Sometimes people think that creating a product is as easy as picking up on a hot trend, packaging it, then getting it to market first. Two words: yeah right.
Karoline, the head of our Research and Development team, knows this firsthand. Over the past four years she’s helped us create food products that are held to exhaustive criteria for taste, quality and sustainability. To give a more realistic picture of what goes on behind the scenes, she shares the nitty gritty of the R & D process:
Rachel: What are the main things you do in Research and Development?
Karoline: We research ideas for new products, brainstorming what we’re good at, what we’ve seen in the market, what gaps there are, and we listen to what customers are saying. And sometimes things just happen differently. A sprouted nuts project actually gave way to our new Hippie Garden Chips. We thought: why don’t we use vegetables to accent the nuts? Then Ian (our president) suggested the reverse: why not have full servings of vegetables and use the nuts to highlight them instead?
And for development, we’re in charge of formulating, tasting, testing, costing, shelf-life, scaling up from lab trials to manufacturing processes, and calculating how much we can produce per day during our time studies.
Rachel: And when creating a new product, what are your top criteria?
Karoline: Of course that everything is organic and non-GMO. We don’t use questionable ingredients. We also look at what the best tasting product will be. We often spec out categories, say if we want something to be seed based, chocolate flavoured, etc. Even with our Hippie Garden Chips, we had to look at what veggie “things” there were out there. There was stir fry, a pickled beet idea… this is how we create flavour profiles which is the most fun!
We also have an ingredients funnel that narrows down what we can and can’t use. For example, what’s available? Is it organic? Ideas get killed at this stage if they don’t uphold our values.
Rachel: Sounds like organic and non-GMO are pretty high up there in your criteria. Some say they’re just preferences but do you think they actually make a difference in impacting our food system?
Karoline: Absolutely. We’re bringing awareness and making people think more. At least when I came here four years ago, it’s what was so attractive about Left Coast Naturals. It’s the first time I’m thinking about things differently, appreciating how things are grown and where they come from. It’s really about valuing and appreciating. That’s why I started growing a garden to teach the kids that it’s so hard to grow something, so why would you waste it?
Rachel: Definitely. Then what would you say is your favourite thing about what you do? What gets you excited about the work you’re doing?
Karoline: It’s the beginning when everything is new…the endless possibilities…the world is out there! It’s a lot of grunt work but there’s a satisfaction when you see the product launched. It’s your baby and you feel that attachment. The downside is the millions of tastings and heartburn! But really, the job is art and science combined. It’s the best of both worlds, I think.
Rachel: And on the flipside of that, what’s the most challenging thing about what you do?
Karoline: The launch phase. Some people think that once you make something and can repeat it once then it’s a slam dunk. But we’re constantly tweaking. Plant trials are the practice and the launch is the real game.
There’s always uncertainty of how things are going to scale up day in and day out. Scaling up is where the real hard work comes in because you’re trying to maintain quality while trying to achieve the right shelf life, food safety, and keep the product at an affordable price. And there could be variables – something as small as a fluctuation in ambient temperature or humidity – which can affect the product in unexpected ways.
Another common challenge is formulating the product so that everyone likes it. Costing could fit but the product might not taste great, and vice versa. It’s about formulating to a certain price point and a certain palate. We actually have sensory steps and mathematical criteria to score what makes a “wow” product. We try our best to have the highest quality and safety and still be profitable. It’s easy to make a product that tastes good, but can you make money? You need to be profitable to support the other Ps (People and Planet) to be sustainable.
Rachel: And when a product has finally gone to market, how does it feel knowing people are eating the food that you helped create?
Karoline: I feel proud to be part of the team that created it. We hope it makes people smile!
If you want to know more about how we make our products, stay tuned for our behind the scenes look at Hippie Garden Chips!