Tyson aims for the center of the plate

June 15, 2003
Stuffed chops, seasoned meats and other fresh ideas result from a freshly formed product development team
Any successful dish relies upon the proper blend of ingredients. For the recent launch of Tyson Foods' Individually Fresh Frozen line, that blend included the adoption of new corporate cultures and a fresh approach to the center of the plate.The Individually Fresh Frozen line represents a full menu of value-added beef and pork products, including Beef Medallion Roasts, Lemon Pepper Pork Chops, Beef Flat Iron Grillers, Center Fillets, Breaded Pork Chops and Stuffed Pork Chops. Although each of the line's specially-seasoned entrees is a departure from more run-of-the-mill frozen meat products, the Stuffed Pork Chop is especially noteworthy. Certainly, any food professional can appreciate the focus required to create a stuffed meat product containing the appropriate balance of flavors and ingredients. Add to that the mechanics involved in developing and processing the stuffing, as well as the ever-present and ever-pressing challenge of achieving product consistency, and you get some idea of the Tyson team's challenges , and accomplishments -- despite the hundreds of miles that separated some of its key players. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- the product's unique nature, the Stuffed Pork Chops went from concept to marketplace in about five months. The product is now enjoying a successful West Coast rollout.First things firstIt's important, of course, to have vision, and at Tyson, recently ranked by Fortune magazine as one its most admired companies, vision begins with the consumer."We first had to identify who we were targeting and what it was they needed," recalls Mike Stout, director of marketing, frozen foods division and point man for the product line.Because it's common knowledge that many consumers crave convenience and quality, preferably in the same product, targeting that particular segment may have seemed like a no brainer. But to better tailor its product development efforts, Tyson surveyed some 800 consumers representing 20 markets. The research was vital, because former incarnations of a similar concept (outside the Tyson purview) hadn't performed to expectations. In-depth consumer research, which focused on qualitative data and concept optimization, helped the team focus on issues that were unclear in earlier efforts."Two years ago, we fell into the lack-of-differentiation trap by not providing the additional value needed to drive interest and sales of this underdeveloped category," says Stout. "Past entries were not branded, often of poor quality and they lacked support, which ultimately resulted in their demise."Eventually Tyson initiated another go at the concept, with Group Vice President of Consumer Products John Lee this time applying some of his own perspective on vision."He gave us direction and we set ourselves to retrench and re-launch as soon as possible," recalls Stout. With renewed inspiration and better insights, the team was ready to create the new line of products , products that Tyson now believes are certain to enhance consumer perception of frozen meats."Beef and pork have been largely commodity-driven rather than value-added," adds Stout "Consumers have had some major disappointments; quality and consistency among them." The Tyson team was committed to ensuring this new line was no disappointment. Since today's hurried consumer freezes two-thirds of all fresh meat within the two days of its purchase, team members reasoned that providing them with single-serve cuts of meat, individually vacuum sealed and requiring no thawing, would be the perfect product to meet their needs. And recognizing that the average consumer's knowledge about different cuts was fairly limited, informed mostly by restaurant visits and vague translations of those experiences in his own home, the development team realized that their success would rely heavily on value and flavor excitement. But there were challenges.Building the teamThis particular Tyson team represents a success story in several chapters. First, it's a fresh team, portions of which were assembled in the aftermath of Tyson's acquisition of IBP and de facto union with Thomas E. Wilson brands. So there was the merging of cultures to facilitate. Then there was proximity , a growing challenge in a world of mergers and acquisitions. "One of the biggest challenges was that we [the team members] were in three states," says Don Alden, the project leader, based in Hutchison, Kan. Through constant communication and apparent glowing respect among members, the team moved quickly. Alden recalls the process as "very informal but focused.""Our success is due to the mutual respect for each other's expertise and good communication. We are fortunate to have a team that gets along personally as well as professionally," says Stout. "It started as a group of five people , all outsiders coming in. But at no point did I feel like an outsider. I give a lot of credit to Tyson for that. Because of the culture at Tyson, every department opened its doors to us whenever we had questions or wanted to tap their insights. I've seldom seen companies with such a cooperative spirit." Yet no