R&D / R&D Teams of the Year

2013 R&D Team Winner: Gorton's Seafood

The winner of our medium R&D Team award revels in its product constraints.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

Product development at Gorton's Inc., better known as Gorton's Seafood, is limited by a number of factors. Imagine working in only one protein – seafood – and turning out nothing but frozen products.

But the R&D team at Gorton's doesn't feel constrained by those factors; they revel in them. "There's so much opportunity and consumer interest in seafood these days," says Don Lynch, vice president of R&D and quality assurance at the Gloucester, Mass., company. "We've tried a few other vehicles over the years, but we're really best at frozen seafood."

What can they do with frozen seafood? More than you think. Recent projects have reduced sodium without affecting flavor; reduced fat without affecting texture; and reduced calories without affecting the pleasant, filling experience.

Nearly all raw products are flash-frozen at sea and stay that way through the product development cycle – which presents more challenges for product development. "Over the years, we've developed technology to cut [seafood] to size, add batter, breading or seasonings and then package – all the while keeping the product frozen," he says. A new line of Grilled Fillets are grilled while the product remains frozen. The Grilled Fillets also are gluten-free and under 100 calories.

Perhaps the overriding theme for Gorton's product development is to make consumers comfortable with seafood – in purchasing, preparation and taste. That's a big reason for the company's long-running marketing campaign: "Trust the Gorton's fisherman." He won't sell you a bad piece of fish.

"A lot of consumers still are not comfortable buying or cooking seafood," says Lynch. "We try to make it easy for them."

Easy? How?

When a product idea is generated, we do some concept tests. We always make sure we're aligned with what consumers want. If it seems good, we bring it to the lab and start playing with it. We cook it and taste it.

– Don Lynch

The new line Simply Bake is to consumers all that the name implies; but there's plenty of multidisciplinary product development behind the product. The haddock, tilapia or salmon fillets -- coated with what Gorton's calls a "healthy" savory coating – are packed in a part-foil cooking pouch. The product is partially visible through a window. As the product bakes, it steams in the pouch, which includes micro-perforations. The result is a thoroughly but gently cooked piece of fish. And consumer never touch the fish.

For consumers willing to do a little more of the cooking, Skillet Crisps (in two flavors of tilapia and shrimp) are flipped once in the frying pan.

Snack-It is a new line of fish and shrimp bites being positioned for after-school/before dinner snacks.

Even old-fashioned beer battering needed some R&D. "We developed a proprietary method for taking the carbon dioxide out of the beer for our batter," Lynch says. "That's necessary for processing."

One of the team's biggest successes was simply a repositioning of a breaded fillet for a fish sandwich. "That's what one type of fillet was always used for, but now we explicitly call it a Fish Sandwich Fillet," he says. The relaunch did involve resizing and reshaping a fillet into "the perfect size and shape for sandwiches," as the ad campaign goes.

Gorton's works in several types of fish, most of them comfortably white. It calls out species tilapia, salmon, haddock, flounder and sole. Alaskan Pollock is the type used most generically for sandwich fillets and fish sticks. But all species are specified in the back ingredient statement of each box.

The company has been around since 1849, but went through a number of ownership changes, including General Mills and Unilever. It has been owned by Japanese seafood firm Nippon Suisan Kaisha Ltd., better known as the Nissui Group, for the past 10 years.

"They are themselves an extremely innovative seafood company. They pride themselves on R&D, so they've been extremely supportive of new product development," Lynch says of the owner.

At Gorton's, R&D and quality assurance are under the same umbrella. There are 24 people in the group, 13 dedicated to R&D. Eight of the R&D people are food scientists (five of them have Ph.D.s), three are R&D associates, one is a classically trained chef and one is a packaging engineer.

Lynch is one of the doctorates, and he's been with the company for 25 years.

The team's focus is on culinary art and science. But new product development "is very much a team approach," Lynch explains. "Multiple departments get involved – marketing, engineering, packaging, QA, the supply chain.

"When a product idea is generated, we do some concept tests. We always make sure we're aligned with what consumers want. If it seems good, we bring it to the lab and start playing with it. We cook it and taste it. When we get the product to a level where we think it's good, we scale it up some and do more consumer testing. We look for feedback, how to make it even better. That's the point at which we commit to rolling it out to the market.

"We always keep in mind three goals:

  • It has to taste good.
  • It has to be really convenient.
  • It has to be a good value."

Not so fast. Retailers get the first samples, and a negative reaction from them could scuttle the project. But if all goes well, the new product is on the market – sometimes in as little as five months, although most take about 15 months. "But we're always trying to get faster," says Lynch.

"We try to keep new products under 200 calories per serving," says Lynch. "We now have more than 20 main-meal products with fewer than 200 calories." The company's only brand is Gorton's.

Gorton's hometown Gloucester dates back to 1623 and claims to be America's oldest seaport and the birthplace of the U.S. fishing industry. The town has made room for its corporate tenant. Gorton's has evolved into a small campus, right on Gloucester Harbor. For the past 15 years, R&D and QA have been housed in the Stephen Warhover Innovation Center, named after the company president who retired three years ago.

"We have state-of-the-art kitchens, labs, a scale-up facility – but when we get to that point, we prefer to go right to the factory," for scaling up," Lynch says.

"All we do is fish, and we've been first to market with so many things, created so many processes. We really do think we're the category leaders. We want to keep it that way."