2017 R&D Team of the Year: Nonni's Foods

May 10, 2017
Nonni's Foods, our small-company R&D Team of 2017, bakes the only nationally available line of biscotti in the U.S.
Baking premium biscotti and almond thins for distribution in North America, Nonni’s Foods LLC, Oak Brook, Ill., cherishes Italian family traditions. It makes its products using premium ingredients, including whole almonds and pistachios, real fruit and select gourmet bittersweet chocolate. Sold nationally through grocery, clubstore, mass merchandise and drugstore channels, its products include the original long-stick Nonni’s Biscotti, based on a recipe brought from Lucca, Italy by the grandmother of the company’s founder.

Nearly 30 years old, the entrepreneurial company grew quickly, expanding its lineup and baking capabilities and producing assorted biscotti flavors, sizes and configurations – such as biscotti "thins" and Biscotti Bites. It is now a portfolio company of Chicago's private equity firm Wind Point Partners, which allowed it to expand and now employ 365 people at four bakery production facilities in Tulsa, Okla., Ferndale, N.Y., Glendale, Ariz., and Montreal. Three of the bakeries have test kitchens for product development.

Nonni's has a winning R&D team with a foundation of using quality ingredients across all product offerings. That's been the basis of its success and a main reason Nonni's is so well recognized.

Marketing and innovation director Matt Duffy says the R&D team comprises an entrepreneurial group of internal marketing and artisan bakers across three of the company's bakeries that work with external collaborative customers and a pastry chef.

"Our R&D/innovation ideas are created by combining consumer insight, customer partnerships and a creative entrepreneurial culture that thrives on continuous invention," Duffy says. "Once a concept is identified, one of the bakeries will take the lead on refining and developing items based on desired product attributes and bakery expertise, and we regularly review secondary consumer research."

The brand's strategy is research-driven, so the team creates new products and flavors based on the evolving snack landscape, he adds. "The team occasionally conducts consumer focus groups and/or taste tests to gain further insight during the development process."

When the R&D team introduces a new product or variety, it first evaluates products within that product category to determine if all of the items in the group are performing as it expects they should. "We find new ingredients and trends at industry trade shows, closely monitor the media and look at restaurant/bakery industry trends, which helps us understand the next new flavor profiles consumers demand," Duffy says. "The team is very knowledgeable about the [category], and is integral in product innovation decisions to ensure we are creating treats consumers crave."

Once prototypes are developed, the team works through various consumer sampling phases and collaborates with customers until it "has a product with the potential for success," Duffy notes. Sensory attributes are crucial to all of the products. "We use high-quality, real ingredients with no artificial colors or flavors," he continues. "Our biscotti and ThinAddictives have a distinctively light, crunchy texture our consumers love. People eat with their eyes first, so we ensure our products are visually appealing and consumers can see the rich, dark chocolate, the chunks of almonds and fruit pieces."

While all bakers face challenges, Duffy says probably the biggest challenge Nonni's has is standing out from larger competitors within the ever growing snack category.

"The snack space is particularly saturated with countless brands, many manufactured by global companies," he relates. "We choose to work with ingredient suppliers that provide the highest-quality ingredients, which we promise in our products. Our continued commitment to baking premium products made with real ingredients caters to consumer interest and the demand for great tasting, better-for-you treats and snacks. This helps provide consistent growth for our brand and ultimately benefits our bottom line."

Thin is in

Nonni's acquisition of the ThinAddictives line of better-for-you almond thins from V.I.S. Inc. in 2012 made the company one of the first to launch thinner treats, a trend now prominent in the healthier snack space. Duffy says Nonni's is proud of this strategic acquisition and expansion. Since gaining the brand, the company has added a Dark Chocolate Almond variety, which offers an antioxidant-packed, sweet alternative. In 2013, the company also purchased La Dolce Vita, which made artisanal Italian biscotti and specialty cookies. The move positions Nonni’s to reach into other areas of retail grocery and special retail channels.

The company's original long-stick biscotti recipe is based on a formulation brought from Italy by the grandmother of the company’s founder. These full-sized biscotti come in flavors such as Salted Caramel, Toffee Almond, Decadence, Limone and Turtle Pecan. Specialty flavors include Chocolate Peppermint Crunch and Gingerbread, which are available seasonally.

"We stay at the forefront of industry trends through our seasonal biscotti varieties, which offer timely flavor twists on the classic biscotti," Duffy explains. Recent examples include Dark Chocolate, Pumpkin and Milk Chocolate Hazelnut for winter. "We're constantly innovating, and seasonal biscotti items give consumers a new occasion to enjoy Nonni’s products. We've had seasonal flavor varieties for the winter and fall holidays annually since 2004, but this year, we also launched limited-batch spring flavors, incorporating sweet flavors of the season, perfect for snacking."

A Dark Chocolate Almond Thinaddictive variety was created for an antioxidant-packed sweet alternative, and Nonni’s is in the process of introducing a line of snacking chocolates called Dark Chocolate Crunch Bites in on-trend flavors such as Toasted Coconut, Almond and Sea Salt Chili, which Duffy says leverage trending flavors and the popularity of dark chocolate.

Nonni's seasonal biscotti varieties together with the R&D team's developments of relevant flavor twists on the classic biscotti demonstrates its leading position as a product innovator at the forefront of bakery trends.

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