It all began with a vision and a van – a vision to fuse the natural with the savory, to create a great tasting, wholesome product. In just 30 years, Kettle Foods, Salem, Ore., has become the No. 1 natural potato chip brand, according to Nielsen Co.
And while a lot of early growth came through wise decision-making and vision, by 2005 it was apparent to the company that some of the best ideas came from their fans. So at least a little product development was turned over to loyal “chippoisseurs.” Kettle Foods’ People’s Choice campaign was born.
In that first year, 50,000 online votes were cast without any sampling of the flavors (Spicy Thai and Cheddar Beer were the winners). The following year, Kettle created limited numbers of sampler packs with five new flavors under consideration. People who bought the packs were encouraged to use them at parties, where large numbers of their friends could vote for their favorite new flavor.
This year the effort takes another new turn. “Instead of inviting fans to vote on their favorite among pre-made ‘beta’ flavors, we are offering the limited-edition Create-a-Chip Kit, which has everything consumers need to make a custom Kettle Brand Potato Chip,” says Carolyn Richards, director of technical services, who is also called the Kettle Brand chief flavor architect.
“The kit includes four bags of ‘blank’ unseasoned chips, seven all-natural seasoning blends and three bags of past People’s Choice winners [Spicy Thai, Buffalo Bleu and Tuscan Three Cheese] for inspiration. After shaking up their own flavors at home, consumers can go online to www.kettlechipchallenge.com and share their recipes. In the fall, we’ll announce a new flavor inspired by all the fan recipes, and it will be available nationally next year.”
Richards heads up R&D, along with R&D technologist Becky Anderson. They rely on numerous other members of the team, including marketing, purchasing, quality and production, to get new products off the ground. They also count on the development talent of seasoning suppliers and their R&D technologists and chefs.
Kettle Chips are a healthier snack option -- today’s mantra for new products -- but Richards says great taste is the most important attribute. “At Kettle Foods, taste has to be achieved using all natural ingredients that are recognizable to our customers. All natural ingredients are part of the reason our products taste so good.”
Richards says she gets ideas for new products everywhere, but generally not while she’s at work. “I spend a lot of time reading about and exploring food through cooking, restaurants and travel. When it’s time to start a new product, these activities inevitably influence my creative process, although I can rarely pinpoint where the seeds of ideas come from.”
Once the idea germinates, how does the R&D process work? When working with new flavors, marketing and R&D are in step for the entire development process, and operations joins in when it’s time to scale up and order supplies. Other projects tend to have more involvement with engineering, production and quality at the onset.
The timeline needed for a new product depends on the complexity of the flavor and the load, Richards explains. “It generally takes about three months to finish development and scale up. Lead times for packaging and other materials means we’re ready to start shipping a couple of months after that.”
Richards says the reason for the success of Kettle’s R&D team is passion. “Our team is passionate about flavor and we have a tendency to want to blaze a trail. We love to eat, and a lot of our product development energy goes into sharing taste and food experiences for inspiration and to spark innovation.”
We suspect another ingredient for R&D’s success is Richard’s management style. “Listening is the most important management tool any of us can employ,” she says emphatically. “I’m also known for being organized and very committed to project objectives and timelines. I feel it’s important to keep these front and center so we don’t lose track of the success criteria for our projects
“Once objectives and timelines are defined, I communicate regularly about how we are tracking against them.” And she adds, “I also encourage my team to keep looking forward and to remember to have fun … we’re making potato chips, after all.”
Richards says Salt & Pepper Krinkle Cut was the first flavor she developed, and it is her proudest achievement. “I’m also proud of our Kettle Brand Baked products, which are great tasting and have 65 percent less fat than regular potato chips.”
Not unexpectedly, she also enjoys producing the flavors for the annual People’s Choice program. “Although many of these flavors never get mass produced, it’s a great opportunity to experiment with new seasoning combinations and concepts so we stay creative and continue to push the envelope. Where else would you taste Strawberries & Cream or Dirty Martini on a Kettle Brand potato chip?”
This level of innovation must lead to failures as well. “I’ve made plenty of blunders … from new flavors that were too costly to commercialize, to new potato chips that weren’t agriculturally viable, to inaccurate new product labels,” she admits.
“My biggest learning has been to get others involved and to be clear about project objectives. It takes a team to successfully introduce a new product. The earlier you involve the various stakeholders in your project, the better your chances for success. Generating passion in others always increases positive outcomes and results in valuable key learnings from functional experts on your team.”
Kettle has been a pioneer in more than product development. Kettle claims to have pioneered the kettle-cooked style in 1982. Its two-year-old manufacturing plant in Beloit, Wis., claims to be the first LEED Gold certified food processing facility in the U.S. Plants in Beloit, hometown Salem and now Norwich, UK, produce more than 20 flavors and four varieties of potato chip offerings, nut butters and trail mixes, with distribution throughout North America, Japan, Guam and Western Europe.