2009 R&D Team Winner: Peas of Mind Cooks Up A Better Way to Feed Kids

The winners or our R&D Team of the year for the less than $100 million in sales category working together like peas and carrots.

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R&D Team of the Year Winner: Peas of Mind

Six years ago, Jill Litwin was living in Vermont and working as the color forecasting director for Burton Snowboards. She worked closely with a friend who had a 2-year-old son and was pregnant with her second child. The friend was so exhausted at the end of the day, she confided she often opened canned green beans to feed her son “something healthy,” but felt terribly guilty.

“I was so mortified when she told me, I volunteered to cook for her son Satchel,” says Litwin, whose mother was an exceptional cook, passing on her passion for cooking and eating well. “I wanted to create a wholesome meal that contained all the essential nutrients young children need to get a healthy start in life at a critical stage of development.

“When she said she would pay me, I knew I was on to something,” Litwin continues. “Soon moms in Burlington wanted me to make meals for their kids as well. That’s when I developed the concept of an all-in-one, hand-held meal, which contains all the major food groups.”

After rounds of taste testing with focus groups comprised of kids ages 1 to about 10 years old, Litwin nailed down the four most well-received flavor combinations and named her invention “The Puffet.” Homemade meals puffed full of nutrition and designed for growing kids, the four original flavors of the Puffet contain organic whole milk, organic vegetables or fruit, grains and organic beans. It became the original product line for her start-up company.

As for the name of the entity, it sprouted from a name-storming session that Litwin organized with a group of creative friends and colleagues. She fed her select group enough homemade lasagna and candy until eventually they came up with the perfect name for the company: Peas of Mind. She subsequently moved the company to San Francisco.

About two-and-a-half years ago, Kelly Walsh joined the Peas of Mind team to head up marketing and R&D. Walsh worked in New York in financial services, but she followed her passion for food and moved to San Francisco to attend the Le Cordon Bleu program at the California Culinary Academy.

Litwin and Walsh connected through mutual friends and realized they had a similar passion – creating meals for kids that were free of artificial flavors and preservatives, no added sugars or GMOs. As soon as Walsh joined the Peas of Mind team, she helped develop and launch a line extension with two non-dairy Puffet flavors, and idea generation began for a new product line to complement Puffets.

After conducting consumer surveys and recipe testing, Walsh developed Veggie Wedgies, baked “french fries” made from real vegetables and fruit in four flavors: carrot fries, broccoli fries, cauliflower fries, and apple fries. Gluten free, dairy free, fat free, soy free and vegan, Veggie Wedgies make for a great side dish or snack to replace traditional frozen french fries, which can be loaded with oil and salt. In addition, each month Walsh creates a “reci-pea” and writes a newsletter that is distributed via email to thousands of subscribers. Her latest monthly reci-pea is Baked Sweet Potato Donuts, which are fat free and children find delicious.

While ideas are generated between them, Walsh heads up R&D at Peas of Mind and is responsible for making their dreams edible. “She does all product formulations and testing, hunts down any specific ingredients imperative to the end product, gets a formula ready for production and works with production to maintain the homemade experience of our products during manufacturing,” explains Litwin.

The main reason for the success of the Peas of Mind R&D team is that there are no boundaries. “Creativity, extraordinary ideas -- sometimes impossible ideas -- are encouraged, and sometimes I work more from intuition than from a structured background,” says Walsh. “I’ve never been put into a box that I have to think outside of, and our monthly reci-peas, keep the creative and innovative juices in the air so the work environment always feels fresh and cutting edge.”

R&D holds monthly meetings, and continually works on creating new products. “Historically, we have launched two new product lines or line extensions per year,” says Litwin. “We do most of our R&D in our slower seasons. The frozen food kids category sees slightly slower movement during summer and around the winter holidays due to families being on vacations and focusing on holiday foods. Concepts and ideas are always floating around the Peas of Mind studio and anything that comes to mind is taken note of, no matter how feasible or bizarre.

“More structured, open brainstorming sessions occur to solidify concepts and narrow our product focus,” Litwin continues. “Immediately R&D begins in the test kitchen and products are presented to our internal team before they go to focus groups. Once we’ve nailed down our product, we begin naming and branding, which is all done in-house. We continue to utilize the effective name-storming process that was originally used to come up with the company name.”

As a small company, the key decision makers are able to get together regularly and work as one unit, so decision-making is quick and efficient.

“Once a new product has been loosely worked in the test kitchen, our production managers, sales and marketing are brought in to give feedback and continue to discuss the feasibility of the product,” says Walsh. “We also include a few of our key retail buyers in our decision-making processes. They give us a good indication of product interest, packaging and price points. We establish an internal timeline for introducing new products to the industry and then to the marketplace. August (back to school) and January (new year) are two favorable times for us to bring products to market.”

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