Amy Miller of Bellisio Foods
The Bellisio Foods R&D Team: (left to right) Becky May, Chris Michet, JD Heitschmidt, Mike Hoey, Katie Swanson.

2023 R&D Teams of the Year: Bellisio Foods

June 2, 2023
In the first of this three-part series naming our 2023 R&D Teams of the Year, Bellisio product developers recount how developing Michelina’s Grande was a rush job to meet a Covid opportunity, but it's still paying dividends.

As our 52nd Annual R&D Survey indicates, product development is a team sport, but the core of that team are the folks who work in the lab and test kitchen. To honor some of the industry’s leading R&D groups -- as we have for 15 years now -- we pitted R&D teams against each other in small, medium and large categories, put their essays on a web-based poll and asked you readers to choose the winners. 1,102 of you voted and chose the following trio. We kick off this three-part series with the winner of the medium-sized company category: Bellisio Foods. Next month we will feature JM Smucker's team, with Ripple Foods coming in August.

In the photo at top: The Bellisio Foods R&D Team: (left to right) Becky May, Chris Michet, JD Heitschmidt, Mike Hoey, Katie Swanson. Photo by Amy Miller of Bellisio Foods

Bellisio Foods: R&D in the Fast Lane

Bellisio Foods’ Michelina’s frozen Italian entrees have been recognized for 30 years as quality meals at an affordable price. But when Covid hit, the company saw that the value consumers were seeking in the frozen foods aisle had shifted.

“What we noticed from a consumer standpoint was that, obviously, Michelina's being the best value is still important. It's our core foundation from a branding standpoint,” notes Mike Gerber, senior vice president of research, development and quality at Bellisio Foods.

“But because of their changing behaviors, they were working more from home. They needed different solutions. They didn't want to go out. They still needed a very high-quality product. That changing environment was why we started the Grande product line.”

To meet that new consumer demand, the company accelerated its development process and tapped the skills of its entire 20-person R&D team to create the Michelina's Grande line, which includes 10 SKUs that are about 65% larger by weight than the normal Michelina’s entrees and include some bolder flavors.

Grande entrees range from Bacon Parmesan Linguine to Italian Sausage Pasta Bake to Four-Cheese Chicken & Rice. Deep collaboration among the researchers, marketing staff and operations personnel got the line in store freezers in record time.

“This collaborative environment around the development process ensures that the team, the company, the organization is successful at the end of the day,” Gerber says.

The R&D team at Bellisio includes a wide range of experts, including process engineers, packaging engineers and food scientists with differing specialties, ranging from protein science specialists to sauce development specialists. Eleven members of the R&D staff are located in the company’s Minneapolis headquarters, and the others are spread among the company’s four manufacturing plants.

Development of new products, such as the Michelina’s Grande line, did not slow because of the pandemic. During Covid, the headquarters R&D staff continued working on-site, of course spread apart and masked for safety. Other staff worked remotely, and the company’s IT department developed tools – such as online “chat” capabilities and regular Zoom and Teams meetings -- to foster convenient collaboration.

The concept for the Grande line was developed in June 2021, and after the initial R&D was completed, an October 2022 launch was scheduled. But company leaders wanted a quicker rollout.

“The leadership team and the CEO are like, ‘The opportunity is now. What is the reset window that you could hit if everything worked the way you wanted it to work?’ Well, that becomes April of 2022. So we're producing in February of ’22 in order to get the inventory built up.”

That speedy timeline put the R&D team into high gear, which added to the challenges Covid was already presenting. For example, some ingredients they planned to use in the entrees were suddenly less available.

“The broccoli we were getting in from our suppliers had a lot more variation in it,” Gerber says. “And as a result, we had a harder time making sure that it was qualified to run on the equipment.”

 Evaluating trade-offs

 The challenge with broccoli and other ingredients highlights a skill of the Bellisio team: They know how to evaluate the trade-offs in ingredients or processes.

“We could go to broccoli cuts, which would be the stalk of broccoli. And we're like, ‘Well, yeah, that delivers on broccoli, but it doesn't deliver on the quality that we're expecting.’ So we would have debates about, ‘What can we afford from a product standpoint, and what can we not trade off because it has to be great quality product?’”

Eventually the team came up with about 50 possible entrees for the Grande line. They narrowed the list down by answering questions such as, “What makes sense?” “What’s available in the marketplace?” “What are we missing from our lineup” and “Where do we think the consumers are going to be?”

By October 2021 they had selected the best options for the line, developed the prototypes, and moved into sensory testing with consumer panels. Covid was still a threat at that time, but a brief window of opportunity opened that fall when Covid numbers temporarily dropped. This allowed the company to get in-person consumer reactions.

“The sensory results was outstanding,” Gerber says. “That gave us the encouragement to keep pushing hard for that April launch date.”

Another challenge emerged as the Grande line was in development. A key factor in the affordability of Michelina’s entrees is the packaging, which consists of a cost-efficient paperboard tray and lid. Because the Grande line contains more product, the existing-size trays would not work for the new line, and packaging equipment suppliers were dealing with the same supply chain delays as other manufacturers.

Fortunately, the equipment suppliers recognized the urgency of creating equipment that would work with the products.

“It was the first new Michelina’s line in years. They got excited about it, too, so they shuffled their portfolios to get our equipment accelerated,” Gerber says. “It was a very good collaborative environment that got it done. For us to get the new tray-forming equipment in that timeframe was a remarkable feat.”

Once the equipment issue was addressed, each new SKU had to be tested to make sure it worked well on the line.

“We had to get into the plant, test the consistency of the drops, make sure that we understood how repeatable these items were going to be in a production environment,” Gerber says. “And because this was a new size, we couldn't do the validation on the existing lines. We had to do it on proxy lines.

“There were some back and forth in iterations as a result of challenges, but those got solved with suppliers. Like, ‘Hey, the ingredient you gave us is hanging up in our scales, and we're dropping it on the line. Can we get a different size? Can we get a different shape? Can we get a different storage condition?’”

Eventually all of those challenges were met and the line launched on time in April 2022. The response has been tremendous, Gerber says. Consumers have been trading up to the Grande line because of its added value, and the repeat order rate is ahead of target.

Gerber says the entire Bellisio Foods workforce deserves credit for the success of this line under pressure.

“I want to emphasize the importance of collaboration and teamwork not only within R&D, which I think was essential for success of this, but across the whole organization,” he says, “from our operations team, our marketing team, our leadership.

“There was never an option to fail, because the entire organization was very excited about this product launch,” he concludes. “It came with a different energy than a lot of the projects that we’ve done just because of the excitement around introducing this new lineup for Michelina’s.”

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