Growth

How Del Monte Foods Transformed Tradition into Start-Up

July 23, 2020
Podcast Host Erin Hallstrom talks to Loren Druz, Vice President, R&D, Quality Assurance; and Mario DiFalco, Vice President, Innovation & Insights about what sets Del Monte Foods' product development apart from the rest.

Del Monte Foods, one of the winners of Food Processing’s 2020 R&D Teams of the Year, has a long history of producing vegetables for the masses. With a 134-year history, the company has undergone a change in the last few years that combines authenticity with agility. Learn how the original purveyors of the plant food movement have changed the way we know vegetables... and product development. 

Transcript

Erin: Hello, everyone. Welcome to another episode of Food Processing's Food For Thought Podcast. In this episode, I’m talking with Loren Druz and Mario DiFalco of Del Monte Foods to find out the why and how they’ve become the award-winning R&D Team they are today.

First and foremost, I just want to say congratulations on being named one of Food Processing's 2020 R&D Teams of the Year. Can you tell me what sets the R&D team at Del Monte apart from most other companies?

Mario: Giving it to Loren's team, I wanted to just say that, you know, they've been in the business for a long time. And I'm glad they've been recognized because I've certainly seen it over my time at Del Monte, this truly is the best team I've worked with. You know, Del Monte, you know, it's a company with 130-year-old history. We've always prided ourselves on great quality, great quality products, and authenticity. So, you know, that's always remained a great legacy brand. But, you know, we've taken more of a startup approach the last three or four years, more agile in approach. And in order to do that, you know, the innovation marketing team, the insights team, and the R&D team all need to work together earlier on. And that's really bringing the R&D guys earlier, and it's almost been seamless. And because of their great work, we've been able to do the things we've been able to do. So, I just wanted to kind of set that up because what they've done and who they are is really what's made the difference from someone who's not directly on the R&D team.

Erin: Great. Loren, did you want to add to that?

Loren: Yeah. And Erin, thanks. First of all, this is a great honor and, you know, we really, really are tickled to death to have it. You know, a big thing with R&D team as Mario talked about is we have such a tight linkage with our marketing group and our co-functional partners. And, in fact, we're part of the marketing team. And you know, what we always have strived for on the R&D team is build a culture, more we're a family, we have balance, and we really challenge the status quo to go above and beyond to try and make great new products building off Del Monte equality heritage on things that are not only close in with existing manufacturing assets but scouring industries for best co-manufacturing partners to deliver on our strategic vision.

Erin: I love the family aspect of it. I think that's great. So, Loren, in the July article, and you just mentioned as well, you talked about how the R&D group is part of the marketing department and that most of new product ideas come from marketing. Can you elaborate on that for me?

Loren: Sure, I can. Most of the product ideas come from marketing because R&D is part of marketing too. But within the marketing group, ideas come from all different places. A lot of them are through Mario's consumer insights group. Many of the ideas are the product of classic brainstorming cross-functional meetings where Mario's team will lead groups of technical experts, people who do insights, and marketing people to come up with new ideas that are based on foundational consumer insights, trends, and strategies of where we know consumers are going and what our customers, the grocers are looking for. And so, all of our ideas come from marketing. I'd say a little more than 50% through the classic brainstorming and consumer research process but also a large number come from R&D scientists tinkering in the lab and trying to come up with new ideas and new suggestion of what's possible, whether it's from technologies or great new flavor combinations.

Erin: Great. Funny, in preparation for this, I looked in my pantry to see how many Del Monte products I had and there's quite a few. So, you guys have done a great job.

Loren: The other thing I wanted to hit on is like Mario talked about our entrepreneurial approach. You know, we've moved from a linear kind of development process, those classic with EPG companies where it took sometimes even years to develop products to a very iterative, quick feedback approach. The consumer insights group led by Dawn Thomas is extremely adept at getting quick feedback for R&D, whether it's on online focus groups, video interactions with consumers to give us guidance on where to go with products and then R&D can quickly get back in the lab, react to, and get the best possible product to market the very most quick way possible.

