Creating the Perfect Cookie

What happens when you challenge three radically different product development teams and methodologies - including a food industry "dream team" - to design a cookie?

By Mike Pehanich, Plant Operations Editor

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Cookie competitors included: the Oatmeal Pecan Cookie, made by the Open Source "Dream Team"; the Strawberry Cobbler Cookie, created by the Current Industry Practice Team; and the Oatmeal Chocolate Chip and Butter Toffee Crunch cookie, developed by the XP Team.

How many "wins" can you fit into a "win-win" situation?

That will be one of the questions answered when independent product developer Mattson and Co. tallies the results of Project Delta, an innovative experiment in collaborative product development. With 20 R&D people across the country from food processors and ingredient suppliers plus chefs working collaboratively but remotely, the project blended together continual consumer feedback with charity work to produce the best tasting cookie possible with "wholesome, sensible nutrition."

The "quest for the ultimate cookie" started with the idea of pooling the food industry's top minds and resources to create a superior healthy product "that mainstream Americans will want to eat," and then to share the results of that endeavor with the food industry.

Of course, the results that will most concern consumers are the "nutritionally improved" Oatmeal Pecan, Strawberry Cobbler and Oatmeal Chocolate Chip and Butter Toffee Crunch cookies spawned by competing teams and expected soon to land on grocery market shelves. But the project also should engender substantial charitable contributions. Under the terms of the licensing agreement, one percent of all sales of the Project Delta products will help feed hungry Americans.

Project Delta is the brainchild of Steve Gundrum, president and CEO of Mattson and Co., located in the Silicon Valley town of Foster, Calif. The company calls itself "the largest independent developer of new products for the food and beverage industry." Mattson has a long list of successful product developments, including Starbucks' Frappuccino, Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice, Mrs. Fields' shelf-stable cookies and PowerBar Energy Bites. Mattson's 70-person staff works with Fortune 500 clients and occasionally start-ups, guiding products from concept to and through formulation, scale-up and distribution.

A new product development model

The business leg of Gundrum's threefold plan was to test and showcase innovation models with the hope of unveiling fresh strategies and team designs that would expedite new product development.

Steve Gundrum

"The food industry changes slowly," explains Gundrum, a self-proclaimed student of innovation techniques. "Face it. It has evolved out of the centuries-old process of cooking. New products develop more slowly in our industry compared to a lot of others. Here in the Silicon Valley, we're always looking for better, faster, smarter ways of bringing products to market."

And it was Silicon Valley's software leaders from whom Gundrum took his lead.

"For the past five years, I have been looking especially at productivity in the software industry," he says. "The productivity there is off the charts. In contrast, food innovation is very low."

Why start with a cookie? "It's a ubiquitous snack that millions of Americans eat every day," explains Gundrum, also noting that cookie sales have leveraged a lot of charitable dollars over the years.

To launch the "ultimate professional high-tech bake-off," three project teams received the same product brief. In addition to titillating the taste buds, the resulting products had to meet or exceed the following nutritional goals (based on the average content of existing products):
  • 15 percent lower fat;
  • 15 percent less sugar;
  • 15 percent higher protein.
"Our reasoning was that, in the American diet, if you improved nutrition by 15 percent, you could have a huge health impact," says Gundrum. (The final formulations also contained 2-3g of fiber each.)

Three competing teams

Project Delta built the first of its three project teams around Current Industry Practice. This was the traditional product development team headed by a single manager/director and comprised of trained talents in various disciplines, all Mattson employees. This would be the "benchmark process," to which the other two models would be compared.

Team Two was the "XP" team, short for Extreme Programming. With its origins in software development, XP is a low-risk, small-team approach known for developing new products on the fly. Rapid feedback and short cycle times characterize the approach. Each team member participates in every phase of the project.

"We adapted this model for the food industry," says Gundrum. "In the software industry, two programmers become a project team. They harmoniously work together. One programs, the other debugs. Then they flip-flop their roles. Their customer is their coach. When you have very talented people, this is a highly productive process."

A member of the "XP" team diligently applies himself to the cookie creation competition.

The XP team for Project Delta matched Dan Howell, a culinary expert, with Peter Dea, a food scientist who worked in confectionery before coming to Mattson. They used wireless tablet PCs and "other digital collaboration technologies" to generate their formulation.

The headline grabber was Team Three, the Open Source team. Mattson invited product developers from across the food industry to test the effectiveness of the software team technique made famous with the development of the Linux computer operating system. Linux derived its name from Linus Torvalds, a student at the University of Helsinki, who in 1991 developed the system, then asked programmers around the world to improve upon it. The popular web platform blazed a trail for a whole field of new products, including the video recording system TiVo.

