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."