It now has the status of comfort food, yet offers a canvas of creativity that can earn a place in the world's finest restaurants. There may be no food on the planet that lends itself to variations in form and flavor quite like pizza. It's a roundtable for discussion, a regional identifier, a first date. Pizza is a vehicle as much as destination and for today's hurried consumer, it offers quick and creative satisfaction.The team at Red Baron, part of Schwan's Consumer Brands North America, is well aware of the convenience and varied palates offered by pizza, and its latest trio of creations is a tasty testament to teamwork and an answer to consumer needs.Recently, the brand launched several new incarnations of pizza for the hurried, hungry consumer. New from the collective minds of Schwan's is the Red Baron Deep Dish Pan Style Pizza, the first microwavable, eight-inch deep-dish pizza, which is available in four varieties: Pepperoni, Cheese, Supreme and Meat Trio. The pizza delivers a crisp crust pizza from the microwave in about 6 minutes Also launched were the Red Baron Stuffed Pizza Slices in six varieties, and the Deep Dish Mini Pizzas in four varieties. All items answer the American microwave-paced life."Pizza is the No. 1 food in America," says Stacey Lauen, new product development manager for Schwan's. Indeed, the company cites a 7.7 percent growth rate for the eight-inch pizza market. "Red Baron is the perfect brand to deliver a product for the changing way consumers are eating pizza for convenience. The microwave is key to that," says Lauen.Building the squadronIn the late 1990's, Schwan's developed a process for new product development to facilitate communication between all facets of the company. The process shows architecture ripe for innovation through communication."One of the first things we did was arrive at a process that would allow us to develop world-class products through cross-functional teams," says Jo Gruber, new product development manager. "We created a process that included product development, packaging, purchasing, and operations. We also included external partners -- a number of whom are strategically important to us. Together we formed a process that allows us to be efficient."A capstone to this commitment is the $12 million Marshall, Minn., facility that opened last fall. Though product developers may be in multiple locations, the Marshall facility offers fertile ground for culinary specialists and R&D folks to mingle and create."Our objective is to be the premier frozen food company. To do that, we made a heavy investment in research and development. The $12 million Marshall facility centralized our R&D, but we have R&D plant support in Kansas, Kentucky and Texas," says Lauen.But with or without a proving ground, the key to the rollout of the Red Baron extensions was a common vision."We centralized the operation in culinary, sensory, regulatory, process engineering, product development and applied research in Marshall," explains Kristie Heis, product development manager. "Each of those resources is valuable for every project. Each function plays a key role and communication between them is key to successful product development.""Some of the challenge was to help everyone in the group understand the bigger picture , the full scope of activities," adds Gruber. "First we had to provide that base and then establish a language that would help us best communicate the whole process.""This new product development process makes our cross-functional group very invested," says Heis. "We work very closely together."The creation of a new product process entailed a switch to a consumer-centered approach."Our company's vision and commitment is to new product development," says Lauen. Lauen is a life-size example of the value of cross-functional work. After working eleven years as a food scientist, she made the subtle shift to marketing and new product champion through the developmental process. Building strategyOne product, the Stuffed Pizza Slices, is the picture of creative innovation. Featuring a patent-pending, one-of-a-kind susceptor with a triangular, vented design, the product delivers on taste and consumer preference. Darci Eckermann, national brand manager for Red Baron calls the Stuffed slices "the most significant and innovative of Red Baron's products to date."The product is a prime example of long-term strategy and teamwork."We really have a good strategic direction in place," says Lauen. "Everything starts with the brand strategy and then the product strategy.""From the very beginning the strategic perspective is fully communicated to R&D and operations community so they can be mindful of the directions we are considering," adds Gruber. Once we have identified a specific idea, the information is communicated fully to the team."Though the new product process is somewhat formalized, the Red Baron team knows how vital it is to encourage new concepts from any corner of the Schwan's structure."We have formal ideation sessions, but ideas can come from anyone , suppliers, operations, process engineering" says Lauen. "Mostly they come from interaction with the cross-functional team. First, we will take an idea and explore its validity. Then we [theoretically] follow the process from ideation through production, involving input from the whole team. In everything we do, we want to leverage our operation capabilities."Naturally, there were some adjustments on the production end. Accommodating the Mini's and the Stuffed Slices put a new twist on existing machinery. But through foresight and cooperation, the Red Baron team found way to leverage the existing resources as well as possible."We might be different in that what we offer the consumer reflects our operations capabilities. The Minis, for example, came from ideation and then we had to float that back to R&D and operations teams to predict the feasibility," explains Gruber.Similar efforts went to the Deep Dish. "Would build the prototype and then evaluate it with the consumers," says Lauen. "Each time we scaled up to a new level we would go back to the consumers and make sure we were offering the best quality.""One of the remarkable keys to success is that the products that we do bring to market have been thoroughly assessed," says Gruber.Building tasteEarly sales figures prove the product is on target, but in today's market popularity won't propagate without taste. To ensure this, the team leveraged its culinary force based at the Marshall facility."Culinary is used to help create the gold standard," says Lauen. "They help us raise the bar and be innovative. Once you create the gold standard, process engineering and all functions need to get involved immediately. It's helpful to have these functions in place from the beginning to create a new process if needed. Here, all cross-functional team members are involved. Everyone is aware of every aspect.""The fact that we have culinary help is a tremendous asset to us; together we can work hand-in-hand," says Heis.Of course, maintaining the gold standard through scale-up is a challenge many try to master. "For the Stuffed Slices, we took the product at each stage and scaled it to larger equipment to maintain the gold standard. To do that, we involved the process engineering function throughout development. We talked regularly with operations and our suppliers to make it work," says Heis.The Red Baron team says that teamwork is pivotal for speed to market. "There have been some projects that are very innovative that we were able to execute very quickly," says Gruber. Nine to 12 months, is considered "quickly" to the Red Baron team."You can achieve better speed to market with a well thought-out plan," says Lauen. "Foresight in where the consumer movement is headed. The funnel is always full of new ideas."Naturally, quality of ingredients comes in to play and when building a quality product. It's important to the Red Baron team to ensure everyone involved has buy-in and access to the vision."We have very good relationships with our strategic suppliers," adds Lauen.SidebarRed Baron factsRed Baron was established in 1976. Last year alone, the company sold more than 98 million pizzas.Red Baron can be found in more than 31,000 grocery and retail outlets.