R&D / R&D Teams of the Year

2012 R&D Team Winner: Truitt Bros.

Contract manufacturer is dedicated to shelf stability and environmental stability.

By Diane Toops, News and Trends Editor

Brothers David and Peter Truitt were in their 20s when they purchased a cannery in Oregon's Willamette Valley in 1973. What they lacked in experience, they made up for with prodigious energy, optimism, a brilliant staff and a strong family heritage in the food processing business.

Starting with commodity green beans, pears, cherries, plums and berries, they stepped up product and process development for new packaging systems, and over the years diversified by expanding both their branded and contract packing efforts.

Now Truitt Bros Inc. (www.truittbros.com), Salem, Ore., produces more than 400 products for companies spanning the globe; from entrepreneurial startups to large food companies plus commercial restaurants, foodservice kitchens and retailers. Annual sales are estimated at $150 million. The company has specialized in shelf-stable platforms from four facilities in Oregon and Kentucky.

Many of its products — entrées, side dishes, desserts and vegetables — feature certified sustainable ingredients and are processed in its Food Alliance-certified production facilities.

Collaboration is the key reason for the success of Truitt's R&D team. "We are a very collaborative group," says Jeff Geyer, general manager of the Special Products Division, who also heads up the R&D group. "Our food developers have constant interaction with all levels of management including the owners. We have meetings every week that the owners attend to go over existing projects, and discuss others in the pipeline."

Truitt's 4,000-sq.-ft. Culinary Center in Salem is equipped to develop any flavor concept with a full test kitchen, pilot plant and a nine-person team with diversified backgrounds in product development and thermal processing.

"We encourage our R&D team to work directly with our primary customer contacts to streamline communication and ultimately reduce time to market. We also recommend to our customers that they work on site with us in our culinary center, which tends to improve workflow while elevating our relationship with them," says Geyer.

"It is really a team effort," he continues. "Our marketing and sales group is continually meeting with R&D to make sure our customers' expectations are being met. The level of our purchasing team's involvement depends a lot on the uniqueness of the raw materials. We have such a diverse customer base; we have to buy materials from all over the world. We also have found that it is particularly critical to have our operations group be involved from the very beginning. As a result, we typically have a high rate of success transitioning our product development work into production."

Creating products for such a diverse customer base means that timelines vary considerably. "Every project is different," reflects Geyer, explaining it can take from three months to as much as two years.

"We can take a concept from an idea all the way to completion, or work with a customer's product development team to convert their bench work to fit our production capabilities. Our role often includes bench top development, sample generation, supplier identification for unique flavors or ingredients, heat penetration studies and labeling requirements."

Recent projects include the successful launch of numerous lines of organic baby food, single serve meals and kit meals, institutional pouches and pioneering process development for unique packaging solutions. "Most of our recent formulation work has centered on health and wellness."

Healthier products are the focus of consumers and manufacturers, and there is no doubt Truitt's R&D team is focused on providing solutions. "Our current emphasis is on lower sodium levels, and we strive to meet the National Sodium Reduction Initiative," he says. "Simpler/understandable ingredient statements have moved us toward formulations along these lines, especially in the non-commercial foodservice markets [school, colleges and universities and health care]. And many of our branded products have been reformulated along these guidelines."

While many of Truitt's products are in plastic pouches, the company also packs in cans, trays, double-seam bowls and jars. Foil is a recent addition to the company's pouch lines. "Foil is advantageous for its long shelf life, much like metal cans. Plastic containers provide the benefit of being microwavable, which is certainly more convenient for the busy consumer."

Truitt is dedicated to ecological/sustainability initiatives. As a certified sustainable manufacturer they are concerned about how their products are grown, harvested and processed, and how they can improve methods and practices to better serve customers and the environment.

"A cornerstone of our efforts is very well summarized by the Food Alliance guiding principles," says Geyer. "A core component of that definition is the chain of custody, carefully managing the custody of responsibly raised crops and animals. We've narrowed the scope of how we define sustainability to food, and we let that definition guide our operational improvements. Ultimately all these components should result somehow in a product that is demonstrably better to the consumer."

In these tough economic times, companies are increasingly challenged. "The biggest challenge is making quality products at an affordable price to the consumer," concedes Geyer. "Our cost of raw materials has increased substantially the last couple years, while at the same time consumers are having to trim their budgets. I think that is why you are seeing companies react by reducing portion sizes. We also are seeing increased regulation throughout the food industry for very valid reasons. Unfortunately it takes more resources to comply, which again impacts our ability to put our money into using the best ingredients available," he explains.

Even as these realities make it more difficult, Geyer says Truitt has a vision to grow the company. "We are constantly on the lookout for innovations in packaging methods, both materials and processes," he explains. "We aren't afraid to try new things. It will be important that we continually identify suppliers and customers who share the same desire to improve the customer's food experience. Last, if we can source a quality raw product with integrity and a story, we'll do our best to make something good to eat with it," he says.