It's a long way from organic rice to tortilla chips, chocolate-covered snacks and frozen rice & quinoa bowls. Since its founding in 1937, Lundberg Family Farms, Richvale, Calif., has stayed ahead of consumer trends rather than simply responding to them.
“Innovation is in our DNA,” notes Tim Schultz, Lundberg’s vice president of research & development. The company, he says, was the first in the U.S. to bring organic brown rice to market and in the late 1960s began foraying into packaged organic rice products.
In the past couple of decades, Lundberg Family Farms has only increased the pace of its R&D initiatives. For example, the firm introduced rice-based chips in 2003. “This was a real departure for us but something that really resonated with consumers,” Schultz points out.
In 2013 Lundberg’s commitment to rolling out new products reached a fever-pitch. That was the year the company created a dedicated team for new product development, currently 10 individuals strong. “Since then, we’ve brought over 140 new products to market,” 57 of them in the past year alone, Schultz says.
In addition to being organic, almost all the company’s products are gluten-free. “We happen to be very blessed to be focused on organic,” Schultz says. “We didn’t go after it chasing a consumer trend; it was something that was more deep-seated for us.” The same is true for the high-growth gluten-free market segment, as “rice has always been gluten-free,” he observes.
Lundberg’s interest in ancient grains, particularly high-protein varieties such as quinoa, continues to grow. “We started growing quinoa about six years ago out here in California,” Schultz says. “We had heard that it was possible, and we went out and investigated.” The company worked with farmers to figure out the best places to grow quinoa between the Canadian and Mexican borders.
Another grain on the company’s radar, nutrient-rich sorghum, has been generating buzz in the market; Lundberg currently manufacturers Organic Thin Stackers Puffed Grain Cakes made of sorghum and brown rice. “Historically, it has been a lower-value crop. But sorghum has gotten a lot of recognition and sparked excitement recently as an ancient grain,” Schultz explains. “It has a sweet flavor; in the old days, people made sorghum syrup.”
Standing out in a dynamic market
Lundberg Family Farms must innovate to stand out in a market that has become ever more competitive. The company gleans product ideas from a multitude of sources in addition to using traditional market research.
“We draw inspiration from our customers,” Schultz shares. “We pay a lot of attention to restaurant trends. And our over 350 employees bring back ideas and suggestions from their travels.” Lundberg R&D professionals, he adds, are also members of the Research Chefs Assn., which is “often on the cutting edge of flavor trends.”
But even the most on-trend and innovative product ideas must be practical to produce. To facilitate the product development process, the company opened a pilot plant in 2015 that is roughly a 10-minute drive from the main production facility in Richvale. Using small-scale equipment that approximates the big machinery in Lundberg’s main plant, the R&D team can easily test new formulations and processes without disrupting normal operations.
“In our pilot plant, we do a lot of experimentation,” Schultz says. “We test different concepts on the small-scale equipment, so we don’t have to take our production lines out of service to try something new.”
Among Lundberg’s many new products, the most daring for the firm are the organic frozen rice and quinoa bowls, as the company has previously concentrated on shelf-stable SKUs. “We’re evaluating right now whether frozen products resonate with consumers,” Schultz says. “We have not played in that space before.”
Schultz, though, remains optimistic that the product will be successful because there are signs of life and innovation in the frozen category. “The category, which had been stagnating or declining for years, has gotten a lot of rejuvenation from smaller companies that are doing fun things,” he explains. Because there aren’t many frozen organic products, Schultz see this segment as a promising opportunity for Lundberg Family Farms.
“We wake up every morning trying to figure out how we’re going to bring innovation and organic food solutions to consumers,” Schultz says. “We’ve got an R&D team of 10 people, but everybody in our organization plays a role in bringing new products to life—from developing the products to getting them on store shelves and making sure consumers are aware of them to fielding questions from consumers after they try them. What makes this most exciting is when I go to the store and see one of our new products on the shelf.”