Erin: I've read about the executive leadership of Del Monte and of the culture of innovation that has emerged most prominently in the last few years. Why do you think that's working so well right now

Mario: Well, I think it is because it's throughout the whole organization, we are aligned to that approach. And what I mean by that is about three years or so ago, you know, our leadership team put really strong emphasis on innovation for our future. And that was about the time our new CEO, Greg Longstreet joined us as well as a lot of other senior leaders. And, you know, with the support of that team and the direction that everyone's been aligned to, with, you know, clear goals for the long-term and a clear investment strategy and consistent divestment and support from the leadership team, that's what's made it successful. You know, a good example of some of the ways we stay linked with them is, you know, biweekly we meet, this cross-functional innovation leadership team meets with the executive team to give an update on where we're at on our projects, but really to help speed the process along. So, to keep things moving quickly. So, key decisions are made in a timely basis. They're not in these, you know, not project defined interactions, and also other obstacles are knocked down so that the teams can move forward quickly. So that's working really well. And it's keeping us in tune with, you know, sales and marketing leadership as we go through.

Also, you know, the people we have on our teams, you know, the insights team we have is the best I've ever worked with. They have tools that allow us to be very agile and move quickly. The innovation marketing team and then our brand team, frankly, the way we recruit, we bring on folks who are, you know, enterprise, they have an enterprise mindset but they have the skills to really make quick decisions. They have those, you know, the experience but also you can tell when you're recruiting, like who are going to be the ones that really work the best in our system. And then lastly, as we've been talking about today is, you know, the R&D team and that ability to work closely with us and, you know, everyone has a collaborative effort. But, you know, what they can make happen from a product standpoint has really kept that culture of innovation, you know, going strong.

Erin: Anyone who has developed new products knows about the hiccups that can occur from idea to execution. Tell me more about what kind of hurdles your R&D team had dealt with in the past.

Loren: You know, every new product we do, there's elements of them that have unforeseen obstacles that we'll have to get over. Part of our approach to getting over those obstacles quickly is having people with great skill sets and experience who can make decisions quickly. Pictured in the R&D team in the year award was Vai Leonard, who's on my team, Jaime Reeves, Brian Olson, who does packaging. These guys are first in their field and are able to do these things really quickly. One of the things they're continually reacting to is innovation is important because consumer demands are changing so rapidly. You know, what's good today is not good tomorrow. So, we need to be in touch with the consumer insights from Mario's group, as well as what all our manufacturing partners in our own facilities can do.

So, we have to be really nimble to stay on top of our categories and react to these fundamental business changes, and also troubleshoot when we go to do startups, our QA partners are key in this too to be able to react to what happens in the factories, what equipment doesn't work, what ingredients don't arrive on time. So, we really need to be on top of being able to have alternatives and contingency plans and processes in place that help us make those decisions quickly. The other part of it is we've really had to get good at a having strong network of co-pack partners. Our co-pack group led by Matt Shento has done a tremendous job of bringing in very strong partners that have helped us enter some of the new categories you've seen Del Monte going into, particularly frozen foods in some of the perimeter sections of the stores. You know, we really need to leverage the capabilities and the best-in-class thinking of everybody who's out there working in the industry.

Erin: So, I know something that happens a lot with new product development, whether you are in the vegetable space, or no matter of what kind of business you're in is this idea of funnel. Can you speak to where or why ideas would get stuck in the idea funnel, especially as it relates to these new products at Del Monte?

Mario: Sure. I can take that. I think they get stuck there for a reason. They're not ready to move beyond. I think for us, it's good to have a very rich, you know, funnel, lots of things coming in at the top because a lot of them don't make it. You know, they're not viable in some way to really warrant, you know, more resources that bring them to life. But iteration is key. It's that lean startup approach that we have so that we are quickly iterating, we're trying to make it better. And if we need to pivot in some way making a major change, we do that and we can do it early. But consumer feedback is at the heart of it and also customer feedback. So, we take things to our customers early on so we know we're on the right track and often they help us strengthen the idea.

But, you know, the consumer insights and that team helps inform us that we're in the right place. And you know, we do a lot of things early on so that we can make these changes and hope that advances them. But end of the day, we still have to be able to make them. And that's where I think they can get "stuck there" because they're just not ready. We make them better but we don't want to advance them before their time. So, the good news is, with a rich funnel, you know, we are advancing a lot of things through into, you know, more development stages. And I think that a real, you know, tragedy would be advancing something that isn't quite ready or strong enough because then what happens is you end up spending a lot of time and sometimes money to get something out that's, you know, best case going to be mediocre.

Erin: Gotcha. Okay. So, right now, a big thing in the world but especially as it relates to food and beverage is COVID. How have things changed for the R&D team because of COVID?

