2009 R&D Team Winner: Peas of Mind Cooks Up A Better Way to Feed Kids

June 29, 2009
The winners or our R&D Team of the year for the less than $100 million in sales category working together like peas and carrots.

Six years ago, Jill Litwin was living in Vermont and working as the color forecasting director for Burton Snowboards. She worked closely with a friend who had a 2-year-old son and was pregnant with her second child. The friend was so exhausted at the end of the day, she confided she often opened canned green beans to feed her son “something healthy,” but felt terribly guilty.

“I was so mortified when she told me, I volunteered to cook for her son Satchel,” says Litwin, whose mother was an exceptional cook, passing on her passion for cooking and eating well. “I wanted to create a wholesome meal that contained all the essential nutrients young children need to get a healthy start in life at a critical stage of development.

“When she said she would pay me, I knew I was on to something,” Litwin continues. “Soon moms in Burlington wanted me to make meals for their kids as well. That’s when I developed the concept of an all-in-one, hand-held meal, which contains all the major food groups.”

After rounds of taste testing with focus groups comprised of kids ages 1 to about 10 years old, Litwin nailed down the four most well-received flavor combinations and named her invention “The Puffet.” Homemade meals puffed full of nutrition and designed for growing kids, the four original flavors of the Puffet contain organic whole milk, organic vegetables or fruit, grains and organic beans. It became the original product line for her start-up company.

As for the name of the entity, it sprouted from a name-storming session that Litwin organized with a group of creative friends and colleagues. She fed her select group enough homemade lasagna and candy until eventually they came up with the perfect name for the company: Peas of Mind. She subsequently moved the company to San Francisco.

About two-and-a-half years ago, Kelly Walsh joined the Peas of Mind team to head up marketing and R&D. Walsh worked in New York in financial services, but she followed her passion for food and moved to San Francisco to attend the Le Cordon Bleu program at the California Culinary Academy.

Litwin and Walsh connected through mutual friends and realized they had a similar passion – creating meals for kids that were free of artificial flavors and preservatives, no added sugars or GMOs. As soon as Walsh joined the Peas of Mind team, she helped develop and launch a line extension with two non-dairy Puffet flavors, and idea generation began for a new product line to complement Puffets.

After conducting consumer surveys and recipe testing, Walsh developed Veggie Wedgies, baked “french fries” made from real vegetables and fruit in four flavors: carrot fries, broccoli fries, cauliflower fries, and apple fries. Gluten free, dairy free, fat free, soy free and vegan, Veggie Wedgies make for a great side dish or snack to replace traditional frozen french fries, which can be loaded with oil and salt. In addition, each month Walsh creates a “reci-pea” and writes a newsletter that is distributed via email to thousands of subscribers. Her latest monthly reci-pea is Baked Sweet Potato Donuts, which are fat free and children find delicious.

While ideas are generated between them, Walsh heads up R&D at Peas of Mind and is responsible for making their dreams edible. “She does all product formulations and testing, hunts down any specific ingredients imperative to the end product, gets a formula ready for production and works with production to maintain the homemade experience of our products during manufacturing,” explains Litwin.

The main reason for the success of the Peas of Mind R&D team is that there are no boundaries. “Creativity, extraordinary ideas -- sometimes impossible ideas -- are encouraged, and sometimes I work more from intuition than from a structured background,” says Walsh. “I’ve never been put into a box that I have to think outside of, and our monthly reci-peas, keep the creative and innovative juices in the air so the work environment always feels fresh and cutting edge.”

R&D holds monthly meetings, and continually works on creating new products. “Historically, we have launched two new product lines or line extensions per year,” says Litwin. “We do most of our R&D in our slower seasons. The frozen food kids category sees slightly slower movement during summer and around the winter holidays due to families being on vacations and focusing on holiday foods. Concepts and ideas are always floating around the Peas of Mind studio and anything that comes to mind is taken note of, no matter how feasible or bizarre.

“More structured, open brainstorming sessions occur to solidify concepts and narrow our product focus,” Litwin continues. “Immediately R&D begins in the test kitchen and products are presented to our internal team before they go to focus groups. Once we’ve nailed down our product, we begin naming and branding, which is all done in-house. We continue to utilize the effective name-storming process that was originally used to come up with the company name.”

As a small company, the key decision makers are able to get together regularly and work as one unit, so decision-making is quick and efficient.

“Once a new product has been loosely worked in the test kitchen, our production managers, sales and marketing are brought in to give feedback and continue to discuss the feasibility of the product,” says Walsh. “We also include a few of our key retail buyers in our decision-making processes. They give us a good indication of product interest, packaging and price points. We establish an internal timeline for introducing new products to the industry and then to the marketplace. August (back to school) and January (new year) are two favorable times for us to bring products to market.”

Health is of course a top priority because Peas of Mind creates food for kids. “The grocery store is loaded with plenty of food items with bright colors, cartoon characters and cute shapes that mean ‘this product is for kids,’ ” says Litwin. “However, most of the time, these products are made with ingredients that most adults can’t even pronounce. If we want to combat the growing children’s obesity problem and give kids a chance at leading healthy adult lives, we have to make feeding them not only easy, but actually healthy.”

