Some may have wondered if product development would stall at Wm. Bolthouse Farms Inc. after Campbell Soup bought the company. While the medium-sized firm already was evolving from carrots into superpremium juices and salad dressings, the deep pockets and knowledge base of Campbell Soup only accelerated that growth.
In the past five years, Bolthouse has made significant investments in the R&D team (including a 75 percent increase in staffing), market research and cutting-edge technologies (high-pressure processing [HPP], ultra-high-temperature pasteurization). Some of the more notable results are:
- A kids platform with seven snacks (veggie snackers, fruit tubes, smoothies)
- Ultra premium juice ("1915" brand), with five unique flavors
- 21 new beverages
- 10 new salad dressings
The Innovation Center, attached to its Bakersfield, Calif., factory and headquarters, was a major investment completed two years ago. It's home to 21 people who comprise the R&D team, including food scientists, research chefs and process engineers. The building includes not only R&D labs but a sensory lab, culinary kitchen and pilot plant, as well as product development offices.
"We're fairly autonomous in how we get things done, but it's cool that our small R&D team is able to utilize the knowledge and depth of Campbell's product development team," says Joe DeStephano, who has been vice president of R&D for just a year. He had R&D management titles in his 13 years at H.J. Heinz Co., and earlier worked for Pillsbury, General Foods and Hill's Pet Nutrition.
"We work closely with the Campbell's culinary team, especially in developing gold-standard prototypes, we consult [with Campbell] on novel ingredients and packaging structures. We kind of have the best of both worlds: a small, agile Bolthouse team that can get things done quickly, but at the same time we have access to all that horsepower in Camden [the New Jersey home of Campbell Soup]. It's a powerful combination."
He describes product development at Bolthouse as "very collaborative. And ideas can come from anywhere in the organization — marketing, sales, R&D, as well as outside sources and suppliers."
The typical process often starts with marketing vetting ideas and suggestions that come from various sources. Some early consumer research helps the idea along. Manufacturing then decides if the new item can be made with current resources, or what would be needed to make it. The R&D team then develops a gold-standard prototype.
All the work so far is then held up against the mission – "to inspire the fresh revolution" – and the brand promise – "to make fruits and vegetables irresistible." Irresistible, DeStephano says, means available, accessible, attractive and affordable.
More consumer research, including focus groups, keeps the ideas moving forward. "We have the ability to do some consumer research offsite – focus groups, concept screening. The marketing group drives a lot of concept validation. That direct consumer feedback is vital. We look for opportunities to get products in front of consumers and get that feedback directly from them.
"R&D is passionate about delighting the consumer," he continues, "and that's really what drives the process and the result." Contenders then move back to the cross-functional product development team, which uses the Stage-Gate idea-to-launch model. As the product rolls out, in-market tests are conducted in multiple cities and some refinements may occur.
Products take anywhere from six months to 24 months to go from concept to shelf. But one of the new products the company is proudest of, "ultrapremium" 1915 juice, was completed in less than 12 months. "We were able to do that because we're agile. Top to bottom, we just don't have the complexity of some organizations," says DeStephano.
1915 is a line of five fresh, cold-pressed juices (pasteurized via HPP) just now rolling out nationally. All include both fruit and vegetable juices. "Green," for example, contains apple, romaine, cucumber, spinach, kale and lemon. (The others are Carrot, Beet, Tropical and Berry.)
All are organic, non-GMO and have no added flavors. Most have just seven ingredients, and some have only four -- for instance: beet, carrot, orange and lemon. "That might sound like an odd combination, but it's amazing the crispness and brightness of the flavors. It's a delightful product," DeStephano says.
The name is meant to evoke the company's simple, carrot-farming origins. 1915 was the year the Bolthouse family founded its original carrot farm in Grant, Mich. They moved to California's San Joaquin Valley in 1972 and headquartered the company in Bakersfield. Bolthouse believes it's the largest supplier of carrots in the country.
The Bolthouse family sold the company to private equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners in 2005. In 2012, it became Campbell Soup's first of a series of acquisitions that broadened the parent firm from its soup and cookies base. Campbell paid $1.55 billion.
More audacious are moves in the past 12 months to children's snacks and almond milk.
Bolthouse Farms Kids is an attempt to get children to eat more healthfully. Smoothies, fruit tubes and flavored carrots (sprinkled with ranch or chili-lime flavors) comprise the line, which is target to children 4-11.
Really out there for this company is Blueberry Banana Almond Milk, called BAM internally, which just launched this spring. Company officials downplay the novelty of that move, saying the fruit bases make it a logical line extension of the beverage business. "It's on-trend and provides the Bolthouse consumer with an alternative to dairy," says a company spokesperson.
That product, DeStephano says, is an example of the marketing department seeing an opportunity for adding fruit juice, specifically blueberry, to almond milk. The R&D department added the banana. "It's received lots of good feedback."
The almond milk, like all Bolthouse products, is refrigerated, and that's the common thread for all Bolthouse products so far. DeStephano says he can't comment on future products, except to say they'll probably also be refrigerated and play to Bolthouse strengths in fruits and vegetables. But, as the Blueberry Banana Almond Milk attests, new products don't have to be within the current bounds of Bolthouse products.