Pierce Hollingsworth

Food on the go, demographic diversity, surging affluence, and a marketplace awash in a sea of culinary choice. These are just some of the factors stressing product specifications, as food manufacturers seek to rush new products to market in time to gain competitive advantage. In many cases, final product specs are established with minimal sensory analysis or no test marketing.

Compounding this trend is a move by retailers to expand their prepared food offerings, Home-Meal Replacements (HMRs), to offer consumers an alternative to dining out. This puts added pressure on food manufacturers to come up with products that address the needs of both retailers and consumers.

“Increasingly consumers lack the time, energy and know-how to prepare a meal. This creates a lifestyle dilemma that they want others to solve. From pre-cut vegetable to multi-course meals, the supermarket industry is recognizing the opportunity and stepping up to provide the meal solutions,” asserts a recent bulletin from the Food Marketing Institute.

Last year, one in five shoppers said supermarkets are their main source for food consumed, but not prepared, at home, according to FMI’s Trends in the United States—Consumer Attitudes and the Supermarket. During any one-month period, 67% of shoppers surveyed said they buy pre-cut, cleaned, and ready-to-cook vegetable items. Almost half buy frozen side dishes and pre-cut, cleaned, and bagged salads. About 40% buy main dishes, and about a third buy pre-cooked meat, poultry, and other main dishes.

While these figures don’t reveal a quantum shift in what people are eating, they do reveal a major shift underway in the sources of these food items. And this has a big impact on the move to create product specifications that have higher added value and greater convenience. In addition, food manufacturers are seeking ways to recover some of the HMR action from food retailers by offering cost-effective alternatives that reduce labor and improve consistency.

Time to market is critical, as is greater responsiveness to regional tastes and short-term trends. Frequent-buyer or “preferred-customer” data, as well as product scanning, create unprecedented real-time knowledge of product preferences mapped to demographics and location.

In addition, consumer technology is having an impact. After a decade on the fringes, shop-at-home services, now based on the Internet, are making it big. Many have developed massive proprietary warehouses with sophisticated order-entry and distribution systems. The Internet-based consumer interface gives these new companies a tremendous volume of customer data which helps them fine-tune their product offerings, keeping expensive inventory to a minimum. They can also turn on a dime, picking up new trends and hot product categories and responding virtually overnight.

Now cell phones are having an impact, too. According to a recent survey from the National Restaurant Association, 41% of all cell phone users make restaurant-takeout or delivery orders with their phones.

“As time is of the essence, individuals are increasingly using their cell phones as a convenient and even faster way to get a restaurant meal to their own dinner table,” said NRA president Steven Anderson. Eventually this trend will extend to food retailers, who will accommodate time-strapped consumers with dialup grocery ordering.

Most major food manufacturers work on both sides of the food terrain. David MacNair, Campbell Soup Co.’s chief technology officer, says that culinary synergy is essential in meeting the demands of today’s marketplace. “We get a fusion of ideas. It’s not necessarily direct learning, but some of the trends inevitably appear quicker in the restaurant area. We try and move them across into the retail area so that they can at least be considered and looked at. We do this to keep our finger on the pulse of what may end up being a broader-based flavor or product system.”

This also involves sending culinary teams to different parts of the country to sample trends and emerging cuisines. “If we’re interested in developing a product line that would have a regional flair to it, we will certainly go and explore it in what would be termed a home market,” MacNair said. The resulting fieldwork not only serves to stimulate new products, he added. It can also refresh ingredient specifications for established product lines. “Consumers want to see refreshment of those lines with contemporary flavors.”

The stakes are high, with combined retail and foodservice sales last year of nearly $1 trillion. Kraft Food Ingredients, based in Memphis, Tenn., supplies ingredients and food concepts across the development spectrum and relies heavily on its culinary team, headed by Chef Lucien Vendôme, to maintain the “right” product specifications for both Kraft-branded ingredients and client creations.

The expanded role for culinary (see article beginning on p. 38) is based on the inherent ability of chefs to understand the ingredients and cooking techniques that are the building blocks of consumer appeal and then work with food scientists in translating these profiles into viable commercial products.

“The military has a saying, ‘Break it down so you can build it again,’” Vendôme said. “If you do not understand how a wall is designed and built from the basic studs, you cannot go out there and modify it, because structurally you might damage it.” Specifications born in the kitchen must be effectively translated into commercial foods that can withstand the rigors of rapid development, distribution, and shelf life, he stressed. Time-to-market demands will only intensify in the years ahead, and that means more stress on creating product specifications that can hold up. It’s not just a food science challenge—it’s a management necessity.

Contributing Editor