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.
FP: HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE MCIIHENNY CO.’S’ APPROACH TO MENU AND PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT?
JG: It’s a team concept. Basically, our teams talk to the customer’s teams; sales, marketing and R&D all work together. Our sales people talk to the customer’s purchasing department, our marketing talks to the customer’s marketing person and I’ll talk to R&D on the culinary side.
FP: HOW DOES PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT IN RETAIL VS. FOODSERVICE DIFFER?
JG: The demands are different from stovetop to kettle or line fill production. The needs may be different, but basically we want to make sure customers get what they need. As far as product development times, it can take from six months to 24 months for both foodservice and processing.
FP: WHY DOES TABASCO COST MORE THAN OTHER HOT SAUCES?
JG: I’ll be honest with you. If processors are looking just for heat impact, there are more cost efficient ways to add it. Our product adds flavors from fermentation and added chili, a much more unique flavor profile. When people ask us why we have the most expensive hot sauce, we like to put in perspective. We bring in pepper mash, put it into a barrel, and age it for up three years. Due to settling, we lose 30 to 40 percent during the aging process. It’s called the Angel’s share, the portion that evaporates through the barrel. We lose another 10 percent off the top since we have to peel off the sedimentation layer before it goes to processing. So we start with 200,000 pounds in 2007 and end up with 100,000 pounds in 2010. We sit on product for three years and lose 50 percent of it, so it begins to make sense why Tabasco may be more expensive. It’s not just because it’s an iconic brand. With all that said, we have a piquant flavor that no other sauce adds, as well as an aged oak note and fermented accent that no manmade flavoring can achieve. I always refer to us as more of a flavoring system than hot sauce. And no matter the development use, we can add subtle notes or the heat and lower-level usage you are looking for.
FP: DO CONSUMERS WANT TO SEE A BRAND NAME INGREDIENT USED IN THEIR FOODSERVICE SELECTION?
JG: Yes, if it’s connectable. If we’re doing a spicy burger or something Cajun it makes sense to consumers. And even though our flavor profile fits well into Asian products, there might be disconnect with the brand equity for the consumer. They might wonder why a Thai ginger dressing is made with Tabasco. Even though it works very well, some people haven’t made that quantum leap from topical hot sauce from Louisiana to world cuisine, but it is happening more and more. I was in China last year, and an Asian distributor asked why an American hot sauce would fit into their cuisine. Take away the brand name and manufacturing location, and think about the flavor profile. In Asian cooking, vinegar, fermented products, and chili peppers are used. That’s what we use. Tabasco has that fermented, vinegary flavor that is used in Korean Kimchi.
As corporate chef and many stewards of the brand at McIlhenny Co., I spend a lot of time helping people understand that Tabasco is a vertical, rather than a horizontal product. If you put it into a Latin or Asian dish, it won’t all of a sudden taste Cajun. Tabasco will blend in and become a component. On the flip side, if you use one of the traditional Buffalo Wing sauces, you use it at a higher level. People are used to that cayenne-based flavor in background.
FP: TELL US ABOUT YOUR NEW SWEET AND SPICY PEPPER DIPPING SAUCE.
JG: It’s more than just a dipping sauce. You will probably see it most often in casual dining applications. It’s a very unique spicy and gingery product, and when I did the first product demos, I made everything from salad dressing to candy (an almond crunch cluster) with it. It contains corn syrup, so I added more sugar and cooked it down to a soft ball consistency and blended it with toasted almonds and Chex. It’s really good.
FP: WHAT FLAVORS AND ETHNIC CUISINES DO YOU PREDICT WILL BE POPULAR IN THE NEAR FUTURE AND INFLUENCE MENU/PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT?
JG: Fifteen years ago, if you asked the consumer what Asian and Mexican foods were, they would have replied Sweet and Sour Pork and Fried Rice and Mexican Tacos and burritos. Now we have Brazilian churrascaria popping up all over the place. Everyone loves Cuban food and knows what a mojo marinade and mojito is. We all love Barbaco and carne asada. We’ve taken a huge leap toward bigger and bolder flavors.
Consumers have a thirst and hunger for better tasting food, with more impact that leaves them wowed. We keep taking all these steps forward with food and flavor profiles. I may be wrong because I never thought I’d see bell-bottoms again, but I don’t think consumers will ever say, ‘gee, I wish my food was bland and flavorless’ again. Everything today -- the pace we live at, the things we do, and the foods we eat -- has to be extreme, bigger and bolder.
FP: HOW DOES THE HISPANIC/LATIN CONSUMER DIFFER?
JG: The dynamics of the American family have changed so much. We used to eat together at home every night. Now, sitting down to a family meal is more of an occasion than commonplace. Today’s dynamic is such that both parents work so hard, but what they bring home pay wise might not be as important as the time they are losing with their kids. I admire the great work ethic and family values of the Hispanic consumer; they spend a lot of time together. They are used to eating at home, in fact they usually eat five dinners a week at home together, and still do most of their food shopping at retail rather than in restaurants. As they become more acclimatized, will their habits change? Only time will tell.
FP: COULD YOU DISCUSS NEW FLAVOR TRENDS?
JG: Jack Daniel’s Grill, used on steak and chicken, is very unique with a sweet, spicy and savory profile. The combination of sweet and spicy, usually found in Asian foods, can come from sugar and Tamarind or coconut. Asians use more contrast of pungencies and flavors. Great sauces show more flavor particulates, and it’s very appealing to consumers when a sauce has lots of particulates and herbs. That’s why Montreal Steak Seasoning has taken off like wildfire. You get a little bit of crunch from it, and cardamom and citrus and garlic punches of flavor. I used to own a restaurant called Rattle Fish with a chef partner in Tampa, and we ground up Montreal Steak Seasoning in a coffee mill and used it on french fries.
