Recognizing a niche opportunity in foodservice, Jerry Shafir combined his business school knowledge and passion for soup by founding Chelsea, Mass.-based Kettle Cuisine Inc.. His vision was to provide the same quality, all-natural, made from scratch, refrigerated soups to discerning restaurant chefs as those they made themselves, saving them labor costs and taste and texture inconsistencies – soups they would be proud to serve their customers.
Twenty-six years later, Kettle has some 200 employees, is still privately owned, and the company's product portfolio has grown to more than 60 varieties of soups, chilis, chowders and stews. The company serves more than 5,000 restaurants, cafés, bakeries, cafeterias, delicatessens and supermarkets in the U.S.
When Shafir's daughter Kate was diagnosed with celiac disease nearly 20 years ago, Shafir realized how limited the prepared gluten-free food options were for this growing community of people. In 2006, when the FDA proposed a formal definition for gluten free foods, he launched a line of 10 chef-inspired single-serve bowls of all-natural, gluten-free frozen soups, which are now available in grocery stores nationally.
Kettle Cuisine's mantra is that the quality of what comes out of a soup kettle is highly dependent upon the integrity of the ingredients that go into the kettle. In order to maintain the integrity of its products, the company takes great pride in having cooks and chefs practice artisan cooking techniques in its kitchens. Perhaps that's the reason the company has grown significantly while the overall soup category has declined.
Corporate Executive Chef Joseph Ascoli leads the cross-functional team with an open mind and gathers ideas from as many different sources as possible.
"Our core competence is premium quality, all-natural kettle cooked foods in both refrigerated and frozen formats for foodservice," he says. "We specialize in soups, chowders, chilis and stews but we also make a few sauces and dips, and we recently launched organic steel-cut oatmeal. We have more than 60 varieties of soup available every day under the Kettle Cuisine brand. We also cook a wide range of proprietary products for specific customers with which we co-develop recipes. These products are primarily packaged in bulk 4- and 8-lb. pouches."
All of Kettle's foodservice products are also available in retail. "Beyond selling bulk soup for our customers' hot soup wells, we also sell soups in refrigerated deli cups in sizes between 12 and 32-oz.," explains Ascoli. "All of our retail sales are private label and branded with our customers' own labels."
Reflecting on the reason for the success of Kettle's R&D team, Ascoli admits, "There is no silver bullet. However, our success is largely a result of embracing a true team approach, setting aside egos and carefully listening to the market. While we have a dedicated R&D team of culinary professionals, we view R&D as the responsibility of the entire company, and we include every department in the process. This inclusive approach helps us come up with a wider range of ideas and helps us commercialize new products much more efficiently and effectively.
"Further, we embrace a very open minded approach to R&D. We have a lot of experience in our category based on years of trial and error, but we realize we can still learn and improve, so we routinely and proactively facilitate feedback and we continuously evolve. Finally, we spend a lot of time reading about consumer trends, dining out, speaking to customers about their needs and never rest on past success -- we are always looking for the next great idea."
The core R&D team includes Ascoli, R&D Chef Diego Marigorda, Director of Product Development Steve Sharpe and Sandy Rega, one of Kettle's marketing directors.
"My responsibility is to oversee the entire culinary process from ideation through scaling up recipes in the kitchen," says Ascoli. "Diego is responsible for cooking all of the preliminary test batches and helping me come up with recipes that deliver on the product concepts we are targeting. Steve is responsible for scaling up recipes from tabletop samples to larger batches in the kitchen and monitoring ongoing adherence to specification. And Sandy is responsible for facilitating all of the discussions that lead to new product development concepts.
Throughout the process, the R&D team works with other departments at Kettle. "All departments are involved early and often throughout the process," he says."A few examples of how this works is that purchasing helps us understand the availability of ingredients, marketing helps identify new concepts, sales continuously keeps us informed of customer needs, and the management team provides guidance on the best approach for commercializing each new variety.
"We have a standing R&D meeting every Monday that includes representatives from culinary, sales, marketing, finance, operations, purchasing, customer service and quality assurance to review all of the concepts in development. Our founder and CEO Jerry Shafir also is always present at this meeting.
Ascoli notes the timeline for new products can be as short as two weeks or as long as six months. "Most commonly, a new product takes about four to six weeks. We start with ideation sessions to come up with new concept ideas, then build numerous prototypes that are tested internally," he explains. "Once these concepts are narrowed down we bring in consumer panels for testing, make adjustments and take the product out to a few key customers and channel partners for testing. We then begin the scale up process."
Wellness is an important attribute for Kettle products, but it's not the only one. "At the end of the day, great taste and flavor are still king," he says emphatically. "All of our products must have this attribute. In our soups we pride ourselves on delivering multiple layers of flavor by using simple ingredients that are cooked just right. By cooking our own stocks from scratch and using raw, unprocessed ingredients we are able to deliver true made-from-scratch taste that our competitors are unable to match.
"We offer a wide range of flavor profiles that help our customer appeal to the preference of all of their guests and we also offer soups that address numerous dietary requirements including gluten-free, vegan, low fat and many others."
Every company has failures, but important lessons can be the takeaway. "As much research and testing as we do to ensure the success of every product, we can never really assess product viability until it hits the market," says Ascoli. "We have absolutely had our share of failed products, but they all provide great learning opportunities. We believe in launching lots of products and letting the market decide which ones they really want so in that way we actually plan for and expect failures in our process."
One recent failure was an ethnically inspired soup. "We launched a soup that was authentic to its origin, but the spice [heat] was too intense for many of our customers' guests. The learning is to balance authenticity with the flavor tolerances of our audience – to Americanize the recipes while keeping the key ingredients so that we can help our customers appeal to a wider audience."
Asked what products he is proudest of, Ascoli pauses for a moment. "That is a really difficult question; it's like having to pick your favorite child," he smiles. "We are truly proudest of all the products that prove commercially viable for our customers. Some of this success comes from delivering traditional varieties that taste better and are better for you. Others come from delivering unique varieties using cutting edge ingredients. Both are equally rewarding."
Where do ideas come from? "Everywhere," says Ascoli emphatically. "We truly believe great ideas can come from everywhere and from everyone, so we cast a very wide net. New ideas have come from a member of our maintenance staff walking through the test kitchen while we are working on a concept; from team dinners at tradeshows; from consumers at various events; from customers during meetings; from trade publications reporting on trends; from employees sharing their favorite family recipes; from trade association seminars and the list goes on and on.
"The approach for us is to have as many of our employees thinking about R&D all the time and keeping their eyes and ears open for new ideas," he continues. "The initial idea is rarely the right idea, but once it triggers the brainstorming process, that will ultimately generate the right concept."