"We wanted a team of 15 from all segments of the food industry for the Open Source model," says Gundrum, who sometimes refers to group three as the Dream Team. Participants included seasoned product developers from Birds Eye, Kellogg, Kraft, Mars, McCormick, Nestle and Schwan, among others. Gundrum says he wanted "people representing big brands, small brands, supplier firms, freelance chefs. Most were product developers, but we had some marketing folks, too."

The Open Source approach incorporated ProtoThink, a digital collaboration technique introduced by Mattson.

"ProtoThink allows teams to communicate and innovate with people all over the world within a digital creative medium," says Gundrum, who likes the idea that all of his food experts have become ethnographers, communicating about the things they eat wherever they find themselves in the world. "You can interconnect a team of 20 people from all over the world to ideate. You don't need a conference room."

With so many people, including professional chefs, and at least a few strong egos, the Dream Team bogged down over professional differences. A Mattson executive who headed the team steered it through to completion of its cookie: oatmeal caramel.

In the end, there was an actual bake-off in April. Mattson sent selected 300 households from across the country and sent them samples of all three cookies. Forty-four percent voted for the Current Industry Practice team's strawberry cobbler cookie; 41 percent for the Dream Team's oatmeal pecan; 14 percent for the XP team's oatmeal chocolate chip.

Beyond the ultimate cookie

The modern food industry is in the "entertainment business," Gundrum posits, pointing to statistics indicating that more than half of today's food dollar is spent away from home. "The basic issues of food production were solved many years ago," he says. "The mission of new products is to entertain."

Every product, he says, is a blend and balance of technology, satisfying consumer wants and needs, and then the application of the culinary arts. For the most part, the food industry's insularity has left it blind to innovation models used in other industries that could help it cut time and cost from new product investment.

"I don't want to suggest that the food industry is deficient," he says. "We're just asking it to look outside and bring in some completely fresh thinking."

Gundrum points to the cosmetics industry, which sometimes turns over 100 percent of its products within a three-year cycle.

"By sharing the results, we will help the industry become more productive and profitable," he says. "(The food industry) has been too slow in new product development, both in concept and development. We have also separated culinary arts and food science too much. Often, teams are too much into the culinary dimension before they even know the market. "

Gundrum envisions a series of products flowing from the Project Delta experiment over the next 10 years. "We will build a pipeline of projects open to entrepreneurs, restaurants … anybody!" he says.

The products will be formulated by professionals, tested with consumers, refined, and tested again until they are perfected. Processors profit. And part of the profit feeds the hungry.

"Turnkey products with a social mission to feed hungry Americans," sums Gundrum. "Everybody wins!"


The product development that keeps on giving

Mattson and Co. created the non-profit Mattson Foundation to make contributions to charitable organizations to feed the hungry.

Project Delta from the start had a charitable component. Its goals were to:
  1. Create healthy products.

  2. Make the formulations developed by the teams available on a licensed basis to any company amenable to the terms of the agreement.

  3. Donate a mandatory one percent of sales to the Mattson Foundation.
Products resulting from Project Delta formulations will have a "Helpings" logo on the label.

"When you purchase products with the ‘Helpings' logo, you can feel especially good about your choice in brands," the label says. "Helpings products have been created by individuals and companies who want to help you eat more nutritiously, and who want to help put an end to hunger. A part of each dollar you spend on Helpings products will be used in making a charitable contribution to the food banks and organizations helping to feed the 32 million people in the U.S. who live in poverty."


AND THE WINNERS ARE . . .

Here are the development teams' assessments of each of their three products.
  • Oatmeal Pecan Cookie (Open Source "Dream Team")


      "Our new Oatmeal Caramel Pecan cookie provides the right balance between wholesome nutrition and great taste. We start with organic whole-wheat flour, organic sugar, old-fashioned rolled oats and skim milk. Then we add just a bit of good stuff like chocolate chips, pecans and a drizzle of sweet caramel, so you get a delicious cookie that everyone in the family will love to eat and you'll feel good about serving."


  • Strawberry Cobbler Cookie (Current Industry Practice Team)


      "A delicious oatmeal cookie that's reminiscent of a fruit cobbler dessert. It's loaded with real strawberries, crunchy almonds and a touch of brown sugar. Each Strawberry Cobbler Cookie contains DHA [docosahexaenoic acid] to promote heart health and developing minds."


  • Oatmeal Chocolate Chip and Butter Toffee Crunch (XP Team)


    "A family favorite with a sweet new toffee taste, this cookie is made extra-wholesome with organic whole grains, heart-healthy oats, no trans fats, the goodness of butter toffee, roasted soy nuts and made naturally delicious without using any artificial flavors or artificial sweeteners. It's a wholesome cookie everyone in the family will really enjoy."

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