Walsh adds that in addition to creating healthy products, they “strive to be innovative, ahead of the curve, exciting and fun. We are reinventing the wheel. If you work with old wheels, you’re just cleaning them off and adding bling.” That’s not innovation.

Having a niche is an excellent strategy. Since Peas of Mind is not a baby food company, it does not directly compete with Gerber or Beech Nut. “We feel that our competition is really the less healthy alternatives you see in the freezer section like frozen processed chicken nuggets, pizza rolls and nutritionally unbalanced frozen TV dinners,” remarks Walsh. “Peas of Mind is an option for parents looking for quick and easy food that also is well-balanced and nutritious…oh, and yummy…to feed their growing kids.”

There is no doubt they both take pride in their product line. “We are proud of all our products because we know they are made with the end consumer — kids -- in mind,” says Litwin. “We are definitely excited about the buzz around Veggie Wedgies. [A lot] of families struggling with food allergies and intolerances. Having a product that is gluten free, fat free, soy free, dairy free and vegan means hopefully everyone in the family can enjoy Veggie Wedgies, and this is especially satisfying for us to know as a company.”

“On a production level it can sometimes be difficult to scale our products to the masses while keeping the homemade experience and taste of the product,” says Walsh. “We decided early on that if this can’t be achieved, we go back to the test kitchens and either rework or dump the idea.”
A small company by industry standards, Peas of Mind does not pay slotting fees and relies on buyers to keep them abreast of sales and product preferences. “Moms drive our sales, and stay-at-home moms are a great audience, interacting on-line, which helps us stay on top of the trends,” says Litwin.

As for idea generation, they come from many outlets. “First and foremost, our customers help guide us,” says Litwin emphatically. “Customer feedback from, in-store demonstrations and consumer events always makes its way back to us. Customers are wonderful about telling us what we are doing well, what we could do better, and what they need to make their lives easier. We then turn to the marketplace, constantly trolling the aisles of grocery stores asking questions like, ‘what’s missing?’ ”

Does Peas of Mind have a panel of kids testing their products? “We utilize different focus groups around the Bay Area that consist of children ranging in age from 1 year to about 13 years old,” says Litwin. “We have fun visiting them in their schools or home environments and presenting them with our new ideas. We are also grateful to be able to call on a select group of Peas of Mind enthusiasts scattered across that U.S. who are excited to try out and feed their kids anything new from Peas of Mind.”

What have they learned from those parents and kids? “Puffets are great for a child between 1 and 10 years old,” says Walsh. “Many parents toss a Puffet in the lunchbox along with some avocado and pretzels [for example]. Puffets are great as finger food and we know a lot of the kids love dipping Puffets into ketchup or Ranch dressing. The possibilities are endless,” she adds.

“Veggie Wedgies are a phenomenal product,” adds Litwin. “They are great for kids who are picky eaters or who may even be on a complete vegetable strike. Unlike regular frozen french fries, Veggie Wedgies are packed with vitamins and minerals that come from the real vegetables used to produce them. Plus, Veggie Wedgies are really fun; they can be dipped in ketchup, served along with a sandwich or hamburger, and kids gobble them up. And to top it off, Veggie Wedgies are gluten free, dairy free, soy free and vegan.”

They stay informed about food and industry trends, and this information has become increasingly more real-time with Internet tools such as Twitter and Facebook, which they use to generate feedback from moms. “We are continuously educating ourselves about children’s health and parenting trends and noting major shifts that occur as our economic environment shifts,” says Walsh. She adds they “are lucky to be headquartered San Francisco, a culinary mecca where exciting food innovations are encouraged and accepted, and where we can get our hands on freshly picked produce to work with.”

Asked if the company might expand to an adult line, Walsh responded, “We are asked that question all the time, so we never say never. But we prefer to continue on our mission to be the best brand for kids. That said, our products are real and taste great, and parents tell us they eat them, too. Weight Watchers designates our products at 3 points. And Puffets, which are high in protein, are a favorite of men after their gym workout. Perhaps we can get the whole family addicted,” she adds with a hearty laugh.

Along the learning curve, a few product names had to be changed, but the company has not had any product failures. “Originally our Black Bean Polenta Puffet was called Black Bean & Grits,” explains Walsh. “Jill’s dad is from Alabama and she grew up eating his famous grits. Unfortunately most people didn’t know what grits were, so we changed the name.”

One of the most innovative and helpful concepts from the company is the Peas of Mind Widget, which tracks recent food recalls announced by the FDA. It can be found on their website and is free to download and post on websites, blogs, or any other online community. It is the company’s goal to keep moms and dads current so that their children are safe.

Every person at Peas of Mind signs their e-mails and twitters with the closing, Peas (Jill). “Sometimes when consumers write back, they sign with a variation, such as Carrots (Jane) or Broccoli (Bill),” says Litwin with a smile.