Product Development Teams Find New Ways to Innovate During the Pandemic

Jan. 24, 2022
Many food and beverage R&D teams figured out how to keep new and improved products flowing despite Covid restrictions.

When the R&D team at Tofurky prepares to scale up a new product, their typical procedure is to visit the manufacturing floor and examine the production process. But during the height of COVID, any close grouping of people was discouraged, so instead of gathering on the floor, they had one person film the process and share the video with the team.

“That’s how we made sure we were alive on the floor without being live,” says Gilad Kaufman, vice president of R&D at Tofurky. “It was a little hard at the beginning to figure out how to do the video chatting on the manufacturing floor, but we figured that out and we solved so many problems in the production flow by doing things like that.”

In fact, Kaufman says the video system – usually done with a smartphone using FaceTime, Microsoft Teams, or whatever other app was handy at the moment – worked so well that they have continued that process.

“If you have a video of something, I think it's almost better than a mental memory of something because you have actually something that you can share with other partners and say, ‘You see in this specific process, this picture shows what needs to be improved or this thing has been done in a good way,’” Kaufman explains.

The innovations of Tofurky’s R&D team during COVID were not unusual – many R&D teams figured out how to keep new and improved products flowing despite the restrictions.

“It is clear that COVID disrupted consumer eating behaviors in a dramatic way and our R&I team had to remain agile,” says Takoua Debeche, chief research & innovation officer at Danone North America. “From a logistical standpoint, given a more remote working environment, we had to quickly pivot and adapt our development process.”

Moving to the home laboratory

Many elements of laboratory work do not transition well to home. The controlled environment of the lab, not to mention the sophisticated equipment and access to supplies, are hard to replicate in a family kitchen.

Nevertheless, in many cases food company R&D departments successfully completed key lab tasks at home. For example, Kaufman says Tofurky food scientists were able to do some basic ingredient mixing from home.

“Obviously not complicated things, but simple things like testing how ingredients dissolve, for example,” he says. “So I could put them in water and then mix them and observe the sample and see what it looks like in solution, touch it, feel the texture and so on.”

In some cases, Tofurky’s scientists divided a project – easy parts at home, more complicated ones in the lab. It isn’t quite the same as if the whole process were done in the lab, but it is close.

“It'll give you a good idea if this ingredient can work or if this flavor can work or if this mineral or vitamin or so on,” Kaufman says. “I think [doing it this way] really helped us accelerate innovation when we came back to the lab on more regular schedule.”

Remote customers and consumers

An essential R&D component for most food processors is getting feedback from consumers and customers. COVID prevented the typical in-person tastings, so R&D companies innovated.

Golden State Foods, for example, created the Virtual Kitchen concept to ensure that its mostly foodservice customers testing products at home would have a consistent, controlled experience.

“With the Virtual Kitchen concept we would send care packages, including product samples and different things involved in a tasting, and do virtual sessions,” says Mitch Dingwall, Golden State Foods' senior director of production innovation.

“We wanted to create a brand around it to make it memorable and engaging. We gave our Virtual Kitchen an identity with a recognizable look and feel, including a new logo, virtual screen backgrounds, team uniforms and new product sample packs. These all-in-one kits provided everything our customers needed at home to evaluate our innovations with single-use smallware. We used virtual feedback forms to collect their comments and inform our next steps. We also sent special treats as a thank you for their participation.”

The process has worked so well that it will survive the pandemic, Dingwall says. “There is no substitution for being face-to-face with customers while dealing with food. However, the results have surprised us in how effective [Virtual Kitchen] has been,” he says.

“We still leverage it and plan to continue into 2022 and beyond, especially with concerns around the recent COVID variants. Regardless of the pandemic, Virtual Kitchen has helped us accelerate the new product development process in providing a faster turnaround on product evaluations and feedback from customers.

Additionally, it has helped us better manage expenses associated with travel, which is a silver lining. Therefore, we plan to keep this concept in our tool box for the foreseeable future.”

Tofurky also moved their consumer research to the home setting. They sent 100-150 packages of samples to the homes of consumer panelists, then asked for feedback via SurveyMonkey, says Erin Ransom, senior vice president of growth, marketing, sales and product innovation. The results of those at-home consumer panels aligned with the results of previous in-person panels for similar products, so it appears that the concept works.

