A Flair for Innovation

Rich Products Corp. has a history of breakthrough technologies. A look beneath the surface shows the chef's touch on its many successful product lines.

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By Mike Pehanich, Contributing Editor

He’s a food industry legend, yet he still collects honors and accolades as if he were filling the gaps in a coin collection. He is a visionary who saw a future in frozen foods at a time when total frozen food sales in the U.S. were less than $100 million.

Today, sales of Rich Products Corp. alone will top $2 billion in 2004, and Rich-SeaPak, another family-owned business in frozen seafood, will amass another $370 million in sales. Robert Rich Sr. spearheaded breakthrough technologies, battled the dairy industry for the right to keep his products alive, and led his company to 153 patents in the U.S. and beyond. At the age of 91, he remains active as chairman of the board of the company he created nearly 60 years ago.

"Bob Rich" -- the best known name in Buffalo, N.Y. -- is shared by 91-year-old Bob Sr. (left) and his son Bob Jr. (right).

Today, Rich Products is among the largest privately held food companies in the U.S., and it sells more than 2,000 products -- from frozen dough and desserts to non-dairy creamers and beverages -- in more than 75 countries.

“Bob Rich” is the best-known name in Buffalo, N.Y. The fact that he shares it and the company leadership with his prominent son has only fanned the flame of fame for both.

Earlier this year, the Research Chefs Assn. (RCA) presented Robert Rich Sr. with the Pioneer Award, an honor bestowed annually on individuals who have had a major impact on the growth and development of the research chef profession and industry. (See Food Creation, September 2004.)

That he received another award should be a surprise to no one. He was one of the first inductees into the National Frozen Food Industry Hall of Fame, and he received the Frozen Food Industry Founder Award. “I saw a lot of room in the frozen cabinet,” he remembers. “We were new, we were different.”

“Bob Rich Sr. was a pioneer in culinology,” explains Shannon Reynolds, director of education services for the RCA, headquartered in Atlanta. “He overcame great challenges, and his company has set landmarks in food science and the culinary arts — what we call culinology. He’s known for his technological innovations, but his products have also had a culinary touch.”

The Toque’s on Rich

In an era marked by frequent cuts and cautious research investment, the Rich family invests confidently in research and development. Rich Products employs an R&D staff of 77 at the Rich’s Research Center in Buffalo, and has more than 100 research members worldwide. In addition, 15 staff chefs serve a critical function in menu development and product customization as vital links between R&D and frontline foodservice customers.

From the company’s earliest days, Bob Sr. kept talented, innovative people excited about their work. No doubt that truth goes hand-in-hand with Rich’s own nose for breakthrough food industry concepts, plus an uncanny ability to place the right people in the right situations.

Rich's Whipped Topping, a breakthrough product, was largely a happy accident. Rich visited a customer to display a new non-dairy whipped topping made from soybean. The liquid product inadvertently froze, but when cut into pieces, the frozen topping whipped up beautifully.
Creating breakthrough food technology, such as the first non-dairy whipped topping, the first non-dairy coffee creamer and other first-of-a-kind achievements, earned him a pedestal in the food industry’s pantheon as one of the industry’s most prominent creators and successful entrepreneurs. But Rich is quick to point out the vital contributions of his research and developments teams at each critical juncture.

Inside the research center, a red chef’s toque sits beside a display of Rich bakery products. The company’s sale of frozen doughs and bakery products for foodservice and in-store bakeries is booming. In the company’s modern era, top culinarians — chefs with a foot in food science — build on the Rich tradition.

Rich’s chefs bring workable ideas from customers to R&D and help the development team adapt to customer needs and applications. They also tweak formulations and help customize product to taste and operating conditions.

“They ask us ‘Will this product work on the front end before it hits the street?’ ” says Chef Mike Joseph, CEC, national accounts culinary manager. “They need to know if it is ‘on trend’ or if it is manageable in their operation.”

A Rich Life

Every product from Rich’s Research Center is expected to please. Food trends provide direction and stimulate ideas, but great taste is non-negotiable. The Rich Life line, one of the company’s latest triumphs, is a case in point.

The Rich Life line of "healthier products that taste great" includes par-baked breads and rolls.

The low-carb fad exploded toward the end of 2003, as dietary attention shifted from fat to carbohydrate reduction. “We wanted to see past the trend to where people are really going so that we would still be ahead if the trend passed by the time we got there,” says Wendy Barth, senior vice president of product management and innovation. “We realized that, behind the trend, people really want healthier products that taste great.”

