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2023 R&D Teams of the Year: J. M. Smucker

July 14, 2023
Different product development teams work independently on human food, coffee and pet food, yet find ways to collaborate.

This is the second of our R&D Teams of the Year profiles. J.M. Smucker Co. won in the large-company category, with Dole Packaged Food coming in a close second. Ripple Foods, our small-category winner, will be profiled next month; Bellisio Foods, the medium-size winner, was in our June issue.
We pitted teams against each other in those three size categories, posted their persuasive essays on a web-based poll this spring and asked our readers to choose the winners. 1,102 of you voted – thank you!

J.M. Smucker: Three Teams in One

 J.M. Smucker Co. annually creates a stream of new and improved products that end up in kitchens around the world – but in very different parts of the kitchen. The success of these products is due in great part to the collaborative nature of the company’s R&D teams, according to Laura Brown, vice president of research and development for consumer food.

“We have a unique ability with technical talent and with teams that are very much collaborating and working together,” Brown says. “There's cross collaboration, whether it's on an analytical method here, or whether it's on a raw material understanding there. And I think that's a really unique experience being here at Smucker, and I think that that is definitely one of our secret sauces.”

The R&D staff at Smucker is divided among three teams, one each focusing on key core businesses: pet food, human food and coffee. Each team has 50 to 60 members, ranging from chemists to food scientists to packaging engineers. The majority are located in the company’s headquarters in Orrville, Ohio, although a few are located in Lexington, Ky., and Topeka, Kan.

The collaboration among the R&D staff happens in-person, such as through departmental meetings in the Discovery Building, where the R&D work is centered, or through technology-driven interactions such as Microsoft Teams meetings. Cross-team collaboration is encouraged by several “communities of practice,” which are comprised of specialists in certain practice areas from each of the three core teams.

“That means there are members of each of our three teams in a core science area that get together on a regular basis,” Brown explains. “And they could be doing things like peer reviews, getting external speakers or looking at new technology and understanding, and really having a forum to create and build that curiosity and how we can apply that.”

Coffee’s percolating

Among the projects Smucker R&D tackled in 2022 was a significant improvement in efficiency and sustainability in coffee roasting for the company’s Folgers brand. The new process allows the company to create the same taste, body and appearance in the coffee using less weight
per serving. This reduces the quantity of raw beans used in the process and consequently keeps costs in check.

“We had to find ways to create more flavor from each bean without developing any off taste,” explains Jim Trout, vice president of research and development for coffee. “When you make coffee, you don't have the luxury of many ingredients to add in there and adjust.

“You've got different origins around the world you can buy it from, but the flavor is really developed in that roasting process. So we had to develop new proprietary profiles that gave us more intensity of flavor in each bean, again, without creating any kind of a trade-off in the negative sense.”

Once the new roasting process was mastered, the R&D team conducted a nationwide blind use test.

“We asked them for the overall usage experience, the liking of the coffee, etc.,” Trout says. “And we were able to validate that we had equal or higher acceptance depending on the prototype that we picked. And so that's the one that we went with.”

Pet food can be comforting

Another Smucker R&D success in 2022 was Milkbone Comfort Chews. The challenge with this pet product was to create a bone that was hard enough to occupy the dog for a period of time, but soft enough for the pooch to pleasurably sink its teeth into. Consumer research during Covid revealed that dog owners were seeking bones that did a better job of comforting dogs who were anxious about the changes brought about by the pandemic.

Smucker’s pet product R&D team created a formulation that resulted in the desired texture and taste while also being easily extruded. Food scientists, chemical engineers, packaging engineers and other specialists took part in the project, reports Illya Thomas, vice president of research and development for pet food and snacks.

“Because we can't talk to the dogs -- we haven't developed that capability yet -- a lot of what we do in testing the products deals with the consumer lens, the pet parent; but also the pet, in this case, the dog,” Thomas says. “So we work with kennels to test the products and understand dog liking, eagerness to eat, some of those other kind of visual cues that the owner or the pet parent responds to that says, ‘Wow, this is really good for my dog.’

“95% of those dogs who had a choice between engaging on the Comfort Chew relative to the [competitive product] started with and finished fully the Comfort Chew that we're offering. And so we know from a dog satisfaction and delight perspective, but also from a consumer standpoint, this is a big deal.”

 Human food … like Uncrustables

A 2022 advance for Smucker’s human food R&D department was the development of a new pilot research facility for Uncrustables premade frozen sandwiches. Construction on the facility began in May 2022 and will be completed this summer. It will allow the team to test products at a higher scale than the original research bench, but smaller than an actual plant.

“Think about it as a mini plant,” Brown says. “We won't be producing any product for sale from here, this is all for our research and development. But it's a great investment by the company in terms of making sure that we can learn and continue to build innovation on one of our key brands.”

Each project mentioned above – Folgers’ new coffee roasting process, Milkbone Comfort Chews and the new Uncrustables pilot research facility – utilitized the combined skills and experiences of multiple Smuckers researchers.

“One of the things we're trying to do is leverage some of the capability we have, with technologies and otherwise, and do things our competitors can't do because they don't have those same businesses or capabilities in house,” Thomas says. “How can we put our one plus one together to be three in ways our competitors        

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