trends in the industry?
It depends on the company and its niche of the market. You can have some going for the healthy market, while others are targeting the super-indulgent. We see a balanced number of both projects and some in between.
How can companies avoid the “me too” factor when developing new products?
It never ceases to amaze me how many different angles there can be when approaching a product. Customers are limited only by their imagination. If they let their imagination go and follow where it takes them, they might find the next big thing. That is the biggest hurdle: How much risk are they willing to take to be a “me too” but with a twist? If they aren’t willing to take that risk, then they are indeed stuck in the “me too” category. It’s not a good place to be, usually.
After R&D is complete, what steps are needed to take the product into production and onto grocery shelves?
After we get a lab sample that is acceptable or close to acceptable to the powers that be, we take it to the line for a test to get the process and physical parameters nailed down and tentative specs worked up. Ideally, you want to package some of this product in the same kind of film the product will go to market in, so you can start a shelf life study.
From this test, a final formula, or near-final formula, is established. Assuming the oven sample is acceptable to the customer, packaging can start being designed. Packaging is usually the longest-lead-time item to acquire to make marketable product. Later on, we will make a longer run of the product to use as sales samples and to see if there are any issues with the formula running over several batches.
In the meantime, the customer is checking the keeping quality. If there is an issue for some reason, then we need to go back and adjust the formula accordingly. Hopefully, it takes just small changes that won’t affect the label or nutritional information.
From there, we go to startup production, which by this point is hopefully working out the bugs in packaging. The formula should be running pretty consistently. All the while, we are collecting finished product data and coming closer to establishing final specs for the product.
How long does a new cookie typically take to develop from inception to roll-out?
It depends on how defined the target is and how closely you need to come to meeting the target. We can usually get 80 to 90% of the way to the target fairly quickly — in days, typically. This is where experience is invaluable. It is that last 10 to 15% that can be hard to get to.
Sometimes that last 10 to 15% can be less well-defined and can be subjective as to how close the product is to being ready, depending on the eyes that are looking at it. Getting a product to test market, we have done it in a matter of days to as long as years. It all goes back to the decision-making apparatus in place. This is why small companies can typically launch much faster: There are fewer levels of decision-makers. That said, we have had some large companies decide very quickly as well.
How can a co-manufacturing company collaborate with clients to come up with new products?
The client first needs to find the right co-manufacturer with the right size of lines and packaging to match its needs. The co-manufacturer and/or client has to have an R&D department or resources that can do the work and is comfortable taking the product from benchtop to the line and commercializing the product.
After this relationship is established, then we will work to understand what types of products the client wants to sell. If it is indulgent, how does the client define indulgent? What varieties and what markets — c-store, grocery or club — is it for? What is the price point? We will then produce some prototypes of products we think will meet the criteria and see what the client thinks. From that feedback, we will refine the product until it matches the client’s vision.
Does a company need its own R&D lab to be able to innovate? Why?
In our case, not at all. That is why we are here. We can and do take concepts from the benchtop to the grocery store shelf. Of course, it needs to be a product that fits our lines.
For those that don’t fit our lines, hiring a consultant to do the development work is another option — just be sure the consultants have the right skill sets and production plant experience. They need to understand what is practical for a plant to do. Too often, we have been given products that can be made on the bench but are near impossible to make in a plant without millions of dollars of capital investment. Situations like this can represent a lot of money and time wasted.
How can a company balance the need for cost-effectiveness with the need to develop new products ahead of the competition?
That’s a tough one, and it depends on the culture of the company. Does it have a vision of the products it wants to make or market? Does it have an effective decision-making process in place to decide what is good enough to test-market? If it has these two things in place, then I would say the cost-effectiveness and speed is very much there. You need new products to grow, both from a brand perspective and the co-manufacturing perspective.
For the co-manufacturer to attract new business, you need capacity, but if you bring in new projects, you take up that capacity. The trick to growing is to find the delicate balance between idle capacity and production. It is expensive to have capacity laying idle waiting to attract the next new product, but it is one of the costs of doing business, if you want to grow.
How does an R&D team stay up to date on trends, ingredients and emerging technologies?
Never stop learning. Our goal is to be seen as an additional technical resource for our customers’ R&D departments. We attend meetings such as the Institute of Food Technologists Food Expo, American Society of Baking’s BakingTech, SupplySide West, the Biscuit & Cracker Manufacturers’ Association and other meetings that appear informative.
We encourage our suppliers to call with anything they have that is new or in the works. On top of that, we do a lot of reading from many different sources. With a small department, it is a challenge to keep up, stay ahead and stay credible to the larger R&D departments of our customers.