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2011 R&D Team Winner: Happy Family

May 26, 2011
For our 2011 R&D Team of the Year winner (small-sized company category), social responsibility was the mother of invention.
The main baby food category is dominated by a small number of brands, including Nestle's Gerber (74 percent market share), Hero's Beech-Nut (11 percent), Del Monte (8 percent) and Earth's Best (3 percent).

But below that $1.5 billion mainstream category is the subcategory of organic baby and toddler foods. Some consider it small at $100 million; others think that number is considerable and, with an 18 percent growth rate, full of opportunity.

One of the leaders, with sales of $30 million, is New York-based HappyFamily, (often known as HappyBaby after its first product line). The company was launched on Mother's Day 2006 by co-founders Shazi Visram, CEO, and Jessica Rolph, COO.

A dietitian's perspective on finicky eaters

Amy Marlow, RD, mother to Noah and Alana, has been with HappyFamily since 2006. "My role is nutrition advisor from my perspective as a dietitian, and my job is to educate our customers and parents on nutrition through one-on-one demonstrations, e-mail, and teaching classes," she says.

"I love our more unique projects; for example, we do baby food-making demonstrations for moms who like to make their own. We support customers in a holistic way. Building a rapport with parents helps them understand our HappyFamily philosophy of empowering parents to have healthy happy babies," she says.

"I'm proud that the mission and values of our company have stayed the same," says Marlow. "Our products do such a great service for families, and our partnerships, such as Project Peanut Butter and with Stonyfield Farm have been very rewarding."

Marlow answers many questions about finicky eaters from moms. "To train their palates, persistence is key – after 10 to 15 exposures to a food, the preference is imprinted," she says. "Since preferences are set up to age 3, giving them healthy food is crucial.

How do you retrain babies who hate a particular food? "Never give up; keep exposing them to the food," she explains. "Persistence is a big thing, and modeling – sitting down with them to have a balanced breakfast and dinner – is an excellent strategy. Children have a lot of peer pressure and sibling pressure, so watching what you eat is important. Younger tongues are sensitive to bitter flavors; breast milk is sweet. So we combined spinach and pear, making the vegetable taste sweeter."

HappyFamily gets e-mails from caregivers of elderly people with chewing problems asking whether their nutrition packed foods are appropriate. "The caloric content is geared for babies, but as long as they don't replace meals with our foods, they can use them as healthy between meal snacks."

They were pioneers in the relatively new category of frozen organic baby food, using fresh, premium organic ingredients and rapidly freezing them to lock in natural taste and nutrients. No pesticides, chemical fertilizers, genetic modification or preservatives are used in their products.

Visram – you've seen her on American Express Small Business TV commercials – and Rolph make up half of the R&D team; the other key players are renowned pediatrician Dr. Robert Sears and registered dietitian Amy Marlow, both of whom are advisors to the company.

"We founded the company because there was a severe lack of truly healthy food for infants and toddlers on the market," says Visram. "I saw an opportunity to create a meaningful brand in that space and offer products parents could feel truly good about every bite their baby was eating."

She says she also wanted to build a brand around sustainability and partner with socially responsible business partners. "In essence, to create a modern brand for today's mom," Visram says.

HappyFamily is available nationally in more than 10,000 specialty and mainstream retail stores including Whole Foods, Target, Kroger, Albertson's, Publix, CAP and Hannafords as well as online retailers amazon, diapers.com and alice.com among others.

Brands include: HappyBaby fresh frozen organic baby meals; HappyBaby and HappyTot meals in pouches, fruits and veggies with Salba (a nutrient-dense supergrain); HappyBellies, organic baby cereals with DHA, prebiotics and probiotics and choline to support brain development; HappyPuffs, organic baby puffs with whole grains, fruits, vegetables and choline; HappyBites, handheld organic toddler/kids meals with hidden veggies; and HappyMelts, the first USDA-certified organic freeze-dried yogurt and fruit snacks containing both prebiotics and probiotics to enhance baby's overall digestive health.

"HappyBaby immediately stuck out as the perfect name on many levels," according to Visram. "We believe every baby deserves to be a happy baby, and our goal is create these products at accessible price points allowing everyone access to healthy foods and, therefore, happiness. Every child deserves the best start in life.

"We try to create the most optimally nourishing foods for today's young families. Our emphasis is to create premium and innovative formulations using nature's best ingredients and true science to help us make decisions on how to grow baby's body.

Packaging care
Concerns about using plastic containers for food are mostly related to a compound known as phthalates. HappyFamily's containers do not have any known risks and do not contain any phthalates, PBBs, PBDEs or bisphenol-A (BPA). They are made from 100% virgin polypropylene, which is manufactured without the use of chlorine, thus eliminating the hazards of dioxin releases during manufacture and incineration that occur with some other plastics. The trays are recyclable #5, as are the outer boxes.

"The first two years are critical in developing a taste profile and architecture, or blueprint, for how they experience, crave and appreciate food for the rest of their lives," says Visram. "If you can start them off with foods that that are truly healthy, that look, taste and smell great, they are more inclined to want them all their lives. That is the dream of all parents."

