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Polly Barrett of National Flavors: 5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food

Ingredient supply chain. Allow for more time than you think you will need to find suppliers, order materials, receive materials, and approve them. Ordering industrial quantities of things is not as easy as a grocery store trip to pick up a gallon of milk. Also, line up packaging (your co-manufacturer should be able to identify […]

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Ingredient supply chain. Allow for more time than you think you will need to find suppliers, order materials, receive materials, and approve them. Ordering industrial quantities of things is not as easy as a grocery store trip to pick up a gallon of milk. Also, line up packaging (your co-manufacturer should be able to identify suppliers for the packaging.)

The packaging is often a forgotten area. You will need to get the graphics designed, a nutritional label included, and films printed to make your product “pop” on the grocery store shelf.

Asa part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Polly Barrett. She has worked in the flavor ingredient industry for approximately 25 years in various technical and commercial roles. She is currently the Director of Sales and Marketing at National Flavors.

Before National Flavors, she worked in the research labs at Kalsec. She has extensive experience in developing, testing, and launching new flavor products. Polly has a Ph.D. from Western Michigan University, where she explored statistical modeling to analyze sensory and analytical testing data for browning in foods.

She has a master’s degree in Food Science from Kansas State University, and a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from Kalamazoo College. Polly also completed the Sensory and Consumer Studies certificate from the University of California- Davis.

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”?

Mychildhood background is a fun story and very relevant to your topic. I grew up in Battle Creek, Michigan, also known as the Cereal City capital of the world, with Kellogg’s headquarters, Post, and ConAgra (formerly Ralston) all in town. I lived in the “Post Addition” neighborhood and attended Post elementary school. By the time I reached high school, many of the chemistry labs utilized food science equipment, so I could measure and validate key aspects of the nutritional labels by my senior year!

I also had the gift of a generous scholarship with ties to Archway cookies, so the stars aligned to bring me into the rewarding field of food development.

Can you share with us the story of the “ah-ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?

I do not create food brands. I support the creation of food brands with key flavor ingredients. It is fun to see customers’ ideas come to full commercialization, and I love hearing the creative approach to the new foods. In the past year, I have worked on multiple product concepts- everything from water bottles with a flavor on/off valve, avocado ice cream, and teft flour products.

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?

Concentrated food ingredients designed to work in industrial settings are not like the ingredients you cook with at home! Don’t try this at home, kids!! I took a sample of “savory chicken spice” home years ago and drizzled a bit on my stir fry. Well, that stir fry ended up in the garbage, as rather than a drizzle, one drop of flavor would have probably done a better job. Take home message; industrial strength food ingredients are not intended for restaurants or home cooks to use.

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?

People often forget about food safety, shelf-life, and nutritional labeling.

  • Shelf-life: It is fantastic that you have an exciting idea, but how will it taste and smell after 12 months in the grocery store? Grocery store lighting is harsh, temperature changes matter, and the air is the enemy of food in many cases. Think about this challenge when developing products.

Food Safety: Also, please, please, engage a food safety consultant with knowledge of keeping food safe to eat. No one wants to be the brand with recalls or, worse, deaths due to microbial issues.

  • I once had a mentor that told me that dead customers are bad for business.
  • Nutritional labeling: Don’t forget about fat grams, allergen statements, and label claims. The FDA has many precise requirements for on-pack information, including requirements for images on the package’s front, font size, and the nutritional label.

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?

First, get to know the competition. Is there anyone else with a similar product on the grocery store shelf? If so, what ingredients do they use?

Secondly, line up your team. You will need a facility and equipment to produce the product (the Private Label Manufacturers Association (PLMA) is an excellent resource for finding people who will “co-manufacture”). Locate ingredient suppliers. Not everyone is ready to sell 300 lb. of chia seeds, so pay close attention to the more unique ingredients. Also, create the packaging. The packaging is often a forgotten area of product development. You will need to get the graphics designed, the nutritional label included, and films printed to make your product “pops” on the grocery store shelf.

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?

Run your numbers! Who will buy it, how, and how much will it cost to produce and get into the distribution channels? If the numbers look good, you will find energy and passion for bringing that theoretical idea to fruition. If the numbers don’t look right, you’ll find out your financials are weak before you start down the path to commercialization. There is nothing worse than spending money on start-up costs and never getting a product to market. It is kind of like having a bunch of student loans but never finishing your degree. People will still want to get paid.

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 am a massive fan of consultants, especially ones that know their stuff. Look for someone with an established background in food product development, nutritional labeling help, go to market plans, etc. There are also talented consulting firms that do nearly all go-to-market processes, from initial concepts, prototyping, and pilot runs to final production in final packaging. The right partner (or series of partners) can make an uphill battle to get to market as smooth as chocolate pudding.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

I do not have much VC experience for funding start-ups, but I know a few of our customers leverage this avenue. If you can find a VC firm with food experience, that will probably help you better understand delays in launch schedules and hidden costs. VC firms may also have a network of resources they can pull in to support you. Bootstrapping can restrict your cash flow, limiting your ability to grow if your idea takes off.

