2019 R&D Teams of the Year: Sargento

May 28, 2019
While cheese remains at the heart of everything Sargento does, new product growth is this Wisconsin-based R&D Team's top priority.

No doubt you've seen Lou and Louie Gentine in TV commercials asserting that Sargento is "real cheese people." While real cheese remains in everything the company does, Sargento has become more than just cheese in the past four years.

Back in 2015, when America's infatuation with protein was reaching a fever pitch, Sargento combined three sources of the nutrient in one thermoformed multilayer PET tray. Balanced Breaks added a little dried fruit and a handful of nuts or seeds to cubes of cheese in a 1.5-oz. package – in the process, also combining protein (7g per pack) with convenience and snacking. And keeping it under 200 calories.

It was a winning combination, literally, garnering a Nielsen Breakthrough Innovation Award two years later.

Growth clearly is the focus now at Sargento, "And we are the growth engine," says Kristi Jankowski, executive vice president of innovation. "Our primary focus is on new product growth," not cost control, reformulations or "cleaning up" current products.

The Research & Development team is a subset of the broader Innovation function at Sargento Foods. The R&D team, which features 45 members, includes food scientists and packaging engineers and is based at a technical center in Elkhart Lake, Wis. The Innovation function is based six miles away at corporate headquarters in Plymouth, Wis., and includes teams focused on new platform development, culinary, project management and marketing.

The full R&D team meets monthly, but cross-functional teams working on specific projects meet as needed, at least every other week. Cheese remains at the core of everything they do, but you can only take that product so far – although they have taken cheese further than most: into slices, shreds, cubes, sticks, even ricotta and grated parmesan. In 2014, Ultra Thin Slices also won a Nielsen Breakthrough Innovation Award. But now a focus is on how to complement cheese.

The product portfolio is split three ways: shreds, slices and snacks. The snack category began humbly with the success of individual "string cheese" (mozzarella sticks) in 1983. As the snack category took off for all food processors, that became a high-potential pursuit for Sargento. Cheese sticks were followed by Snack Bites; but then it came time to really stretch their capabilities.

Balanced Breaks took a long time to develop, says John Rodgers, vice president of R&D. "We had some early [prototypes] but didn't feel the products matched consumer expectations," he says. "We knew cheese, but we had to learn about fruits and nuts along the way, and that took some time." The suppliers of those ingredients were big helps in development, he notes.

"The insight for Balanced Breaks was: create a balanced snack," says Jankowski. "Crunchy and soft. Sweet and salty. Decadent and healthful."

Package design was a key component, with the end result fitting nicely in a hand or a car cupholder.

That led to Sweet Balanced Breaks in 2017. They maintain the cheese and (in two of the three products) dried cranberries, but add a caramel glaze to walnuts in one variety; dark chocolate covered peanuts, banana chips and "creamy peanuts drops" in another; and dark chocolate chunks and banana chips to the third.

Next up is Sunrise Balanced Breaks, a breakfast replacement that just launched this January. Coconut, seeds and dried raspberry complement Colby jack; walnut oat granola, dark chocolate and golden raisins team with Monterey jack; and blueberry juice-infused cranberries and vanilla blueberry quinoa clusters accompany double cheddar.

New products can go from concept to shelf in as little as nine months. "Or it can take years, as it did with Balanced Breaks," says Rodgers. But average time, he says, is 15-18 months.

"Being family-owned and with an entrepreneurial spirit, we can take risks fast," adds Jankowski, "or we can take as much time as needed to get the concept right."

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