Loren: As an essential industry, we have needed to keep things moving not only for innovation but for our base products that people rely on, our great canned fruits and vegetables. R&D specifically has flexed our creative muscles. We've had food technologists working in their home kitchens developing preliminary formulas. We've been leveraging a thing that we call tele-cuttings, which are video cuttings, whether they're on Zoom or whatever kind of platform. We send samples to all our teammates' homes, we all concurrently open the samples, taste together, and provide real-time feedback to each other. We've also had real-time consumer groups where we've sent products to consumers home, and we watch, and we talk with them online about what they think about the products.

Again, leveraging technology. We've been commissioning and starting up factories with video commissionings, where they have cameras on the line and we help provide guidance and technical direction so they can start products up and follow our protocols and meet our processes. And we watch on video and provide real-time feedback while the plants are actually starting up. And then lastly, because we're a vital industry, we've had people from R&D going into the labs throughout the pandemic. We practice strict social distancing when the folks are in the lab. We have a limit of three people in each lab. Everyone wears masks. We're very careful to keep our social distancing, our separation. But this allows us to get in, use our pilot plan, use our retorts, keep key processings moving forward, and then get the feedback for what we're learning and finding out back to our cross-functional and marketing partners. So, it's been a kind of fun challenge figuring out how to do work without being at work all the time.

Erin: Right. I like how you referred to it as a fun challenge, sort of felt like that was a lot of things too. So, one more question I wanted to ask, did you have any sourcing or labor concerns related to the virus?

Loren: Yeah, I'll take this one again. You know, everyone has had sourcing and labor concerns. We've had a few people that have gone out and they've had to be on stay at home for 14 days, but our big challenges has come in our factories because we have lots of people that need to run production lines or when it's pack time. And when it's the season for fruit and vegetables, you need to run the plants because there's a flow of materials coming from the field. Our QA team led by Renuka Menon has put in place strict guidelines for the factories. We've erected partitions between workers. Workers get their temperatures checked. They wear their masks. They practice social distancing. So, in the factory itself, that's been a challenge getting those people, getting them in, making sure they are healthy. One of the good things Del Monte has to rely on is the product coming from the field, you know, we're a multi-generational growers. We've been working with our growers who use Del Monte seeds for many generations. So, we're able to have our field people work with them to make sure they're working safely also, and then maintain those safety measures all the way through the plant and like I spoke about at R&D.

Erin: Okay. One last question and this is the fun question. If I were to look into both of your home pantries, what Del Monte product or products would I see the most of?

Loren: Mario, I want you to take that one first.

Mario: I'll go. Yeah. I mean, in my fridge would be, you know, Bubble Fruit, our new product we launched last year. You know, that's what my kids are always asking for. So that's definitely there. Also for me, our citrus bowls, the 20-ounce bowls of grapefruit. And one of my favorites that I have always on hands, our frozen Pocket Pies, which, you know, we're just launching. Those are in my freezer. And then College Inn Simple Starter, it's something we launched a year ago that makes, you know, one-pot cooking really easy. So, I always have all of our flavors on hand. And then know the main stage, the green beans, corn, our Contadina, you know, pastes and crushed tomatoes and then more fruit cups. I mean, there's a lot, that's what keeps the family going.

Erin: How about you Loren?

Loren: For me, yeah, I'm a vegetarian for about 22 years. And so, working at Del Monte is great. And having our products that are based on fruits and vegetables is good. The one that I eat the most frequently is our Fruit and Oat product, which we have a patent pending process of it. It's a full serving of fruit and ready-to-eat oatmeal in a cup. I can have it straight out of the pantry or I can microwave it, which is my favorite way. So, that helps me get a good start in the day to have the fiber of the oats and the good healthy fruit. And my second one that I eat most frequently is my little treat. That's our Fruit Crunch Parfait. Fruit Crunch Parfait are a cup of coconut creme, which has a serving of fruit in it, and then there's a topper that has granola with probiotics in it. So, I can have that either for breakfast or a snack during the day, but, you know, from the R&D perspective, that's one of our products which I believe has the highest culinary quality and super delicious and a great treat to eat.

Erin: Making me hungry already. Thank you both for talking with me today. I know things are busy. You guys have a great team going. I've enjoyed talking to both of you thoroughly. Thank you so much.

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