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2021 R&D Team of the Year: Golden State Foods

July 15, 2021
Connected and skillful product development continued last year despite Covid restrictions.

Product development at Golden State Foods involves three Ps—people, process and places—according to Mitch Dingwall, product development senior director for the company, which is based in Irvine, Calif. Each of those elements played a key role in powering GSF’s success during the COVID year of 2020.

In 2020 the company’s product development department handled over 700 projects, created more than 1,200 product prototypes, and launched 135 new products. Those figures are especially noteworthy given the COVID restrictions the 27-person team labored under.

“That many projects is at the higher end of our capacity,” Dingwall says. “That’s why I’m so proud of our team and the process we use.”

Like at nearly every other company, the COVID restrictions at GSF included some people working remotely and the rest social distancing when they did come into the lab. But the company didn’t want to let that situation slow product development, since their clients—primarily restaurants, such as McDonald’s and Zaxby’s—needed continued product support. So they maintained their high pace of product development with a combination of in-person and remote R&D.

“The nature of our job is there’s a very heavy in-person element,” Dingwall says. “But we did create a virtual kitchen concept that helped us maintain contact with employees and customers. We would send care packages, including product samples and different things involved in tasting, and do virtual sessions. I was proud of how the team stayed focused and embraced the difficult situation and continued to drive innovation.”

GSF bucked the casual look that many companies adopted during remote work. The company employed a sophisticated camera and lighting system to ensure uniformity and consistency in their remote presentations, Dingwall says.

“Nobody was in their pajamas,” he notes. “We wanted to make it a real experience rather than just a Zoom call. And we got good feedback from our customers. We’d consistently hear that we were leaders in professional presentations.”

GSF’s product development team includes three chefs, two packaging engineers, three project managers and 19 food scientists. They are spread among innovation centers in Conyers, Ga., City of Industry, Calif., and Chicago. The innovation center in Conyers, the company’s largest, opened just last year.

All of the innovation centers are designed to fit GSF’s innovation process, Dingwall explains. Some aspects of their development process changed because of COVID, of course, but in general the first step in the process is for clients to meet with staff in the front of the facility to discuss their needs and ensure that the product development team understands the goals.

The business case for the product also is evaluated at that stage.

“Having our customers visit the innovation centers is a key differentiator of our business,” Dingwall explains. “Working side-by-side with them helps us get us to the final product quicker and more accurately.”

After the initial customer meeting, the projects move into state-of-the-art kitchens that are designed to emulate the kitchens found in client restaurants. The kitchens are outfitted with an entire gamut of restaurant equipment, from flattop grills to combi ovens to milkshake machines. The chefs and food scientists work closely together at that stage to develop the products according to the customer’s vision while making sure the food items can be similarly made in fast-paced restaurant environments.

“If we make a sauce or a cheeseburger or a milkshake, we want to make sure it’s coming out as intended,” Dingwall says.

The hard science of product development – analyzing formulas to make sure the product has the right pH balance, sodium level and color, for example – is also handled at the innovation centers. Once products are close to being ready for prime time, consumer panels in the centers’ sensory labs provide the qualitative evaluation every successful product needs.

“And then there’s a pilot facility at the back of the innovation centers where we validate the products and scale up the production,” Dingwall says.

Handling hundreds of development projects each year with a 27-person team involves a lot of organization, and Dingwall says he counts on the project management system called Agile Scrum Methodology.

This system calls for incremental development of new products based on a series of two- to four-week “sprints.” The goal of each sprint is to create the most important features of the product first; more features are added in subsequent sprints based on feedback from team members and customers.

Dingwall says the methodology encourages the team to work collaboratively rather than in silos, which facilitates peer review and dialogue among the team members. That ultimately leads to accelerated product development, he says.

“Our customers operate very quickly because of the high level of competition of their business, and they appreciate when we can help them do that,” he says. “It takes quite an orchestrated approach to product development.”

Among the products GSF launched in 2020 was Zaxby’s Caribbean Jerk Sauce, which features a blend of mango, habanero peppers and spices. The fast casual multi-unit restaurant puts the sauce on its Caribbean Jerk Fillet Sandwich and its Boneless Wings. This product was named Sauce of the Year by the Assn. of Dressings and Sauces.

“We did a lot of benchmarking with our chefs about what makes an authentic jerk flavor profile,” Dingwall says. “This formula was approved on the very first shot, which is unusual. And the performance and sales in the restaurants have been exceptional.”

Another product the Golden State team launched in 2020 was a pouch-based sauce dispenser designed to improve food preparation operations and food safety.

“This was a collaboration we did that delivers cost savings, optimizes space and is a more sustainable option,” Dingwall says. “And it simplifies sauce application in the back of the house.”

The past year was challenging for businesses in all industries, but Dingwall is happy with how his team performed. “Working through COVID, our team showed a lot of perseverance, discipline and focus,” he says. “I’m extremely proud of this award and grateful that our team has been recognized for the work they’ve done. Fortunately, we have great leadership at GSF and a culture that recognizes and supports innovative work.”

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