matter how motivated a team may be, it needs the requisite tools to complete the process. For the Tyson team, talent is only one of those tools. In this case, the team needed to combine insights to leverage existing physical resources.While new products present new production challenges, installation of a new production line is usually considered the option of last resort these days. More often, companies rely on tapping existing resources in innovative ways. In the case of the stuffed pork chops, the Tyson team encountered challenges heretofore unsolved in the lab and on the plant floor. "There were some definite hurdles with the composition and moisture content of the stuffing's breading," says Stout. "We wanted to make sure the portions were hearty enough but not too big. Cooking time and serving size are related issues. The whole purpose here was convenience."Just right "It was easy to get the stuffing too wet or too dry," continues Alden. "We had to get it right. We also tried to limit the use of allergens wherever possible. There's no MSG, and we focused on sticking with natural ingredients." Though Tyson's batter and breading branches were happy to lend their insights, the link to operations also had to be perfected."We had no method to stuff the pork chops and had to figure that out with Scott Scholtz, plant manager of the York, Neb., location," says Alden. "And we were limited in the types of equipment we had available. So, all of our flavorings and seasonings needed to be compatible with that equipment."The best way to ensure the match of ingredients and machinery: "We were involved in development from the outset," says Scholtz. "We looked at the equipment we had and what we could do with it."Scholtz adds that early insight into team goals made that process easier. "One of the things marketing did right away was come to the plant and give us the whole presentation on the concept and where we were headed," says Scholtz. "It got everyone here excited and gave us a clear view of what was wanted and needed. Everyone in the plant could really feel ownership." Members of R&D, QA and operations met throughout the product development process to ensure all were following the same path. "We had face-to-face meetings every three weeks or so to look at the product and its ingredients at the plant level," says Scholtz. "Like any project, we had our issues to work through. But we were able to tap resources from across the company." During final design and initial ramp-up, there was considerable travel time, with meetings held nearly every one to two weeks. Because the solution they devised is proprietary, team members can't provide details, though Scholtz allows that the project required some customization of Tyson resources."Scott is exceptional at addressing process issues," says Alden. "He is a delight to work with because of his can-do attitude. Because of his expertise we were able to find new answers."To help ensure consistency from the start, QA was included in all discussions. "As soon as the idea was brought into the plant, we would meet and troubleshoot potential problems," says Jodi Free, quality assurance manager, York, Neb. Because of the products' complexity, the Tyson team also looked to suppliers and outside resources for assistance. In fact, early in the development process, Tyson tapped the expertise of the National Cattleman's Beef Association  and the National Pork Board to uncover all of the potential possibilities of their products.This "external team" was able to explain various nuances of their products while identifying potential pitfalls of certain approaches."In working with suppliers, we like to find them at the bench level and ask for a mixture that works with the process," says Alden. "We look for a summary of attributes, drawing on their technologists and chefs."Quality and consistency continue to be of paramount concern. Because of their geographic separation, the Tyson team relies on digital technology to promote meaningful discourse across state lines. "Since starting production, I send photos to everyone," adds Free. There is still work to do."We want to automate so we can be even more efficient with respect to consistency of shape , that consistent pork chop look," says Scholtz. "We want to make sure the first pork chop to be packaged looks like the 800th."Perfectly packagedPackaging, too, has been important to maintaining the integrity and convenience of the products. Packed in four, individually sealed single servings nestled in a resealable, high-graphic stand-up pouch, the product is perfect for the hurried consumer."The packaging is a significant marketing tool," says Stout. "The individual portions maintain a fresh product. From a quality perspective, we went for the best packaging solution possible. The back of the package contains cooking instructions for four methods , and recipe ideas perfected with help from Tyson's home economists."The bags also highlight the nutritional benefits of beef and pork.Since the products are frozen, the Tyson team says product integrity isn't a problem and the product has a shelf life of "several months." "We are working with second or third generation products already," says Stout.

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