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2020 R&D Team of the Year: Mary's Gone Crackers

Aug. 31, 2020
Seeding innovation in the crackers category, Mary's Gone Crackers manages to bake excitement into the thin wafers.

It may seem like the crackers category is a pretty narrow space to play in. But Mary's Gone Crackers has been working that category dozens of ways since 2004, and now bakes in what they claim is the largest certified gluten-free facility in North America—425,000 sq. ft. in Reno, Nev.

"Mary’s proves you don’t need wheat to make irresistible, toasty and tasty crackers that are healthy too," says Diane Hoffpauer, director of research, development & innovation.

Within that crackers category, Mary's has zeroed in on the better-for-you niche, and for them it means not only gluten-free but non-GMO, organic and devoid of major allergens. Mary's Gone Crackers uses only whole, organic, plant-based ingredients free from wheat, nuts, eggs and dairy. These are certainly not saltines, and they're light years ahead of Ritz.

Increasingly, that also means seeds. Sesame seeds have been among the key ingredients of most Mary's products from the start, along with brown rice, quinoa and flax. But in 2013 the Super Seed line (now called Classic) debuted, with pumpkin, sunflower and other seeds playing starring roles and contributing 5g of plant-based protein.

Even newer (2017) is the Real Thin line, savory, toasted crackers in sea salt, garlic rosemary, sweet onion and cayenne pepper.

The R&D team at this small company consists of just Hoffpauer and Makoto Goto, who is kind of on loan from the parent firm Kameda Seika. Since late 2012, Mary's Gone Crackers has been owned by the Japanese firm, which starting making rice crackers just after World War II.

Mary's has been a real growth engine for the global company, especially leading the way in better-for-you product development. As a result of the association with Kameda Seika, Mary's products are found not just in North America but also in Australia; they're also available online.

Mary's Gone Crackers currently has 15 flavor varieties. The originals come in "original" (ingredients are organic whole grain brown rice, organic whole grain quinoa, organic brown flax seeds, organic brown sesame seeds, filtered water, sea salt and organic wheat-free tamari) plus jalapeno, black pepper and herb. Super Seeds Classics have whole grain brown rice, whole grain quinoa, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, brown sesame seeds, brown flax seeds, poppy seeds, seaweed and black pepper – everything but the sea salt is organic. Super Seed Everything includes seeds from pumpkin, sunflower, brown sesame, brown flax and poppy.

In addition to the aforementioned flavors in the Real Thin line, launching later this year will be Olive Oil + Cracked Black Pepper, Tomato + Basil, and Chipotle.

Mary’s Gone Crackers started with a real Mary – Mary Waldner and her husband, who started making crackers in their home. She remained a consultant to the company till this year.

Sales and marketing are also involved in new product development. "It really is a team effort," says Hoffpauer, who joined the company four years ago. "Ideas come from everywhere," including retail customers.

"Being a smaller company, speed to market is important. Ideally, the process takes 9-18 months, but we can push it if we have to," she continues. "We have to be quick. If we took three or four years like some big guys, we'd miss some opportunities."

Because of that big Reno bakery, Mary's does all its own manufacturing and employs 120 people.

Mary has a conscience, too. Products are minimally processed from consciously and sustainably sourced ingredients. "We believe the healthy choices we make for our bodies should also be healthy for the planet," says a company statement.

Mary’s has a 17-year partnership with the California Ricelands Waterbird Foundation. All of the rice, a key ingredient in all three lines, is sourced exclusively from the California Rice Commission, which, along with the California Ricelands Waterbird Foundation, manages wildlife conservation programs that have transformed hundreds of thousands of acres of rice fields into seasonal wetland habitats for waterbirds to inhabit, the company says.

Mary's also participates in the Palm Done Right program, which promotes the environmental and social benefits of palm grown organically with fair-trade practices, working with small farmers around the world. "It is the highest possible standard for palm oil, and goes above and beyond any other certification program," says the company.

The coronavirus pandemic has slowed product development a bit. "We've had trouble getting some ingredients," Hoffpauer says. "We were really going to crank things up this spring, but a lot of things got delayed."

On the other hand, Amazon sales have grown nicely during the pandemic. Nevertheless, the company is eager for a return to normalcy so it can proceed with some aggressive growth plans.

"I think our Real Thin platform is truly innovative, and we have some exciting things planned for it," says Hoffpauer. "It's been doing fantastic, beyond expectations." She notes there has been some help from Japan on that line, including the dispatch of Goto to assist.

"We've always been in specialty markets, but we know we need to expand into mainstream grocery stores, and Real Thins will help that," says Hoffpauer. "Gluten-free is not a fad or a small niche, it's not going away, and mainstream markets realize that."

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