Rich Life addressed the need to provide customers with healthier options with great taste. The line has spanned most of the company’s product categories from baked goods to beverages. It features: par-baked breads and rolls, higher in fiber, low in fat, with no trans fatty acids and half the net carbohydrates of standard rolls; sugar-free, zero-net-carb whipped toppings; real-fruit smoothies, which are fat-free, cholesterol-free, heart-healthy and lactose-free; sugar-free cookies; and even a no-sugar-added reduced-fat cheesecake. The latest to enter the line is Rich Life Pizza Crust.

The culinary touch means more than an inspired sprinkle of spice. Chefs must understand how an oven really works, true handling and operation practices in a kitchen and realistic freezer and refrigeration temperatures. They also understand the kitchen equipment a foodservice operator is likely to have.

Culinarians added a sweet touch to the Cinn-Sational Gourmet Cinnamon Roll, another recent Rich winner. “We went to the CIA [Culinary Institute of America] in Hyde Park, N.Y., and asked about the ultimate cinnamon roll taste,” recalls Barth. “In the chef’s world, you find surprising combinations of ingredients that release great flavor, so we also asked, ‘How do you keep that cinnamon flavor in?’ ”

Great taste with no goofs was the aim of Rich’s Exact Bake, a breakthrough line of no-proof bakery products for in-store bakers. This patent-pending product simplifies preparation, reducing steps and the likelihood of mistakes. The company claims new bakers can be trained “in 60 percent less time than with proof-and-bake dough and in comparable time to par-baked product.”

The chefs at Rich’s fine-tuned flavor and texture profiles on Niagara Farms topping, a pre-whipped dairy blend. It departs from Rich Products’ long history of producing non-dairy alternatives. “It has all the taste and mouthfeel of a dairy product but the stability of a non-dairy product,” says Barth.

 
Bahama Blast frozen cocktail mixes and smoothie concentrates won Rich Products a Best of Class Award this year from the Culinary Institute of America.
On the beverage side, Rich’s Bahama Blast line of frozen cocktail mixes and smoothie concentrates received the 2004 American Culinary Institute Best of Class Award in the foodservice frozen beverage category. Rich research also heard Dunkin’ Donuts’ clamor for a more healthful muffin and came through this past season with a trans fat-free muffin. It quickly boosted the chain’s sales. “What’s more, it’s a better muffin,” adds Dave Konst, vice president of R&D.

Harnessing Fortune

“You have to be a fighter – and you have to be lucky!” reflects Bob Sr. on the underpinnings of his success. “Four or five times in our history, if a decision had gone the other way, Rich Products would have been out of business.” Rich traces his love of competition to his years as an athlete, grappling with opponents on the wrestling mat or knocking heads on the gridiron.

He fought a seemingly endless string of lawsuits in 41 states to keep his soybean-based Coffee-Rich frozen non-dairy coffee creamer on the market. The dairy industry invoked a federal law stating that “no person shall sell or manufacture any product in semblance or imitation of milk or cream.” He and his legal team argued the semantics of “cream” and “creamer,” charging the industry had no exclusive claim to the term. He also disclaimed any attempt at “imitation” at all, calling his product a “replacement.”

“We got a 3-3 decision at the Superior Court in Wisconsin,” recalls Rich of the most significant and memorable of the court decisions. “One of the judges had a conflict of interest. He was the one who filed the initial suit against us. He had to dismiss himself from the case. So the vote stood 3-3. It was then that I discovered that the courts operated like baseball: The tie goes to the runner. By beating these laws we did one hell of a service for the margarine industry, too,” he notes.

Luck surfaced on other occasions. As a War Foods Administrator in the 1940s, Rich visited a New York customer to display a new non-dairy whipped topping made from soybean. The liquid product inadvertently froze. “We cut the frozen topping into pieces, and it whipped to perfection,” raves Rich. A breakthrough product, Rich’s Whipped Topping, was born.

At times, brainstorms showered a virtual embarrassment of riches upon the firm. In a turnabout of the frozen topping surprise, Rich’s now famous all-natural “Freeze Flo” technology came into being. The head of the R&D lab pulled a test batch of a soy-based whipped topping from the freezer only to find that the topping was still soft. In typical fashion, the elder Rich turned the accident into a milestone event. Freeze Flo technology, still licensed by the company, keeps interior fillings soft with freezer-stored product. It is used today in éclairs and ice cream.

