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."