HappyFamily strives not only to use top quality and organic ingredients, "We add probiotics, DHA from a sustainable source [algae] to improve brain and eye function, choline to improve memory function, and they all come from natural sources," says Visram. All of cereals are made with whole grain, rather than white flour. "We are more than just organic, and try to push the envelope when it comes to nutrition."

50 moms across the country
"Since we are both moms, we drive ideation on product development; it's our maternal instincts," says Visram. "We think in terms of what we want to feed our children, the healthiest formulation, what would get us really excited if the product were available in a store."

"We have focus groups of moms, babies and toddlers (from a handful of participants to hundreds), who test all the flavors," says Rolph. "We have 50 moms across the country who work with us, and they are amazing. We call on them when we have ideas, send them samples and get their feedback."

Visram, Rolph, Marlow and Dr. Sears are the core of the R&D team. "We have a fantastic staff that moves the R&D process along, but it is all initiated through strong ideas and incorporating scientific knowledge in formulations," explains Visram. "Dr. Sears might suggest adding probiotics to cereal as the perfect method for getting probiotics into baby's daily diet. He then works with us to find the most beneficial strains. First the idea, then the science, and then we make it into a reality," she says.

Another consideration for the company is whether the product is truly needed in the market. "We don't want to create knock-offs. We try to create new value with our innovation, and, of course, it needs to be organic," emphasizes Rolph.

"There's always a process in place getting a product from ideation to online to ready to merchandise in stores," says Visram. Rolph says it usually takes 6-9 months from concept to execution to product launch. "Some are more complicated; it took us 16 months for HappySqueeze to come online," she says.

HappySqueeze is a new product that will launch in July. "It's an exciting new format applied to smoothies. HappySqueeze is the first supergrain, superfruit smoothie and it's targeted for everyone in the family," Rolph says enthusiastically. "It's made of delicious fruits and vegetables like apples, pomegranate, peaches, yumberries, mangos, mangosteen, and is very rich in antioxidants. It also includes the supergrain Salba, which has 411mg of omegas per serving of HappySqueeze."

The final product is 100 calories, 1g of fat, and 6g of protein, "making it a really balanced snack," she continues. "It comes in an environmentally friendly pouch format, and you just squeeze it. Ideal for on-the-go consumers, it tastes great chilled, but it's also fine if it's been sitting in your desk drawer or backpack," she says.

Has the company had any failures and what was learned from them? HappyBites, the hand-held toddler meals, posed a challenge for the company. "One of things we learned from focus groups is that toddlers love to dip. So we had the idea to create dipping sauces [for HappyBites] that provided a serving of vegetables plus lots of fun. Our frozen Secret Sauce Kit consisted of four different vegetable-based sauces, each a different color. But it was too much too soon to get moms to embrace something so radically different." So the sauces were discontinued but the HappyBites continue to be a success and are sold in stores nationwide.

Giving back is part of HappyFamily's mission

"We incorporate whatever we can to create the optimal relationship with our growers and supply chain -- initiatives for a healthy environment, reducing our carbon footprint, reducing water consumption and promoting sustainability throughout our supply chain," says Rolph.

"Our Salba farmers based in Peru are very excited about the exposure for the healthfulness of their product. We take a holistic approach that will also grow and support their livelihoods.

"We are also involved with Project Peanut Butter (PPB), which helps feed malnourished children in Malawi and Sierra Leone who need basic nutrition to bring them back to a healthy weight," says Rolph. "And while the situation is dire, Project Peanut Butter has found a sustainable solution."

Dr. Mark Manary, professor of pediatrics at Washington University's School of Medicine, runs Project Peanut Butter. He developed Plumpy Nut, a revolutionary treatment that is the most successful in treating malnourished children. Malawi and Sierra Leone are among the world's poorest countries with the highest rates of childhood mortality. In addition, 95 percent of the money raised goes to fulfilling its mission, which is why The World Food Programme and UNICEF assist PPB.

Visram is particularly proud of their innovative HappyTot line in pouches. "Innovation in terms of the packaging is exceptional; it's got 10 percent of the carbon footprint of jarred baby food," she says. "And we've incorporated Salba in the line, which lends an immense amount of nutrition (822mg of omega-3s per HappyTot)." Altogether, the product has half a serving of fruits and vegetables per pouch, plus antioxidants and fiber. "It's a fresh concept for us, and the line has been extremely successful in the mass channel as well as in natural," she says.

"Dr. Sears has many great ideas gleaned from his pediatric practice, which has dealt with issues related to nutrition for so many years," says Visram. "They have a ton of ideas when it comes to creating the optimal mix of slow-burn energy for breakfast, strains of probiotics, the best DHA ingredients and best concepts and ideas around formulation."

All new product ideas have to pass a simple test: "Would I feed it to Zane? Will Jessica feed it to Leland? Are they the best products we can feed our children?" says Visram. But taste is critical, too. "Babies are finicky, so we make sure our products taste good. You can make the healthiest food in the world, but baby has to like the taste," she says.

"We are honored to be part of Food Processing's R&D Teams of the Year," says Visram. "I think of Jessica and me as a dream team, so it is fun for us to get that recognition from the industry. We believe true success comes from a position of purity and passion for what we do."

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