In an unassuming building in Dublin, Calif., a team of food scientists, chefs and marketing executives quietly go about their work of creating and analyzing foods and beverages for some of the nation’s most prominent food, beverage and consumer packaged goods companies. The National Food Laboratory’s (The NFL) clients range from entrepreneurs looking for the next big product hit, to the largest of manufacturers whose brand names populate supermarket shelves. Bringing more than 30 years of food industry expertise to the table, The NFL has helped launch hundreds of consumer brands, with recent examples including Bumble Bee® Prime Fillet™ Chicken Breast Entrees, FruitSimple smoothies, and Farmhouse® Country Dinner all-natural meal kits.
The thought process of food
Working with food requires tapping into both sides of the brain, considering the flavor, appearance, and healthy attributes that will both attract and please consumers, as well as exploring the technical characteristics that enable foods to be manufactured with safety and stability. Approaching food in this holistic way is how the food experts at The NFL help clients solve challenging marketing and technical problems.
“Foods are complex living, chemical systems,” explains Kevin Buck, President and CEO of The NFL. “When consumers walk down the supermarket aisles, they are unconsciously processing their feelings about food: whether the foods they buy taste good, fit in with their family budget and time constraints, or meet their personal quality standards, such as being organic or fresh. But consumers don’t realize all the work that goes on inside the package, not only in addressing their emotional needs, which is the work of our creative chefs and food marketers, but delving deeper into the science of the food system. The products we develop must meet expectations for safety, stability and functionality, and that’s where our chemists, microbiologists, engineers and developers get involved.”
Engineering a Successful Food Product
The birth of a food product starts with the client, who may have a very specific idea in mind (“we want to develop vitamin-enhanced beverages for children”), or simply a general concept they want to bring to fruition (“we want to expand our current brand – how do we do it?”). Once the concept is refined, The NFL’s cross-functional Innovation Group pulls together the appropriate combination of internal and external experts and services to address the project at hand.
The Innovation Group’s approach revolves around the concept of “open innovation,” in that it augments the creative and scientific services of The NFL with an external network of creative and scientific partners to build the core team that will drive product innovation from concept to commercialization. The result is a “one-stop shop” where clients feel confident that their challenge will be the priority of the best minds in the business.
Most new product development processes involve a customized menu of services designed to address key success factors in launching a new item. The process typically includes market evaluation and research from The NFL’s strategic marketing experts, culinary flair from The NFL’s team of chefs, and product development by experienced food scientists and engineers. Along the way, the team seeks to gain feedback from consumers to ensure that the prototypes being developed fit with the original concept, meet their expectations and persuade them to ultimately purchase the product. The NFL is one of only a handful of food development companies with consumer testing facilities on site, where consumers visit daily to taste food and beverages and lend their opinions. This close connection to the end-user is critical to keeping the project on track to successful market introduction.
The Science Behind The Product
In addition to the services that focus on consumer acceptability, The NFL project team includes scientists with expertise in the chemistry and microbiology of the food system, who are most concerned with food safety, quality, shelf life, and regulatory compliance. “We are analyzing and looking for what should be in a food and what shouldn’t be there or what chemical components might compromise shelf-life,” said Julie Hill, The NFL’s vice president of chemistry. “We then make recommendations to the product design team on what ingredients and ingredient combinations need to be incorporated into the formula to ensure that the food is stable, safe and meets government guidelines.” The fusion of the scientific orientation and the creativity of the team cover all the critical factors, and increases the probability that the product developed isn’t just a great idea on paper, but an idea that really works for the manufacturer in the marketplace.
By pairing the best minds in the food business with the most successful food manufacturers in the country, The NFL looks forward to the next 30 years, and the opportunity to channel its knowledge and enthusiasm for food into exciting new products that delight clients and consumers alike.
Lucinda Wisniewski is Vice President, Innovation for The National Food Laboratory, Inc. Established in 1976, The NFL’s integrated menu of services includes strategy marketing, product innovation and commercialization, sensory evaluation, consumer research, food safety, quality assurance and analytical testing. From its initial roots as the food industry’s principle scientific testing and research organization, The NFL is now also widely recognized as a leader in trend tracking, ideation, product development and marketing.
Visit www.TheNFL.com or contact 925-551-4205