Long-term trends toward bold flavors and ethnic cuisine have been a boon for Avery Island, La.-based McIlhenny Co., which has a Tabasco pepper sauce for everyone's taste buds and every recipe's requirements.
If you want to develop a hot, spicy or ethnic product, jazz up an existing formulation, or create a new taste sensation in either retail or foodservice, the person to talk to is innovative, articulate and lively Jason Gronlund, McIlhenny’s corporate executive chef, Culinarian, director of ingredient sales and culinary services -- quite a mouthful to be sure.
You can track Tabasco’s success in being on trend beginning with the original Tabasco Pepper Sauce, to Tabasco Green Pepper Sauce, Tabasco Garlic Pepper Sauce, Tabasco Habanero Pepper Sauce to its newest Tabasco Chipotle Pepper Sauce and the ethnic recipes McIlhenny provides on its website www.tabascofoodservice.com.
Chef Gronlund’s love of cooking began at the age of 12 in his family's catering business. He attended West Bay Vocational School in North Kingston, R.I., and studied culinary arts in his junior and senior years of high school. Upon graduation, he served in the U.S. Army, where he cooked at the post commander's mess for two years. He ran the successful Rattle Fish restaurant in Tampa, Fla., and has been part of McIlhenny’s team for eight years, steering a course between his office, lab, kitchen and visiting customers around the world.
FP: HOW DOES MCILHENNY WORK WITH FOODSERVICE VENUES TO DEVELOP FOODS CONTAINING TABASCO BRAND PRODUCTS?
JG: We take a strategic, rather than shotgun approach. We don’t have a large R&D department like Kraft Foods or General Mills, which might have 15 chefs who can target the Top 100 accounts. We go by interest level at the time vs. going out and beating on doors. Whether domestic or international, we always have enough work to keep us going. Rather than throwing a product against the wall to see if it sticks, the work I do is in depth -- a lot of pre-work by looking at the layout of the customer’s kitchen, current menu mix and whether there’s a station in the kitchen that’s currently overloaded. Let’s say a restaurant has 80 percent fry capacity, but only 60 percent grill capacity. It’s better to develop a grill item, rather than overload the fry station. I look at the skill set of the people executing the product, and what the current pantry contains. Are they looking at any other proteins or secondary items in a new item? What have they done in the past, what’s worked, what hasn’t? What do their consumers like? What flavor profiles have worked well for them and what should we avoid?
Once I funnel through all that information, it gives me a clear, more concise approach. I’ll come up with 20 or so ideations, and the client picks the top 10 they like. We then come in, present the products and talk about how they fit into the current menu. Unless they tell me otherwise, everything I do is pantry development -- taking everything they have within their structure and making something else out of it. It helps them operationally, because they don’t have to worry about new SKUs. If you come in with a new recipe with five new SKUs, and the customer has 400 chain units, it makes it much more difficult for them to execute the product.
When we demo the products, we also talk about how it is going to fit into their operations -- how it will be prepped, executed, held and garnished. We demo it on their flatware or whatever they serve it on. We did a project with Sonic, and served the food on a plastic tray wrapped in their paper. They could see how their consumer would open and interface with the product, vs. us serving it on a nice garnished plate - or what we call heroing the product. Our strategy is to provide R&D for no charge, and hope eventually it will turn into additional case sales. Even though I’m a Culinarian and chef, I have sales responsibility as well. On the culinary side, my job is to increase case sale consumption.
FP: HOW DOES TABASCO WORK WITH PROCESSORS AND FOODSERVICE ESTABLISHMENTS TO CREATE NEW PRODUCTS?
JG: We have a whole line of separate products for industrial use. Tabasco comes in all liquid forms in 50 gallon and 320 gallon containers. We also have Red and Green Tabasco in powdered form, Red Tabasco in paste form, and two intermediate moisture products -- Tabasco pulp, which is the meat of the Tabasco pepper, and Processor’s Blend, which is more pepper skin. We have crushed pepper, which is a dried Processor’s Blend. There are many formats for processors, created for specific needs. For example, in the breading process, you can’t use the regular liquid blend, so we developed the dry Red Tabasco blend for breading applications. The paste form, which I created a while back, is for dressing sauce applications. If you use the liquid Red, trying to deal with the amount of vinegar makes it difficult. Our Tabasco paste, which looks like tomato paste, has less liquid vinegar in it and more pepper solids, so it gives you a more fermented flavor and chili flavor because it’s concentrated, hitting about 35,000 on the Scoville scale (measured heat), vs. 4,000 for the liquid. I work on gold standard recipes for formulation and work with manufacturers to get them to consumers. My sales responsibility includes managing our ingredient broker network. On the menu side, I work on those globally. Last year, I worked with Pizza Hut Korea, Pizza Hut Belgium, Pizza Hut UK, and Quick, a chain of quick-serve restaurants in Paris. In Australia, I’ve worked with Domino’s Pizza and in Tokyo with Global Dining. They have two concepts called Zest Cantina and Tex Mex. We did a complete reformat on their products. We also worked on La Boheme, an Italian pasta concept. They wanted some proteins that could be done between a brick oven and sauté.