A Flair for Innovation

Rich Products Corp. has a history of breakthrough technologies. A look beneath the surface shows the chef's touch on its many successful product lines.

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By Mike Pehanich, Contributing Editor

He’s a food industry legend, yet he still collects honors and accolades as if he were filling the gaps in a coin collection. He is a visionary who saw a future in frozen foods at a time when total frozen food sales in the U.S. were less than $100 million.

Today, sales of Rich Products Corp. alone will top $2 billion in 2004, and Rich-SeaPak, another family-owned business in frozen seafood, will amass another $370 million in sales. Robert Rich Sr. spearheaded breakthrough technologies, battled the dairy industry for the right to keep his products alive, and led his company to 153 patents in the U.S. and beyond. At the age of 91, he remains active as chairman of the board of the company he created nearly 60 years ago.

"Bob Rich" -- the best known name in Buffalo, N.Y. -- is shared by 91-year-old Bob Sr. (left) and his son Bob Jr. (right).

Today, Rich Products is among the largest privately held food companies in the U.S., and it sells more than 2,000 products -- from frozen dough and desserts to non-dairy creamers and beverages -- in more than 75 countries.

“Bob Rich” is the best-known name in Buffalo, N.Y. The fact that he shares it and the company leadership with his prominent son has only fanned the flame of fame for both.

Earlier this year, the Research Chefs Assn. (RCA) presented Robert Rich Sr. with the Pioneer Award, an honor bestowed annually on individuals who have had a major impact on the growth and development of the research chef profession and industry. (See Food Creation, September 2004.)

That he received another award should be a surprise to no one. He was one of the first inductees into the National Frozen Food Industry Hall of Fame, and he received the Frozen Food Industry Founder Award. “I saw a lot of room in the frozen cabinet,” he remembers. “We were new, we were different.”

“Bob Rich Sr. was a pioneer in culinology,” explains Shannon Reynolds, director of education services for the RCA, headquartered in Atlanta. “He overcame great challenges, and his company has set landmarks in food science and the culinary arts — what we call culinology. He’s known for his technological innovations, but his products have also had a culinary touch.”

The Toque’s on Rich

In an era marked by frequent cuts and cautious research investment, the Rich family invests confidently in research and development. Rich Products employs an R&D staff of 77 at the Rich’s Research Center in Buffalo, and has more than 100 research members worldwide. In addition, 15 staff chefs serve a critical function in menu development and product customization as vital links between R&D and frontline foodservice customers.

From the company’s earliest days, Bob Sr. kept talented, innovative people excited about their work. No doubt that truth goes hand-in-hand with Rich’s own nose for breakthrough food industry concepts, plus an uncanny ability to place the right people in the right situations.

Rich's Whipped Topping, a breakthrough product, was largely a happy accident. Rich visited a customer to display a new non-dairy whipped topping made from soybean. The liquid product inadvertently froze, but when cut into pieces, the frozen topping whipped up beautifully.
Creating breakthrough food technology, such as the first non-dairy whipped topping, the first non-dairy coffee creamer and other first-of-a-kind achievements, earned him a pedestal in the food industry’s pantheon as one of the industry’s most prominent creators and successful entrepreneurs. But Rich is quick to point out the vital contributions of his research and developments teams at each critical juncture.

Inside the research center, a red chef’s toque sits beside a display of Rich bakery products. The company’s sale of frozen doughs and bakery products for foodservice and in-store bakeries is booming. In the company’s modern era, top culinarians — chefs with a foot in food science — build on the Rich tradition.

Rich’s chefs bring workable ideas from customers to R&D and help the development team adapt to customer needs and applications. They also tweak formulations and help customize product to taste and operating conditions.

“They ask us ‘Will this product work on the front end before it hits the street?’ ” says Chef Mike Joseph, CEC, national accounts culinary manager. “They need to know if it is ‘on trend’ or if it is manageable in their operation.”

A Rich Life

Every product from Rich’s Research Center is expected to please. Food trends provide direction and stimulate ideas, but great taste is non-negotiable. The Rich Life line, one of the company’s latest triumphs, is a case in point.

The Rich Life line of "healthier products that taste great" includes par-baked breads and rolls.

The low-carb fad exploded toward the end of 2003, as dietary attention shifted from fat to carbohydrate reduction. “We wanted to see past the trend to where people are really going so that we would still be ahead if the trend passed by the time we got there,” says Wendy Barth, senior vice president of product management and innovation. “We realized that, behind the trend, people really want healthier products that taste great.”

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