Knowledge — Before even starting a project it is important to do your research. Confirm there is a need for your product, determine what claims and ingredients your consumer is expecting, have an idea of how the product will be marketed, calculate the expected costs and revenue. The more knowledge around the product and the market it will be sold into, the more likely you will see a successful outcome.
As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kaitlin Sass. She is a Food Science graduate from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities who moved to Oregon in 2013 to join Kettle Foods in making crunchy and delicious kettle chips. In 2014, she joined the R&D team and expanded her work to include brands such as Emerald, Pop Secret, Cape Cod, Late July and more. After close to seven years with the company, she recently accepted a new role as the Sr. R&D Manager at Mary’s Gone Crackers where she continues to innovate new and exciting products.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
Ispent most of my childhood in Green Bay, WI eating cheese, watching the Packers, and making the most of those brisk winter months. I remember helping my mom in the kitchen just about every chance I got, she has always been a huge part of my interest in food and I’m thankful that some of her cooking knowledge rubbed off on me at a young age. Flash forward to college at the University of Minnesota, I realized I couldn’t be “undeclared” forever and it was at that time my dad recommended Food Science and I knew immediately it was a perfect fit for me. While attending school, I was fortunate to work at a trendy restaurant with a revolving menu full of innovative dishes using seasonal, local ingredients which fueled my passion for innovation and appreciation of new & quality foods. After graduating, I jumped at the opportunity to join a research and development position and have not looked back! R&D allows me to learn about new ingredients and trends in the marketplace, teaches me the science behind food, and encourages me to think outside of the box all while improving my cooking skills.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
Mary, the original founder of Mary’s Gone Crackers, was a trailblazer in the gluten free industry, which has paved the way for our brand that is organic, gluten free, vegan and uses “better for you” ingredients. My “ah ha” moment was a couple weeks back while sampling (devouring😊) one of our new innovation products and realizing that even with all of the health-conscious stipulations of MGC, the products we make are still delicious! This realization helped me realize the enormous potential for future innovation; new spins on classics, something new and unique to our brand, the sky is the limit and we have the opportunity to make it happen.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first made the move into R&D, we were all tasked with becoming an expert on a piece of equipment and I was assigned panning. Panning is a process where a center, typically nuts or dried fruit, is tumbled in a rotating drum and chocolate is slowly applied in layers until an ideal chocolate to center ratio is achieved. So, I start adding chocolate to the panner and my product looked horrible. My solution? Add more chocolate! Instead of the perfectly round coated pieces I was expecting, I had one massive clump. After a few more frustrating tries my boss finally walked in, saw the monstrosity I had created, and recommended to put down the chocolate and do a little more research to find a solution. Of course, his advice worked and I mastered the panner, I just needed to adjust the lab temperate! It was too cold and my chocolate was solidifying before it had a chance to coat the product. At the end of the day being in the lab creating new products is fun but without putting in the time upfront to learn about the ingredients and the process you may end up in a chocolate covered catastrophe.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?
In my experience the biggest mistake when starting a food line is trying to move too fast. Meeting launch dates are important but not if product quality is being compromised in the process. My recommendation — set realistic timelines that allow some wiggle room for the unexpected, but all too probable bumps in the road. Make sure to involve key players early on in the planning process, value their input, and keep up communication to help reduce unwanted surprises.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
I would recommend outlining the details of your product and ask yourself:
- Who is your target consumer?
- What ingredients are needed for your product?
- Do you want the product to make any claims i.e. gluten free, non-GMO, Organic, etc.?
- How do you make the product?
- What do you want the finished product to look like i.e. shape, color, size, etc.?
- Are there any food safety risks to address?
Once the details are ironed out, that’s when it makes sense to start talking to suppliers for ingredients and trying to find a co-man.
Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?
My advice would be to, first and foremost, get organized. Break the project into smaller, manageable deliverables with realistic timelines that you will be able to meet. Prepare a project outline with specific goals on what exactly needs to be achieved and start developing questions that will inevitably need to be answered. Secondly, do not be afraid to ask for help! Your friends, family, & work colleagues can be a tremendous source of information (and at the right price). If the answers aren’t there, you can always fall back on consultants & other industry professionals.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
I would highly recommend working with a consultant. Unless you happen to be a food/innovation industry veteran, there is a good chance you will be missing key bits of information required to bring your idea to market. Not to say that someone can’t put in the time, do the research and make the right contacts, but a consultant is an effective gateway to expedite that process allowing you to focus more on what matters, your idea and how exactly you want to present it to the world.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
While I love the idea of ‘going it alone’ and maintaining full control of a product’s destiny, there are certain fiscal realities we all need to operate within. I don’t think there is a right or wrong decision here, all depends on the situation at hand.
Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?
I personally have never filed a patent but can surely comment on sourcing. Step one in sourcing good raw ingredients is to define what “good” means to you. There are a lot of ingredients out there I may think are good but Mary’s Gone Crackers is vegan, gluten free, organic, and non-GMO so my definition of “good” is now more specific. Once the target is established, challenge your suppliers to meet and exceed that deliverable in terms of quality and consistency while also supplying all the right documentation to prove their product truly is the right choice.
What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Teamwork — even if you develop a game changing product that is guaranteed to fly off the shelves, you cannot get there without the help of your fellow team members.
- Passion — being passionate about what you are creating will help drive you and your team to push the limits — to really put yourself into your product and creating something amazing.
- Knowledge — Before even starting a project it is important to do your research. Confirm there is a need for your product, determine what claims and ingredients your consumer is expecting, have an idea of how the product will be marketed, calculate the expected costs and revenue. The more knowledge around the product and the market it will be sold into, the more likely you will see a successful outcome.
- Innovation — think outside the box! Do not settle for the industry standard and create a “me too” item. Work on new and adventurous ideas that will stand out on the shelves and will set you apart from your competitors.
- Communication — I have been in plenty of meeting where we realized everyone is not on the same page and panic and chaos ensues. Keeping cross functional communication is key to avoid mishaps along the way. I like to schedule re-occurring project meetings with the team where we discuss updates and next step.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
Start with a product that YOU really love and are crazy about! Show it to friends & family get their feedback, adjust, and repeat. Try not to focus on the first ‘hit’ but instead keep refining a great idea until it is perfect.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I am fortunate to work for a company that makes this question easy! Mary’s Gone Crackers sources all of our palm oil from Natural Habitats, actively participating in their sustainable palm initiative: Palm Done Right. We also partner with The California Ricelands Waterbird Foundation which supports migratory bird populations on the fields our rice is sourced from in the off-season. We are focused on sourcing local ingredients whenever possible — all of our rice is sourced from California. We also use 100% recycled paperboard cartons to package our products. As the Sr. R&D Manager, I will continue to seek out new and innovative ingredients that are tasty, but also support local farmers and the environment.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
An idea that caught my interest recently is vertical farming. In short, instead of farming on a single level like a field or green house, this method farms in vertically stacked layers which are commonly integrated into building structures where the goal is to produce more food per square meter of available space. I think the idea is innovative and has a lot of potential to provide locally sourced food to communities. I’m still learning more about the concept, but I definitely think it’s something to look out for in the near future.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I’m torn — there are so many brilliant and inspirational people in the world, but, if I have to choose just one, I’ll fall back on my Green Bay roots and pick Aaron Rodgers.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.