For Kemper Foods International, the vast food industry is such a small world. That’s because the New Albany, Ind.-based company centers its attention on transforming everyday foods into munchable snacks that fit between people’s fingers — or neatly in the palm of their hand.

“We get excited about innovation. We never turn it off,” noted Mike Kemper, the company’s chief executive officer and founder. “I’ll find myself in a restaurant eating something that is so good, homestyle and delicious, and I immediately start thinking, ‘How can I make this portable and handheld?’ Our focus is on poppable, shareable, on-the-go, fun food.”

To be more exact, Kemper Foods specializes in 0.75- to 4.0-oz filled, encrusted baked snacks. For breakfast, think about a blackberry jelly and cream cheese filled mini bagel or a sausage-and-gravy biscuit that can be eaten without dipping, dripping or spilling. Or for lunch, picture turning a classic oversized deli sandwich into an on-the-run snack.

“One of the best things that we’ve ever done is taken the greatest rye bread that you’ve ever eaten — with caraway seeds — that’s proofed and baked and filled it with corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and 1000 Island dressing,” Mr. Kemper recalled. “You can sit here and eat it until your tongue slaps your brain. It’s that outstanding.”

To establish the company’s distinct mindset for serving the food industry, Mr. Kemper created a culture that strives to upend the status quo. It’s not so much about disruption. Rather, it’s about melding product imagination with process adaptation to deliver something eye-catching to consumers as quickly as possible.

“In this industry today, you have to move on a dime to make a change,” Mr. Kemper explained. “You have to be fresh and new with innovation. It involves being first to the market, speed of innovation and not being afraid of change. ‘Be afraid of not changing;’ that’s what I try to instill in everyone here, every day.”

Kemper Foods’ ability to adjust on the fly allows the co-manufacturer to serve everyone from midsized to major consumer packaged goods companies and foodservice chains. Its 51,000-square-foot manufacturing facility houses a battery of equipment that can be mixed and matched like industrial Legos to tailor a process to a baked snack’s specifications.

Then, Kemper Foods runs production at rates that currently vary from 110,000 to 160,000 pieces an hour — or 1 to 1.5 million or more a day. Those items are blast frozen and then conveyed to highly automated packaging systems that bulk pack them for foodservice or vertically form/fill/seals (VFFS) and cartons them for retail accounts.

“It’s a big advantage to have that range and flexibility,” Mr. Kemper said. “We’re not afraid of a 5-million-lbs annual project. At the same time, we get so many opportunities for limited-time offers and new product projects that just may be 150,000 lbs in size.”

To accommodate a wider breadth of accounts, Kemper Foods recently divided its operation into two plants in one building. Starting in February, the larger, 35,000-square-foot plant manufactures nut-butter products while the smaller, nut-free, US Department of Agriculture-inspected facility can pump out snacks ranging from “killer beer cheese” in a pretzel to whatever product developers dream up.

To ride a roller coaster of new product requests, Kemper Foods relies on a product portfolio it has developed over the past three decades.

“We have so many dough formulas to mention — rye, bagel, biscuit, Latin American and naan doughs. It all depends on what the customer wants and what holds up better depending on the filling,” Mr. Kemper explained.

Fillings include meat, cheese, fruit and nut butters.

“We’ve done cobbler bites with a buttermilk biscuit or a butter-flake dough with cherry- or blackberry-pie filling in it,” he added. “We’re versatile enough to control the temperature of the production room, temperature of the water or mix, and even proofing, baking or steam times. If it can be encrusted on a Rheon machine, we can do it.”

It’s not surprising that Mr. Kemper mentions Rheon, which has partnered with him since he first started in the food business in the mid-1980s. Back then, the company made 1-oz filled breakfast biscuits called Sunrizerz by hand. At one point, about 40 workers used rolling pins for the dough, melon scoops for the sausage and cheese filling, and, after laying another dough sheet over it all, used shot glasses to portion out the pieces before proofing and baking.

“We had no money — just a no-mess, on-the-go product,” Mr. Kemper recalled.

A little automation went a long way. The first Rheon KN 100 Cornucopia model reduced labor, improved product consistency and produced more biscuits at a lower cost.

Today, Kemper Foods has 19 of the latest Rheon machines, with 13 being owned by Kemper Foods and six by a dedicated customer. Not surprisingly, Kemper Foods even touts the technology as the key to its innovation on its website.

“With their equipment and support, we believe we’re the world’s leader on this handheld innovation,” Mr. Kemper said.

Overall, the food manufacturer provides a classic example about how strategic investments drive sustainable growth. In addition to Mr. Kemper, the company’s close-knit R&D group involves his two sons, Brennan and Matthew Kemper, two brothers, Joe and Danny Kemper, long-time employee Barbara Gilmore and Julie Bickle, who also serves as QA manager.

“Our senior innovation team don’t have official titles,” Mr. Kemper said. “That’s just the way we fly.”

For this company, product development isn’t a long process.

“Sometimes the big wheels move slower,” Ms. Gilmore said. “We’re moving bam-bam on projects. That’s because being first to market always wins.”

In fact, Kemper Foods’ core R&D team typically spends just a day or two to refine the initial concept, then they gather the on-the-floor operations experts to concentrate on execution.

“We bring in the mixing group, the Rheon operator, the filler prep person and any others from proofing, baking and packaging,” Mr. Kemper noted. “Once our team is comfortable with what we think is the gold standard, that’s when we feel the product is ready to show to our customer.”

From there, Kemper Foods collaborates with its customers’ food development specialists to finalize the concept — generally in a matter of weeks, if not days.

“We do some things really well, and we’re not afraid to lean on people to expedite the process,” Mr. Kemper said. “We’ve aligned with some top-notch food companies, and the knowledge that comes from working with them has been very beneficial to us.”

This article is an excerpt from the March 2020 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Kemper Foods, click here.