"I've always had a passion for food and embrace the ever-changing culinary terrain," says chef Gail Cunningham.
Responsible for concept development and implementation of culinary programs for foodservice and national account segments at Springfield, Mo.-based Noble & Associates, a pre-eminent advertising and food marketing firm, the soft-spoken Cunningham has an enthusiasm for her life's work that is contagious.
"It's an exciting time to be a chef. We have access to global foods previously not available, patrons with more sophisticated palates and a better knowledge of food, and new ethnic influences. Chefs have more opportunities than ever before to explore new techniques, new flavors and new forms that fit our mobile society," says Cunningham, who also is a member of the Research Chefs Association (RCA).
Cunningham's title -- culinary creative director/corporate development chef -- is quite a mouthful, but with more than 25 years experience in foodservice -- 12 them with Noble's Culinary Group -- she wears many hats and is charged with many duties. She heads up national account menu analysis; strategy and positioning; product placement and new menu development; concept and recipe development for foodservice and home meal replacement (HMR) programs; and new product development for foodservice and retail. She also was instrumental in the creation and maintenance of Noble's Greenhouse Market, a HMR operation that includes an on-premise cafe; grab-and-go prepared meals; chef's case-prepared food; a drive-thru menu; a catering program and holiday-bundled HMR programs.
Cunningham is a gem in the crown of Noble, which is ranked as one of the Top 100 agencies in the U.S. by Adweek and one of the Top 15 by PROMO. Noble represents many of the nation's leading companies and brands, including Basic American Foods, Campbell's, DuPont Packaging, Iams Pet Foods, Krispy Kreme, Reckitt Benckiser, Smucker's, Tyson and Uncle Ben's.
A multi-disciplinary approach
"We take a multi-disciplinary team approach to any type of product development, whether the food is a menu item on the foodservice side or a retail packaged good on the consumer side," explains Cunningham. "The key is to stay focused on the customer. That sounds so cliche, but it's imperative in product development."
Coming up with new products is always a challenge for Cunningham and her team, which describes her as very dedicated, industrious, even-tempered and smart. And she has a great sense of humor. "Staying in touch with consumer trends is the basis for all that we do," she explains. "We're constantly reviewing newspapers, business journals, epicurean magazines, teen magazines, trade journals, and Webs sites to assimilate all of the information we can about the needs and desires that drive purchase behavior among consumers. Our culinary team also regularly meets with a host of consumer and food-trend experts at Noble, including the editor of Noble's Food Channel Trendwire; the director of consumer insights; our food technologists and scientists; our team of professional chefs; and our corporate research professionals. By continually staying on top of trends, we can better formulate new products that meet a specific need."
To keep up on food trends and consumer behavior, her team also consults with a network of top culinary professionals across the U.S., and samples retail and foodservice venues in key food "hot spots" such as Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and New Orleans.
Just as important are the countless hours her team spends in real-world food environments, both on the retail and foodservice side, Cunningham says. "Noble has extensive culinary facilities, including an aseptic test kitchen for nutritional testing, simulated home kitchens and a full-service restaurant facility used exclusively for test product concepts."
Since Noble is involved in nutritional testing, we asked if clients are more concerned about nutrition today and if she has changed her approach to menu development.
"For many decades, a sizeable segment of society has been concerned with nutrition in one way or another -- calories, sodium, sugar, fats and so forth," Cunningham replies. "As research on food and its link to overall health has become more reported in the past decade, clients have become more concerned with nutritional issues. As it is for the consumer, so it must be for the manufacturer. Otherwise, products lack relevance. Then again, there is another sizeable segment of society that really doesn't focus on nutrition at all. We saw this indulgent sector coming on strong four to five years ago and it remains a viable market today. Ultimately, it boils down to understanding your target audience."
The process of new product development hasn't so much changed as become more refined over the years, she observes. "We've always known it was important to understand all the issues impacting consumers as a way of understanding food trends. Our methodology has changed over the years based on what consumers need and want. We develop products that meet changing consumer needs, but the way we go about it has been a winning formula for Noble for several years."