2019 Processor of the Year: R&D at Hearthside Food Solutions

Dec. 5, 2019
Hearthside Food Solutions cannot name its customers, but it’s been entrusted with some of America’s favorite baked goodies.

This deeper dive into our 2019 Processor of the Year is part of a three part series. You can read about Hearthside's business here as well as about its Plant Operations in this article.

A couple of sports franchises can lay claim to being "America's team," but in the baking world, that title belongs to Hearthside Food Solutions.

With $3 billion in annual sales, almost none of that its own brands, Hearthside is the real baker of some of America's favorite brands. The company cannot disclose its clients, but public stories have identified Hearthside as a contract manufacturer for Mondelez, General Mills and PepsiCo, among other famous-brand companies. 

"It may sound cliché but all of us are committed to the spirit of innovation, continuous learning and improvement," says Cyrus Mehr, vice president of research & development. "Ultimately, our leading brand customers serve consumers that desire enjoyable, nutritious foods of consistently high quality. To deliver on our promise, we do our best to provide our customers with solutions.

"As development timelines are getting shorter, we work diligently to find ways to be more agile and still meet the customer’s criteria of quality and cost. Over the past few years, we have seen far greater reliance by our customers on turnkey developments.

"For Hearthside, innovation takes many forms, including product, process, technology, formulation, ingredient technology and business process and more," he continues. "HFS is willing and able to make significant investments in an innovation if it demonstrates customer-tangible benefits. This ultimately benefits the consumer by pushing the envelope on continuous improvement and creating value on behalf of our customers. In my opinion, that’s the best route to success."

There is no single R&D headquarters or "innovation center" – all are dispersed and attached to manufacturing plants. Mehr sits in the Nashville office, which is the U.S. center of excellence for bars (the European bars center is in Leerdam, Netherlands). Baked goods product development is headquartered in McComb, Ohio; frozen foods is in Shakopee, Minn.; fresh foods is in Seattle. There also is a pilot production facility for bars in Boise, Idaho, and one for baked goods in McComb.

Hearthside's main product categories are baked goods (cookies, crackers and sandwich-type items with cream or cheese centers), granolas of all kinds, baked and non-baked bars (chewy and crunchy granola bars, energy bars, strudels, crème and fruit filled bars and bites), snack "components" (meaning pretzels, clusters, chips, bread sticks, popcorn and various extruded items that are used in mixed snack varieties), and fresh/chilled and frozen items.

That last category is the latest addition and a divergence for Hearthside. The 2018 acquisition of the U.S. assets of Ireland's Greencore Group Plc -- essentially the former Peacock Foods – brought the company into USDA-regulated categories of fresh, refrigerated and frozen foods such as salads, meals and sandwich wraps; multi-component tray snacks; freeze/thaw sandwiches; and roller dogs, stuffed baguettes, calzones, burritos, paninos, savory pies, chile and cooked sauces.

"Our team consists of 36 food scientists, process technologists, research chefs, lab technologists and labeling specialists," Mehr continues. "The team works hand-in-hand with commercialization managers at various production sites, operations, QA and supply chain."

Currently, the hottest innovation areas are bars and refrigerated foods. "Primary areas of our focus are low-carb, low-sugar/no-added-sugar, protein, plant proteins, keto, organic/non-GMO and nut butters of all kinds.

"Broadly speaking, we start with ideation, and the ideas come from a variety of sources: brainstorming sessions, market research (we work with leading market research firms), or trade shows. Then, the ideas are screened internally and, after screening, we will begin the process of prototype development."

Numerous samples are generated by the team and screened, from which the best concepts are selected. Then the formula/recipes are created and costed.

"If acceptable, we will plan a pilot test run," Mehr says. "The purpose of the pilot test is to determine feasibility of production and the process parameters, weight controls and first estimates on run rates, and to identify any 'watch-outs.' Samples are collected during pilot run for shelf life, packaging development and sensory evaluation. Once we have successfully completed these steps, preliminary nutritional labeling is generated along with packaging and artwork.

"Next, we plan for a production trial, which includes an engineering evaluation for any additional equipment as well as packaging requirements. [Then] we audit the Nutrition Facts panel and label, finalize product specifications, packaging and cost cards. A plant will then be ready for product launch."

Mehr says he is particularly proud of recent work "pushing the limits of protein delivery in bars yet keeping sugars in single digits. In 2020, you will see products that deliver those desirable nutritionals with texture and flavor attributes that consumers love." For what customer or brand? He won't say.

"You'll also see cooked and frozen breakfast, lunch and snack protein foods, fully enrobed in delicious biscuit doughs," he promises. "Processing technology innovation along with formulation innovation makes this achievable."

All of it done in anonymity. Rich Scalise, Hearthside's chairman, adds, "We don't mind the anonymity. In fact, we revel in helping our customers be successful. Our true reward is customer loyalty and the growth of our manufacturing business."

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