Everyone said Mildred Reser made a great potato salad. When the family moved in 1949 from Kansas to Cornelius, Ore., she started selling it door to door. Then husband Earl sold it to butcher shops and grocery stores.
The turning point came in 1951 when they signed a contract to provide potato salad to all the Safeway stores in Oregon. Mrs. Reser's Salads outgrew the farmhouse kitchen, so Mildred and Earl moved to a larger building with production capacity in Cornelius.
Sixty years and $700 million or so later, Reser's Fine Foods Inc. has come a long way from the galvanized tub on a wood stove. But in many ways this fourth-generation family-owned company, now based in Beaverton, Ore., hearkens back to the farmhouse kitchen, with everyone involved in product development wanting to make the best potato salad (and 2,600 other SKUs) retailers and consumers can buy.
Reser's products still focus on consumer convenience and are category leaders in prepared salads, side dishes, dips, Mexican foods and specialty products. All are refrigerated products. Reser's markets to all 50 states, Canada, Mexico and Guam.
Al Reser grows the dream
During his senior year at Oregon State University, Al Reser, Mildred and Earl's son, with the help of OSU's food science department, invented a chip dip made from sour cream instead of cream cheese. It became an instant hit with consumers. At the age of 25, he became CEO of Reser's and moved the company to Beaverton.
"When Al came back from the service in the early 1960s, he worked in the plant all day making his mother's famous potato salad," says Chef Barbara Jordan, a Culinary Institute of America graduate who has led the company's R&D initiatives since 1989.
"Soon they expanded with different flavors of potato salad and macaroni salad. He sold to any grocery store he could drive to. He made the salad in the daytime and delivered it at night. So our roots are in what the French call Salade Composée, which are mixed salads made of many ingredients that marry together. We grew from there."
When Jordan joined the company in 1989, there were 25 varieties of potato salads. "We are at 178 today, so I like to joke that we make everybody's mother's potato salad," she says. "Grocery store buyers came in and said, 'My mom makes this great potato salad with mustard and eggs.' We'd replicate it, and he would stock it, and that's why we have so many varieties.
"We branched out into refrigerated desserts, and about 15 years ago we added refrigerated macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes. Our mashed potatoes are probably better than what you can make at home."
Is it difficult for a graduate of Hyde Park, N.Y.-based the Culinary Institute of America to work in a plant setting? "As a chef, I was trained to add ingredients to taste rather than a recipe, but you can't run a plant that way," she responds. "I had to learn to measure and write down the exact amounts of ingredients used.
My food scientists were trained just the opposite – measure everything and write it down. I have become more exacting, and they have learned to loosen up a bit and 'just feel, dude!'"
Al Reser, who passed away in April, was inspirational. "Al had a real passion for foods and new ideas," she says. "He casually met a man from South America on a beach and was invited to his home for dinner. They conversed about food, and Al decided the next thing he absolutely had to add to our line was authentic, refrigerated Mexican foods. He developed a passion for Mexican food, and the idea appealed to his entrepreneurial spirit.
"Although it seems like an unusual way to get into burritos and tortillas, there is a thread that has to do with R&D and Reser's. It is about family and community. Everywhere you go in this company, what you see is passionate people having an idea and connecting with other passionate people. This man takes Al home to dinner, and the next thing you know they are great friends, and he becomes part of our family too. Everything touches everything else in this company; everything is relational."
Magic team formula
Jordan's R&D team started out as a two-man department and has grown to 14. "It's hard to pick out major players, because we have such a team approach," she says. "The department is organized into a business development section and an internal projects section. Section heads are major players, but so are the people who work for them. You get back to the whole relational concept. It would be hard to do anything without all of us because we are synergistic."
Sometimes. the R&D team develops sampling recipes for each other just for fun. Right now a retro theme has produced a sensational Tuna Wiggle.
"I always tell prospective employees, "If you accept this job, you're going to spend more of your waking time with us than your spouse,' " warns Jordan. "You need to be sure you want to be here, and we need to make sure you really belong here. If we make a bad decision, then we will all be unhappy.
"We have people out developing the business, and they were good at talking to customers. We also have people who are good at preparing bench-top samples, and enjoy doing that all day. Both are equally important, but you have to have one working hand in glove with the other."
Choosing everyone's strength is key. "When I'm hiring, I try to seek out people who want to do something in particular," says Jordan. "My project manager Satya Peterson loves what she does. She is one of those people that won't allow you to have a loose thread on your shirt; she has to get a scissors and snip it off, and probably tack it down with some Crazy Glue. Our food scientist Candy York, who runs our internal projects division, can't wait to find a scientific or processing solution to something. And Elise Johnston, who runs our business development section, you should hear her laugh. She does this with customers, and it's like magic; everybody relaxes and then they tell her what they really want, the most difficult thing to get from customers. Her laugh single-handedly works through all the agendas and gets down to what the real problem is and what the customer wants."
