2010 R&D Team Winner: Annie Chun's Inc.

Our 2010 R&D Team Winner introduces Western palates to Eastern delights.

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Annie Chun was born and raised in Seoul, Korea, and came as a young adult to Northern California, where her family ran a top-rated Korean restaurant in San Francisco. With the dream of creating healthy, delicious foods that would introduce America to the diversity of Asian foods and flavors, she founded Annie Chun's Inc. in San Rafael, Calif., in 1992.

While Annie and her husband/partner Stephen Broad sold the business last year to supplier/partner CJ Corp., Annie Chun's continues to provide consumers with simple, convenient meal solutions through innovative product offerings and unique flavor profiles that unlock a sense of worldliness with every bite.

This is right on trend with consumer desires for more international flavor profiles. If timing is everything, Annie Chun's is ripe for growth because of consumer perception that Asian foods are healthier.

In 2005, Annie Chun's forged a strategic partnership with CJ Corp., Korea's largest food producer, strengthening the company's goal of introducing new and exciting Asian foods. The complete line provides a variety of options such as vegetarian, organic and gluten-free to adapt to dietary restrictions and preferences.

In fact, Korean ingredients and foods are reaching a broader reach in retail. In the past decade, kimchi exports to the American market have multiplied seven-fold.

On a new product roll this year and last, Annie Chun's has introduced a panoply of new products to retail, including Asian Meal Starters (Organic Chow Mein, Organic Peanut Sesame, Organic Soy Ginger, Organic Teriyaki, and All Natural Pad Thai), Rice Express (Sticky Rice, Sprouted Brown Rice, Multi-Grain Sticky Rice, and Black Pearl Rice), Noodle Bowls (Chow Mein Noodles, Maifun Rice Noodles, Pad Thai Rice Noodles, and Soba Noodles), Sushi Wraps (Sprouted Brown Rice and Sticky White Rice), Soup Bowls (Miso Soup Bowls and Udon Soup Bowls).and Roasted Seaweed Snacks (Sesame and Wasabi snacks).

Don't laugh at that last one. Seaweed is high in vitamins and minerals, but very low in fat, which makes it a great healthy snack.

Also new are two enticing frozen items -- Organic Pot Stickers (Chicken & Vegetable and Pork & Vegetable), and Mini Wontons (Pork & Vegetable, Pork & Ginger, Chicken & Garlic and Chicken & Cilantro) – as well as Go Chu Jang Korean Sweet & Spicy Sauce, a Korean culinary secret made with a cultured soybean base and combined with red pepper powder, fresh garlic and onions to create a blend of savory, spicy and sweet. The sauce is versatile enough to use as a dipping sauce, condiment or marinade and for grilling and basting.

What do consumers see in these unfamiliar products? "Annie Chun's line of foods gives the American consumer new and exciting Asian meals in a world where busy schedules are understood," says Kyunghwa Nam, senior scientist and R&D manager. "We know that price, health and cooking time are factors in every person's diet. So by sticking to our mission, we are able to provide consumers with exactly what they need in a creative, good-tasting meal, sauce or snack," she points out.

Healthier products are the focus of consumers, particularly younger consumers, who also love Asian foods for their variety of flavors and textures. "We've stuck to our original mission of creating Asian foods for the American person. As Americans have become more aware of their diets and more aware of health factors, our focus remains at allowing our foods to meet every person's dietary needs," says Nam. "To do that, we offer vegetarian, gluten-free, and organic options. The success of Annie Chun's and the sophistication of American consumers have allowed us to produce new flavors and expand our line of Asian foods.

"While offering healthy foods is important, we don't want our foods to sacrifice taste," continues Nam. "Our new Annie Chun's Roasted Seaweed Snacks are a great example of this. The crispy texture and zesty taste set the Roasted Seaweed Snacks apart from other snacking options. Also, Roasted Seaweed Snacks are not a typical American snack, so it is vital that we introduce consumers to a new and delicious foods. Convenience of the packaging is another great attribute, as American's are busy and need on-the-go options."

Building on emerging trends
"In large part, we build upon emerging trends as well as consumer opinion to produce the best-tasting products," says Nam. "Our R&D team's success is the result of ongoing collaboration with our marketing, sales and operations teams. Through weekly new product development meetings, we ensure that all aspects of a new product are addressed. Each team offers their related expertise throughout new product development and current product refinement. From conception, it is a team effort," she emphasizes.

How does that affect each team member? "At Annie Chun's, we believe in giving the individual opportunities to succeed, says Nam, adding, "By encouraging growth, each employee has the freedom to express his or her opinions and develop their talents in a supportive environment."

As for where Annie Chun's gets ideas for new products, Nam quickly points out, "Everywhere -- from trade magazines like Food Processing to restaurants, we leave no stone unturned when developing new products. And we develop ideas that take into consideration the American palate, while trying to explore perhaps more exotic Asian flavors," she adds.

Sometimes this exploration can go too far. "As we developed our Kimchi Soup Bowl, we found it difficult to make just the right spiciness level for consumers," reflects Nam. "Through trial and error, we learned what consumers would consider ‘spicy.' From our initial mistakes, we are now confident in producing products like Gochujang sauce and Korean Sweet Chili Noodle Bowl, which are both savory and spicy."

Growth of this small (less than $100 million in sales) company depends upon "making consumers aware of the ease and accessibility that our foods have to offer," says Nam. "When we think about our growth, we also want to continue our integrated marketing efforts to tell consumers more about the well-rounded flavors and versatility of many of our foods and sauces."

Maintaining growth may not be easy. "We understand that these are tough economic times, so we make our products easy-to-make and affordable, which allows consumers to explore new flavors right at home," says Nam. "But as a Pan-Asian food producer, we constantly struggle with providing a truly authentic Asian flavor to the American palate. Based on consumer feedback, we attempt to balance their taste without compromising the flavor."

If she were marooned on an island, "My top three foods would be rice, seaweed, and teriyaki sauce," Nam says without pause. "Our Rice Express is a necessity in our office since it is very convenient and has the necessary carbohydrates, ideal if I were marooned on an island. For essential sodium and minerals, our Sesame Roasted Seaweed Snacks would be a second must-have. Third, I would stockpile Annie Chun's Teriyaki Sauce because it is so flavorful."

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