FP: WHAT ARE THE DRIVING FORCES FOR BOLDER FLAVORS IN BEVERAGES?
JG: Beverages is such a unique market. People are looking for authentic and interesting flavors in their cocktails. You can find any kind of infused vodka, spurred on by Gen X. On the other side, we’re seeing consumers coming back to more classical drinks like a Manhattan or Old Fashioned. There also are Latin influences in drinks like mojitos and Caprianos, the drink of Brazil. The new Milleniums’ mixologist is looking for that edge to deliver a flavor in a drink that no other does -- whether that is filtered cucumber juice, puree of cactus pads or the seed of a pomegranate. Our product line, though chile-based, has more notes than you can shake a stick at, fresh green pepper in the jalapeno, sweet and fruity in the habanero, smoky from the chipotle, peppery and savory in the garlic, and all the flavors we spoke of in traditional Tabasco sauce. All of this adds to the mixolologist’s palate to add the ‘now and wow’ in any drink.
FP: WHAT OTHER SIGNIFICANT TRENDS DO YOU SEE?
JG: There’s a competitive edge to be better. The most important thing for the consumer is getting value and pleasure for their dollar. If they spend $30 for a hamburger and it’s the best they ever tasted, they will say it’s expensive, but they’ll tell you how great it was. If they spend $10 on hamburger and it’s horrible, they will run around the world telling everyone how bad it was. People know if they go to a restaurant and get a consistent meal for $20, they are getting value for their money and they’ll stick with the reliable venue.
FP: TABASCO IS KNOWN FOR CO-BRANDING. WHAT ARE SOME OF THOSE PRODUCT ALLIANCES?
JG: Yes, we do quite a bit. We have cheeses with Tabasco co-branded A-1 Steak Sauce, Slim Jims, Vlasic pickles, Deans Dips, co-branded foodservice products with J&J Snack Foods, a Tabasco cheese filled pretzel and a Chipotle cheese filled pretzel, and Hormel with Chili. We’re working on a smoked sausage product Bear Creek Smokehouse, Cheez-It crackers, and potato chips from Zapps, a traditional kettle cooked chip from New Orleans.
FP: WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MORE UNUSUAL DISHES CREATED USING TABASCO?
JG: The truth is we can do anything from soup to nuts and drinks. One is a pineapple ginger Martini for a chain restaurant. We added just one drop of Habanero Tabasco. The client was skeptical until he tasted it without the Tabasco. He became a believer that one drop made it taste incredibly better. Our Habanero has tamarind, papaya, mango and other flavors along with the Habanero, so it makes a huge difference. We do some interesting concepts at IFT with ice cream like Hot Cinnamon Roll, where the ice cream tastes like cream cheese frosting, topped with spicy cinnamon caramel and added little cinnamon crunch pieces which makes it taste like a cinnamon roll. Instead of Rocky Road, we created New Orleans Bumpy Street - spiced chocolate ice cream topped with chocolate covered marshmallow, raisins and pecans with spice. We’ve done Granny’s Hot Apple Cobbler Sundae with Cinnamon ice cream, apple and a cobbler crunch on top, Hot Brownie Sundae with spicy brownies and hot fudge on top, and Tabasco topped vanilla ice cream, everyone’s favorite. We offer recipes on Tabascofoodservice.com - everything from appetizers to desserts. We also have many industrial consumers, who use Tabasco in formulations. They break it out so it’s not hot, but if they took it out the flavor profile would be changed. Many of the culinary schools teach students that Tabasco is not just a topical seasoning. This year we’re going to do oatmeal cookie, spiced ice cream that tastes like oatmeal cookies with an oatmeal crunch on top. Sweet heat desserts are not new, but we’re seeing more of them and consumers are becoming used to the combination. Latin foods are pushing the trend to where our foods are going. Look at what Blue Bunny ice cream does in the Hispanic market with jalapeno and habanero ice creams.
FP: WHERE DO YOU LOOK FOR IDEAS FOR NEW MENU ITEMS?
JG: When I do the interview process with the operator, my innovation comes through based on the tools I have available. We have to stay in the realm of where the customer is. If I get brain-logged, I use cookbooks for reference. I’ll find a recipe that’s classic to the cuisine and add my twist. I travel and eat out often, so it’s easy to watch for upcoming trends. People ask me how I come up with new ideas. It’s a combination of experience and art; ideas just pop into my head.
Top of his toque
FP: What is your personal formula, vision on food and lifestyle?
JG: Here’s the saying I’ve picked which sort of sums it up: Life’s journey is not arriving in the grave in a well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, shouting, oh my gosh ... what a ride! Food and fun should both be approached with a certain degree of reckless abandon.
FP: Could you describe your typical day?
JG: There is none! This is the part I love best about my job. Never is it mundane or repetitive; each day there is a new set of challenges that keeps you on your toes and thirsting for answers. Then the next day arrives ... game on!
FP: What ingredients do you always keep in your refrigerator?
JG: Good butter, fresh citrus and ginger, and at least herb pastes, if not fresh ... what can you not make taste good with a base like that.
FP: What Tabasco product can you not live without?
JG: That is like asking which digit on my hand I can cut off and be okay. They all have and serve different uses to me and I would be remiss if I said I only had one.
FP: What are some of your favorite foods?
JG: Simple, flavorful and ones shared with good friends along with a great bottle of wine. Food does not have to be complicated to be good.
FP: What do you do in your spare time?
JG: Rest ...just kidding. I am an avid motorcycle rider and wine collector. I also enjoy sitting behind a pottery wheel. I always enjoy answering when someone asks, ‘Did you make that dish?’ I say, ‘Yes, and the food on it.’