Seeing in 3-D

Since those early brushes with good fortune, the company almost makes a science of harnessing luck. It begins with fostering innovation. A “3-D vision” the younger Bob Rich identifies in the company-wide initiative, Mission World Class, is “to lead the way to DREAM, DEVELOP, and DELIVER tomorrow’s food innovations today. If company history teaches anything, it’s that good ideas are everywhere. Vision, focus and persistence, however, bring them to fruition.”

Such an eye for development hearkens back to Bob Sr.’s knack for letting no idea with star potential slip through the cracks. Mindy Rich, vice president of innovation and wife of president and CEO Bob Rich Jr., has been a prime mover in formalizing the company’s culture of innovation.

Among her inspirations has been an Innovation Fair. At the biannual event, business divisions, operating groups and processing plants showcase successful ideas and give other ideas a chance to gather momentum and support. Culinary/sales teams find the seeds of new product innovation from customers, headlines and market sources. “Innovation is not just about products but processes, too,” says Barth. “We’re an organization that gets an idea and makes it happen.”

“My job is to deliver as much luck as I can,” laughs Konst, hearkening back to the founder’s favorite theme. “The challenge is to find out what projects have the best chance of working, (and) to know what we’re getting into before we make a commitment,” he says. “I prioritize, give the go/no-go to projects.”

The Rich Mission emphasizes working smarter and “doing the right things” as well as thinking outside the box. Cross-functional teams and the Stagegate process help screen the flood of ideas, narrowing the field of focus to concepts with the best chance of success and highest return potential. Leadership competencies include knowing value drivers, with emphasis on profit and growth potential, and effective strategic planning.

And it seems that the right things just continue to happen at Rich Products as new products continue to flourish. The company will pass $2 billion in sales this year, not bad for a family-owned business. It’s a testament to an organization that has always placed a premium on quality and innovation. And a little luck!

Chef with the magic touch

Add a chef’s touch to the customer menu, knowledge of the kitchen and just a pinch of legerdemain, and you have all the ingredients for remarkable success with the world’s leading food chains. “I look at a blank plate, and it is like a canvas for me,” says Michael Joseph, certified executive chef and national accounts culinary manager for Rich Products.

"We are the eyes and ears of our customers," says Chef Michael Joseph.
This is his 17th year with the Buffalo, N.Y.-based food processor. His penchant for creative menu ideas and food artistry have found the perfect home in Rich Products’ culture of innovation.

You would expect to find a prominent chef like Joseph as a high-profile member of Rich Products’ vaunted research and development team. But none of the 15 chefs on staff fills R&D positions. Not formally, at least. Still, their link to Rich product development is critical. Joseph supports three national account managers, supporting culinary and menu development with such top multi-unit chains as Bob Evans, Perkins, Hard Rock Café, Burger King, Fazoli’s and Aramark foodservice.

“I support the customer as well as the corporation and the division,” he explains. “I kick-start ideas…new menu options for them to make sure that they are on trend with the industry.” Back in Buffalo, he may collaborate with Rich’s R&D team to customize product to specific needs whether of taste, style, or mode of preparation.

“We can also look at a product from a handling standpoint. Labor is a big issue,” says Joseph. “Or suggest a type of package. Or adjust to equipment. Every operation has different styles of equipment and different conditions. We can touch all the bases. We are the eyes and ears of our customers. We can advise them what to use or how to modify the product (or equipment) so that it might work better.”

Rich Products, in fact, operates culinary schools in the Buffalo home base and in Fresno, Calif. “We are in a relationship-building industry,” says Joseph. “It isn’t the product alone that we sell; it’s the support, too. We have quality product. But you need a quality support staff to enable the customer to use that product to the fullest.”

The Research Chefs Assn. honored Robert Rich Sr., company founder and chairman of the board, this past spring with its Pioneer Award, in large part for his successful use of culinologists in his organization. “We’ve used chefs for the last 20 years,” says Rich, who demonstrated a genius for utilizing food talent in his organization for nearly 60 years.

Tapping the training and effectiveness of chefs so successfully has been a simple exercise in facilitating communications. No one is better equipped with product knowledge, or is in a better position to understand the nuances of particular equipment and preparation steps, than the chef. The chef is the conduit for the two-way flow of information.

But Joseph may have a step up on even other chefs when it comes to communications. Joseph is also a magician, and he brings those skills of legerdemain and illusion to the table, entertaining as he informs. “I’m lucky to have a job where I can incorporate the two things I love — the food industry and magic,” says Joseph. “Magic is a great learning tool. You have to capture someone’s attention in the first five minutes when you are working with them. You need more than the product. You need to be informative — and fun!”

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