With dreams of the BBQ season in the middle of another cold winter, retailers and foodservice operators are gearing up to entice Canadians with new menu offerings as they fire up the backyard grill and celebrate summer on the restaurant patio. As seasons change and the next generation of food products are introduced, Canadian ingredient suppliers are hard at work behind the scenes, creating the perfect mix of flavours and working with processors through the development process to commercialization. This next culinary season is, like every other before it, uniquely challenging. Driven by the ever-changing needs and tastes of the Canadian consumer, food ingredient suppliers must constantly evolve their approach to stay ahead of the curve.
"Griffith has been developing and manufacturing food ingredient systems since 1929 in Canada, but unlike the past, we can no longer rely on using a standard library of existing products," says Dave Bender, Vice President R&D at Griffith Foods. "We have built our business based on our ability to deliver signature formulations for each customer, incorporating innovation in flavour, texture and functionality. That requires a focus on deeper consumer insights, long-term research, and a unique approach for every opportunity."
Ingredient system suppliers like Griffith have become an extension of their foodservice, retail and processor customers’ marketing, development, culinary and regulatory teams. In an extensively collaborative process, they provide market insights and develop customized culinary concepts, then draw from the expertise of internal cross-functional teams to put together combinations of label-friendly ingredients that deliver on flavour, functionality, nutrition requirements, all at an acceptable price point. Meeting the mark can be a huge challenge, and gets more difficult as Canadian consumers continue to hunger for more.
Development of successful menu or retail concepts depends on delivery of the right balance of flavour excitement and mainstream appeal. Canadian food companies face a big challenge in deciphering when a flavour trend has real longevity or when the interest will be short-lived. The key to this is selecting flavours in the right stage of penetration in the market, and the correct stage also varies based on the positioning and target consumer of the brand, retail or foodservice.
"At Griffith Foods, we believe that every brand has the opportunity to participate in key trend platforms that are in the peak of popularity," says Bender. "The trick is selecting the right flavours within those broad trend platforms, e.g. selection of a chicken wing sauce featuring sriracha versus a buffalo sauce, both within the broad platform of hot and spicy flavours. The right choice in this case would depend on the customer/guest profile of the particular foodservice operator or retail processor we are working with."
This approach speaks to the much-needed focus on customized development, and to the end of a go-to list of library products that the chef and scientist can select from. Increasingly, food ingredient suppliers are launching new programs that demonstrate capabilities and innovation, more of a "toolbox" approach, and not a portfolio of final sauce and seasoning product codes. These programs serve as a foot-in-the-door, but then the teams proceed with collaborative development of signature formulations.
Once the question of flavour is addressed using insights and careful consideration, concept development can begin. A next challenge for the ingredient team to address can be delivering on consumer requirements that can be contradictory by design, such as low sodium with bold flavour, or optimum performance at a lower cost. Interest in products with health and wellness cues continues to grow, however Canadian food ingredient manufacturers are faced with changing definitions of "healthy" in an evolving regulatory environment, and at the same time, must ensure stability and safety of food products. Consumers are better informed, demanding more, but compromising less. Canadian Millennials are seeking out intriguing global flavours and high-quality food offerings, but also crave value.
"Our developers are constantly working with evolving targets as they execute projects for our customers," says Bender. "A few years ago, sodium was the enemy. Now, consumers are becoming increasingly concerned, and aware of, sugar. It’s important that our teams stay ahead of the market demands. "
Project execution to balance these equally important criteria for success now requires a multi-functional team approach. Ingredient system project teams now include chefs, sensory scientists, and regulatory specialists working in collaboration with the product developer. The team brings the concept from gold standard to commercialization.
To hit the targets, ingredient system suppliers must rely on creative solutions and innovation. Companies like Griffith Foods have established teams focused on longer-term research in order to stay ahead of the curve. Often this means partnerships to leverage external resources around the world, such as academia, industry associations and suppliers.
The foodservice industry is seeing increasing specialization of menus in recognition of regional differences, which is a tall order when considering the immense landmass for distribution. With regional foodservice menus on the rise and limited time offers increasingly leveraged as a way to drive excitement and increased traffic, suppliers are searching for ways to efficiently deliver to diverse requirements.
The answer may lie in creative solutions and a focus on operational flexibility. Ingredient suppliers must remain nimble and employ capabilities to effectively manufacture in smaller batch sizes to allow for customization and efficiencies for limited time offers. Development teams are taking a new approach by formulating base ingredient systems with complementary building blocks or "flavour keys" to allow for manufacturing efficiencies and easy customization at the processor or restaurant level.
As food companies face more competitive pressure in the coming years and strive to remain relevant to the Canadian consumer, ingredient suppliers will be challenged with even further complexity. Consumers will continue to become better informed and opinionated on the desired attributes of their food choices. Definitions of better-for-you and better-for-the-planet will continue to evolve, and there will be more focus at every level of the food chain on sustainability, bringing a heightened degree of complexity to the sourcing of ingredients and catalyzing much needed reform throughout the industry in Canada. The key to success will be establishing the right teams and processes to better understand the changing market and find creative solutions without compromise to taste, performance, and nutrition.