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2020 R&D Team of the Year: Del Monte is Thinking Outside of the Can

July 6, 2020
The plant-based trend finally caught up with Del Monte Foods. With 134 years under its belt, we're talking about why Del Monte is one of our 2020 R&D Teams of the Year.

Growing the product portfolio is a key charge of product development organizations, and the three winners of this year’s R&D Teams of the Year competition did so in grand fashion. We're highlighting the winner of the large-size company this month. We'll be highlighting the winners of the medium- and small-sized categories in the next two months.

This whole plant-based trend finally caught up with Del Monte Foods. It’s only taken 134 years.

Known for most of its history as a canner, with little value-add to the vegetables and fruits inside those tins, Del Monte kicked product development into high gear three years ago. The result has been a slew of novel products and the company’s growth into previously unexplored territory in the refrigerated and frozen aisles.

“We’re one of America’s original plant-based food companies,” says Loren Druz, vice president of research & development and quality assurance. “In two years, we have launched 50-plus new products.”

Fruits and vegetables and a better-for-you slant are the common threads running throughout the pipeline. To adhere to the plant-based theme, most of the products with a crème-like component are based on coconut milk or some other plant-based analogue rather than a dairy product.

Arriving in the past 12 months were:
  • Contadina Pizzettas – They are the company’s first frozen items: bite-sized snacks with pizza toppings on the inside of a cauliflower crust.
  • Veggiefuls – Also frozen, there are two lines: Veggieful Bites are a blend of vegetables and cheese baked in a cauliflower crust; Veggieful Bowls mix vegetables with quinoa and other ingredients plus a sauce for a heat-and-eat snack or meal, and you can take that meal to go.
  • Fruit & Oats – “The first ready-to-eat oatmeal with a full serving of fruit,” this shelf-stable product has some patents pending.
  • Fruit & Chia – A full serving of fruit, a good source of fiber, with enough chia seeds to give you 800mg of omega-3s.
  • Fruit Crunch Parfaits – A yogurt-like snack with fruits complemented by granola in a coconut crème; probiotics included.
  • BubbleFruit – Chunks of fruit are in the plastic cups Del Monte has used for years but “with juicy popping boba for a burst of flavor and fun.”
Three of those recently won Kantar Product of the Year awards.

In years past, mixing peas and carrots in the same can was about as audacious as Del Monte got. “I think it’s safe to say there has never been this much innovation in Del Monte’s history,” says Druz.

“We know the number of people who eat canned foods is declining. And we got a little bit of a tailwind because of the pandemic, when people went back to shelf-stable foods, especially cans. But we know for the future that millennials and younger people are looking for food solutions and new packaging formats, so we want to be there with the fruit and vegetable products they want, how they want them.”

He says the product development process has been in “hyperdrive” since the arrival of a new CEO three years ago.

“Greg Longstreet established a forum where we are really entrepreneurial about our new products. We do fast-track product development on innovation projects. We meet with Greg and the executive team weekly, do cuttings with them, and that gives us a lot of visibility. That and the partnership with marketing means we get things done very quickly.”

The 19-member R&D Group is part of Del Monte’s marketing department, and Druz admits that most new product ideas come from marketing. About an equal amount comes from the R&D lab; and co-packers, increasingly important partners in the product development process, also contribute some.

While most of the more traditional products are made in Del Monte facilities, there is a growing network of co-packers, especially in the new categories of refrigeration and freezing.

Another factor helping the company’s expansion into new categories has been the résumés of some of the people on the R&D team. They come from a number of high-profile companies that specialize in other product categories and other forms of packaging; processors like Conagra, Nestlé, Campbell Soup and Frito-Lay.

“It’s a very entrepreneurial product development process,” says Druz, who came from Yum Brands and Taco Bell 12 years ago, although he worked earlier at Conagra and Unilever. “We think of ourselves as a 150-year-old startup.”

Still another contributing factor may be the innovation vibe of the San Francisco Bay area. R&D and Marketing are housed in a research center in Walnut Creek, Calif., just inland from San Francisco and near corporate headquarters, which are in a separate Walnut Creek site.

“The whiteboard in my office says the best R&D people are doers and tinkerers with a passionate desire to make an idea work,” says Druz.

The team includes product developers, including food scientists, plus experts in packaging development, analytical chemistry and regulatory affairs. Team meetings are held every other week, and senior staff meet in the in-between weeks.

Packaging has been a key component lately, looking not just for novelty but for plastic reduction and sustainability. “The packaging team has been working to lightweight our packages, source-reduce them, increase recycling, look for materials that are bio-based,” says Druz.

The coronavirus period required a different kind of innovation. “There was some R&D work being done in home kitchens. There was some ‘tele-cutting’ – sending products to the homes of team members, then having everyone open the packages at the same time on a Zoom meeting to sample and give feedback,” says Druz. The virus delayed work by a couple weeks, he estimates.

Generally, it takes Del Monte about nine months to get a product from concept to shelf. Sometimes schedules need to be adjusted to coincide with availability of crops.

Frozen products are filling the new product pipeline right now. One Druz divulged is a Veggieful pocket pie, “a nutritionally better Hot Pocket [hats off to Nestlé], with vegetables in the filling and coating.”

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