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 can speak more to sourcing which is always a fun challenge. Most food ingredient suppliers are members of the Institute of Food Technology (IFT), so they are a great resource. Don’t forget to ask about things like minimum order quantities (MOQ) and lead times. It is often a shock to start-ups to hear that you need to order a full pallet of an ingredient, and that delivery may take four weeks. There are ways to meet ingredient supply challenges such as ordering via a distributor or work with a company that has smaller MOQ and faster lead times.

Here is the g main question of our discussion. 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.)

A great concept that fills a gap

A great idea is only as great as the gap it fills and the customers interested in it. It is essential to cross-check your concept with other, more fully developed ideas. Sources like Mintel are great databases to search for new products launched in the grocery store (or foodservice and restaurant channels). It is also crucial that you have a broad enough target consumer who wants your product.

If your product is only attractive to long-distance runners or extreme athletes who are low carb and dairy-free, your target market may be too narrow to be profitable.

Ingredient supply chain

Allow for more time than you think you will need to find suppliers, order materials, receive materials, and approve them. Ordering industrial quantities of things is not as easy as a grocery store trip to pick up a gallon of milk. Also, line up packaging (your co-manufacturer should be able to identify suppliers for the packaging.)

The packaging is often a forgotten area. You will need to get the graphics designed, a nutritional label included, and films printed to make your product “pop” on the grocery store shelf.

A co-manufacturer or site to produce

You will need a facility and equipment to produce the product (the Private Label Manufacturers Association (PLMA) is a great resource to find people that will “co-manufacture.”)

Many co-manufacturers also produce brand name products, and most will have specialties like baking, frozen dessert, beverages, etc.

Food Safety and Nutritional Labeling help

People frequently forget about food safety, shelf-life, and nutritional labeling.

  • Shelf-life: It is fantastic that you have an exciting idea, but how will it taste and smell at 12 months in the grocery store?

Food Safety: Also, please, please, engage a food safety consultant with knowledge of keeping food safe to eat. No one wants to be the brand with recalls or, worse, deaths due to microbial issues.

  • I once had a mentor that told me that dead customers are bad for business.
  • Nutritional labeling: Don’t forget about fat grams, allergen statements, and label claims. The FDA has many precise requirements about the package, including images on the front, font size, and nutritional label.

Distribution channels

Distribution channels should be thoroughly thought through, particularly when it comes to refrigerated/frozen products. Where are you making and storing the product? How will the product get from point A to point B without melting? The booming online channels for food are attractive but haven’t entirely solved for refrigerated and frozen foods. We may be back to the old milk boxes for the milkman to deliver fresh dairy at home soon!

Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?

I am a fan of consumer research even if it is informal. Have a backyard barbecue and encourage people vote for their favorite flavor.

Even a small audience of 10 people will provide direction and meaningful results.

I also love watching people interact with food to gain ideas qualitatively. People don’t always follow the package’s directions, so give a few samples to your favorite home cooks and see what they do with it. You may get new ideas.

Suppose you are well funded and want to take the time and money to do more formalized quantitative research. In that case, there are sensory science firms that will do multi-city, target demographic studies with large numbers of consumers. For example, they may do a 1,000-person consumer study targeting people who eat ice cream at least 5 times per week in multiple cities, like Los Angeles, rural Montana, and Chicago. Those require large samples of your product, time, patience, and money to conduct, but yield great insights.

Okay. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I regularly feed people, including friends, co-workers, and family, and help people in need via food banks and homeless shelters. Food is a basic human need and acts as a conduit for sharing laughs, family heritage, and cultural experiences and helping our body function to its highest potential. I love teaching people about food, food processing, and how to eat healthy without sacrificing flavor.

I once was part of a young mom’s cooking class where we taught them how to use basic ingredients for cooking. It was fun to teach them how to cut up a whole chicken, use simple ingredients like flour, onion, and eggs, and keep the kiddos engaged with healthy foods.

I also enjoy seeing more young moms making their baby food (smart new product launch by the blender companies! I just bought one of these for a friend.)

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.

I love people who are trying to align food waste with food needs. There is so much food waste in all aspects of the supply chain and so much need.

Many organizations are starting to do this, but we need to find a cheaper way. One of our local thrift stores always has free bread and rolls from a local bakery. With no questions asked, people can take a loaf of day-old bread. Imperfect food is not bad, but companies should stop trying to profit from this at a high price point and try to get it in the hands of people with need before it spoils. Of course, there are food safety concerns, so it would be good to get a few more food scientists or microbiology labs on board. I know some grocery stores are hesitant to donate food because they don’t want the liability if there is a food safety issue. There is the Emerson Good Samaritan Act, which protects any donor of food from criminal or civil liability due to the age, packaging, or condition of the donated food. All 50 states now have some version of this liability protection- so no need to worry. Just feed the people!

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 am a fan of the Chicago Cubs. Take me out to the ballgame, baby! I named my dog Andre “Dawg”-son after the outfielder Andre Dawson when I was a kid. I am impressed with the agility, passion, and commitment to help people from the Chicago Cubs owners Tom and Laura Ricketts. Their Lakeview Pantry food program, which runs out of Wrigley Stadium, transforms the concourse into a food bank six days a week. The program is a remarkable example of taking lemons and making lemonade for the local community to enjoy. Kudos to Tom and Laura Rickett! Keep doing what you are doing and donate some “peanuts and crackerjack!”.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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