You may not have heard of Sugar Foods, but you’ve definitely had their products. The company is the world's leader in croutons and salad toppings and provides everything from sweeteners and non-dairy creamer to tortilla strips and lime juice.
Put another way, the company is responsible for, in the words of Brittny Ohr, Director of Product Management, “holding menus together” – the finishing touch on meals, if you will.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on a crouton, especially when food trends like gluten-free and keto threaten its very existence.
I sat down with Brittny to talk about how she approaches product innovation when the trends are going against you, why the intersection of products and packaging is critical, and how the connection between food, memory and emotion drives us more than we realize.
Below are some highlights from our conversation – you can listen to the full audio on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Soundcloud. And be sure to subscribe to our channel to get the latest episodes as soon as they drop.
On food trends during Covid-19 pandemic
“So there's some nostalgia effects that people have, childhood memories, comfort foods. So during the last two years, lots of people went back to comfort foods for that food psychology. That comfort of this makes me feel safe, this makes me feel good. And so we saw a spike. And just home-cooked comfort meals and that type of category.”
On dealing with conflicting trends or trends that push against their existing portfolio
“That happens a lot to be honest. And they'll be conflicting trends running at the same time, or you'll have a great product and then everything flips, and overnight, it's not relevant anymore.
So the best way to approach that, I use, I focus on what the job is that the customer's trying to do. What is the consumer trying to do with my product? So if it's a crouton and I'm putting it on a salad, it's there for crunch and for flavor, that's what it's trying to deliver. Okay, gluten's a problem, can't have the crouton anymore, what else can I put in there to do the same job, to do the same function? Is it a tortilla strip, a corn tortilla? Is it a cheese crisp, 100% cheese crisp there? It can carry the flavor, it can carry the crunch without the gluten. And that's exactly how we kind of approached that one, was you just still get back to the core of what the consumer's trying to do and just offer it in a different way.”
On the importance of creating an “ideas library” for product innovation teams
“It's hard for a lot of companies to go back and look at ideas that didn't come to market or even find those ideas that didn't make it. So how do you think about creating that scalable innovation library? Because I find that oftentimes companies don't have something like that in place…
So I definitely think that's been a game changer for us focusing on how we organize around the work and how we manage the information and how detailed we get in that. So that way it does help our uptime when we see it coming or we get that reactivation of, okay, we had this idea three years ago and it was terrible, it failed, but the customer is coming back to us now three years later and they want the same thing. We've done this before, let's get back into it. And then with all the turnover of people, you never know who you might have on the team. So just being super detail-oriented and how we capture that is really the key.”
On the importance of product professionals engaging with packaging teams
“We've put a hyperfocus on that now have a dedicated team to packaging and they work literally side by side with product development because everything I design needs to work for shelf life, needs to work for sizing, needs to work for bulk density. And then the structure of it, the film has to support what we've promised to the customer for the product itself and then just to even get it to run on the line. So that's the key element of not just making the product but making sure it goes into the bag as expected. So there is no product development without packaging development as well.”
On the future of the food industry
“I'm super excited about the sustainability, the hyperfocus that you can feel as a joint effort. So it's not just one company is trying to do a one-off. You've got big bakeries and big packaging companies and just this overall global effort to focus on sustainability and how we can do better. In a lot of food manufacturing facilities that I've been in, you'll see waste, tremendous amounts of waste, and it's always a little heartbreaking to see that. But it's been kind of the accepted norm and everyone's just said, "Oh, yeah, just assume 3% waste, 5% waste. It's part of the assumptions we've calculated in." But the environmental impact of those things and people are now really focused and tuning into it. So I'm really excited to see how food evolves and does support sustainability.”
Listen to the whole episode here – and be sure to stay tuned through the end for one of my favorite “Keep, Kill, Change” segments, where we make Brittny decide between an air fryer, peanut butter, and salami.