Nevertheless, there are limitations to at-home consumer panels. For example, it’s more difficult to ensure that panelists are tasting the products in the right order or that the panelists are not distracted, Kaufman notes.

To remain connected with consumers, Danone developed an innovative program they call a “video pen pal” program, Debeche says. The program helped them decide what products consumers wanted during the pandemic.

“Our employees met [via video] with consumers regularly over six months to understand how COVID was affecting their day-to-day lives,” Debeche says. “We used those learnings to continue shaping our development process to ensure we were best meeting consumer needs.”

Safe work in the lab

Working remotely was the prime way to keep folks safe during COVID, but in some cases R&D departments needed to work in the lab. Voyage Foods, for example, kept their in-person lab working throughout the pandemic.

“Our R&D operation is heavily reliant on hands-on work with the products and technology in the lab, and we have robust internal policies that enable us to mitigate risk and keep our team members safe while balancing the pace of development and commercialization,” says Sam Ryo, head of research and development for Voyage Foods.

Golden State Foods successfully kept a contingent working in the lab by rotating schedules to minimize in-person contact, Dingwall says. That strategy also was employed by Tofurky, Kaufman says: “We have an amazing safety and scheduling team that managed to change our schedules such that there is enough space between the shifts, and we staggered the breaks and lunches.”

Supply chain problems

COVID’s deleterious effect on the global supply chain was distinctly felt in the R&D department. Even getting sample ingredients for the lab was challenging in some cases, says Amy Usiak, business partner and R&D lead at JPG Resources.

“While innovation has remained at pace across many categories, supply chain and operations constraints are slowing the speed that we can develop new products for our clients and affecting timing to run trials and production,” Usiak says.

“Sample ingredients for benchtop work and pilot runs are taking three to five times longer than usual to receive, and access to facilities for trials is severely gated since every brand is looking for more line time. To combat these issues, we’re working to qualify new suppliers and alternate ingredients, as well as working with [contract manufacturers] to do virtual trials depending on COVID protocols and travel restrictions.”

Supply chain problems remained a thorn in R&D’s side even after a product was launched. For example, companies that once relied on one source for certain ingredients tasked their R&D departments to find alternate sources.

“You have to make sure both [original and alternate] ingredients are up to spec and are as good as you expect them to be in terms of all of their functional properties,” Kaufman says. “I’m not saying all the ingredients need to be replaced, but we have to be always discussing with the relevant supply chain team, purchasing, and so on to figure out which ingredients might have some issues in the supply chain.”

Innovation continued apace

Despite the challenges presented by COVID, food processors launched countless products during the pandemic. They were motivated to create products that satisfied the massive trend towards eating more at home and eating more healthfully.

For example, Tofurky completed substantial R&D work on a plant-based pepperoni that is destined for the frozen pizza market and other applications, and a new recipe of the company’s plant-based hotdog. In addition, Tofurky's Moocho division completed R&D on a non-dairy cream cheese.

Debeche says Danone’s R&D department worked to please consumers looking for healthy alternatives during COVID by developing products such as So Delicious Dairy Free cheese alternatives, Silk Oat Extra Creamy Beverage and International Delight Zero Sugar creamers.

Voyage Foods also moved forward on several key products during the pandemic. The company completed development of Peanut Free Peanut Butter, which will launch in the first quarter of 2022, and they made great progress on cacao-free chocolate and bean-free coffee.

“These three products are impossible products made possible by our team in the face of a global pandemic, and for that I am very proud and grateful,” Ryo says.

An unintended benefit of the COVID challenges in R&D has been to strengthen staff relationships, Dingwall says.

“The adversity of this pandemic has tightened the relationships, camaraderie, and stretched our ingenuity in the R&D department,” he says. “We have a unique little family in the R&D group, and I have been proud of how they have responded to challenges. Another benefit, it has helped us become more connected with our global R&D partners. I saw an uptick in our collaboration with our global teammates on projects as folks became more accustomed to operating without borders in cyberspace.”

Ransom says a similar transformation has happened at Tofurky.

“We've had to accept a lack of control in our environment and throw down our weapons and just look at each other and say, ‘How do we protect and appreciate each other as people first? And then how do we work together, secondarily, to build our business in ways that we couldn't have imagined we would need to in years past?’” Ransom says. “And so I think in a lot of ways, we've found time, space and energy to work together as a team in a more meaningful capacity.”

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