In fact, according to Jordan, customers don't always know precisely what they want; they know they want a problem solved. "Sometimes they don't know exactly what the problem is, and sometimes they don't want to tell you because they don't know you or know if they can trust you," she explains. Elise's laugh makes you trust her and then she proves she is worth your trust. That is something you have to do in R&D; you have to be trustworthy."
Success of Reser's R&D team is always about the relationships. "Machines can make salad, but it's the people who make a company great," says Jordan.
Timeline for success
It was difficult for Jordan to specify a timeline for developing new products. "Mark [Reser] once called me on a Wednesday to match a mashed potato to customer specifications ASAP," she says. "I sent samples by Fed Ex for approval, and by Sunday, we filled boxes and sent the finished product to the customer. Often, we get samples to people in one day; in fact, I've driven samples to the airport and bought them a seat on the plane. So we can be incredibly fast."
What slows development is going through the channels of what is now a relatively large company. "The average time is two to three weeks for a product and six to eight weeks for both the product and the packaging," she says. "We have a diverse customer base, so depending on the product requirements, we can ship door to door in as little as two weeks or it can take as long as three months."
During the product development process, Reser's R&D works with marketing, purchasing, management and packaging. "We always work as a team and manage projects by committee," explains Jordan. "Since Reser's R&D works on as many as 50 products a day, the project manager acts as the conductor leading the brass section, drums and strings. But, in the end we all work together.
"If the product development is for private label, the customer is in charge. If we are developing a product for our own label, the group is in charge. Ideas are welcome from everyone."
Jordan says she is proud of all the team's new products, but she has a partiality for the company's Scalloped Potatoes. Pair them with baked ham or rotisserie chicken, and a salad or vegetable, and dinner is ready. "I'm also proud that we make ready-made foods that make people's lives easier and give families more fun time to spend with each other," she says.
On the wellness front
While there are many important attributes to consider in new product development, "Everybody short changes flavor," says Jordan. "If food doesn't taste good, consumers won't eat it. When I was a child, a friend of my mom's served us a 'healthy meal' of cornmeal cooked in water topped with kidney beans and tomato sauce. No one ate it. Wellness is important, but quality of life is more important."
Nevertheless, Reser's R&D team has successfully developed low-sodium mashed potatoes that are lower in fat (3g), and is working on other sodium-reducing initiatives. "People don't want government to tell them what to eat, but if manufacturers ratchet salt down, it will become the new normal," she says emphatically. "Our tastes have to adjust before we accept low sodium, but 10 percent is not too much to cut out without affecting taste."
Jordan says the company also has developed higher-fiber and antioxidant-rich products, such as vinaigrette dressing with added pomegranate and rye berries.
"I'm a believer that everyone should get more fiber in his or her diet. Consumers change their eating habits slowly, and it's our job to try to help them eat healthier."
Refrigerated foods are a fast-growing category that resonates with consumers. "Consumers perceive refrigerated foods as fresher, they are located on the perimeter of stores with all the other healthier foods. Their preparation is faster than frozen or dry, [and they seem] less engineered than frozen, tasting like your mom's recipe," she says.
But food safety and "purchase by" dates are of particular concern in refrigerated foods. "It depends on the food, but all of our shelf life is based on when the product begins to taste less good, rather than when it spoils," says Jordan. "We compare new samples to older samples with microbiological samples to make certain the product is removed way before it spoils. There are new developments all the time, but super safety is our primary concern because our customers are our family."
There are occasional new product failures. "Al loved the idea of a vegetarian chili hot dog made out of textured vegetable protein," she recalls. "Packaging was soon ready, but R&D didn't have the ideal product. Our teams weren't communicating as well then. If we had been, we would have killed the idea sooner or developed it better." Jordan says vegetarians loved the product, but they don't purchase hot dogs.
"Although we carried that product through the goal post, we realized we have to make what our customers want," she says. "It was an exercise in doing something despite obstacles. But there is no bad R&D research, and you apply what you learned to something else. Most important, we learned how to communicate better and learned what it brought us not lost us."
New product ideas come from everywhere, according to Jordan. "I once had to work with a customer's grandmother. We were working on her casserole recipe, so we sent it to yia yia [grandmother in Greek] for her final approval. I love the grandmother constituency; in fact, I would love to have an Iron Grandmas competition [based on the Food Channel's Iron Chef series]. Mashed potatoes would be the basic ingredient and their recipes would be on our web site. We need to put grandma and mom back into the food we eat. Let's bring back what was good about those times, especially more love, into our foods."