The palates of American consumers have become more sophisticated, if not outright adventurous, resulting in an explosion of Hispanic cuisines on the culinary landscape. This focus is not merely on Mexican food, which has become mainstream itself, but on Latin and South American cuisines, as well as the multiple influences found in the Caribbean.

According to the National Restaurant Association (Washington), some 89% of U.S. consumers report ordering foods with unique and distinct flavors, for which ethnic cuisines are well qualified. Furthermore, food manufacturers are realizing that 39 million U.S. consumers are foreign born, and consumer awareness of ethnic foods has increased by 57% in the past 10 years, according to Yankelovich Monitor (Chapel Hill, N.C.).

This year's Spirit of Innovation Award--Foodservice winner, McCain Foods USA (Lisle, Ill.), has focused at least part of its attention to Caribbean cuisine to feed Americans' desire for new, on-trend ethnic dishes. As McCain has discovered, Caribbean cuisine combines bold with sweet and spicy flavor, fresh meats, seafood, fruits and vegetables.

Courting Flavor

As a byproduct of this realization and a result of invaluable development efforts, McCain introduced Latin Latitudes, a Latin-influenced line of appetizers presented in forms at least suggestive of Asian foods. Cuban-style pork is found in spring rolls, as is Caribbean-style Adobo beef. The former combines roasted pork and tender ham with a mild white cheese and brown mustard, in an effort to emulate the classic flavor of a Cuban sandwich. The latter, meanwhile, combines shredded beef, roasted corn and mild white cheese with poblano, jalapeño and sweet red bell peppers in a spicy adobo sauce for a bold-flavored spring roll experience.

Rounding out the new line is Jamaican-style Jerk Chicken Dumplings, featuring tender pieces of jerk-rubbed chicken, sautéed onions and mild banana peppers in a crispy pot sticker wrapper. The Caribbean influence is obvious, but there is that hint of something different, yet familiar to draw consumer attention. McCain envisions the products as appetizers, though they also could be the main course in small-plate dining or part of larger combination platters. The small-plate dining trend may have been of particular interest for McCain, considering more than 75% of operators believe spring rolls and dumplings are well-suited for small plates, according to an NPD Group (Port Washington, N.Y.) Custom Operator Study.

Why did McCain turn to the Caribbean for the new launch? “Today's diners have been influenced by international travel and ethnic diversity in America,” said Steve Martin, vice president of food service marketing in the McCain Snack Foods Division. “Latin Latitudes is the perfect solution to meet patrons' needs for trendy, innovative and exotic flavors. Our comprehensive research with patrons, customers and culinary experts has enabled us to deliver easy-to-prepare Caribbean products with exciting, delicious, ethnic flavors.”

Credit for recognizing, formulating and delivering on that promise with McCain Latin Latitudes rests with a highly effective cross-functional development team, notes Santhi Ramesh, director of new products at McCain USA. However, Ramesh is quick to recognize the true decision makers that had to be pleased with the new line: “Two critical stakeholder groups--foodservice operators and consumers--gave the project the green light every step of the way.”

In the Trend

McCain's foodservice division began development of the nuevo Latino cuisine in June of 2004, which meant a time-to-market development period of a little less than a year, considering May 2005 was the launch date of the Latin Latitudes line. From the onset, the end consumers were in mind. “Extensive market research made it clear that critical product characteristics and market demands must be met in order to create a successful brand. Consumers are looking for familiar foods with a 'twist.' Operators want to offer in-demand menu items that keep them ahead of their competition.”

That led McCain's team to conduct ideation sessions with chefs, surveys of operators and consumer focus groups. After these, the developers realized the value inherent in Latin cuisine. “Latin cuisine rose to the top of the list--with high points for innovation and flavor, as well as high purchase intent among all parties,” Ramesh recalls.

The development team then went to work. In the end, the group had an array of 60 Latin-inspired products, and these were tested and culled time and again by operator and consumer testing at many points along the path of development. Complicating matters, McCain's developers had a new development process, one that the company had never used previously.

“A variety of challenges were overcome to ensure the success of the new brand launch,” Ramesh explains. “Among them was the hurdle of utilizing the stage-gate product development process within the organization for the first time, which required managing the learning curve in conjunction with the pace of development.” Not helping matters was the location of one of the manufacturing plants used during development. Located outside of the U.S., that plant presented regulatory compliance issues, not to mention challenges related to ingredient sourcing.

The commercialization of products with a high meat content and complex sauces was new to the company, Ramesh remembers. As a result, some production processes were new to the company and required new competencies; some were difficult to replicate consistently in production. McCain addressed this by involving suppliers in the development process early, to help ensure sourcing of exotic ingredients such as adobo sauce.

Such contingency planning would prove critical to the line's launch, especially considering a decision that had to be made late in the process. One of the final varieties had to be abandoned due to filling quality issues, Ramesh notes. Luckily, due to parallel path development, the developers had Caribbean-style Adobo Beef Spring Rolls ready and waiting; a change-out to the line was made in only 10 days.

In the end, the product portfolio was finalized for its ability to meet market imperatives, Ramesh explains. The varieties were balanced in a strategic manner, to provide a wide range of choices--three proteins, two forms and distinct flavor profiles, including savory, spicy-sweet and spicy. McCain developers were allowed to flex their culinary muscles, so to speak, to deliver true culinary innovation to the consumer and, in the process, presented foodservice operators with items that suggest back-of-house creation: Latin Latitudes' spring rolls, for example, give the appearance of being hand-rolled.

Furthermore, McCain made efforts to preserve piece integrity in the fillings in order to display the appealing ingredients. Complex spices and sauces combine to create innovative flavors that are difficult to replicate back in the kitchen. The developers also considered the means of preparation and ultimate appearance: “Two recon methods--fry or bake--add flexibility,” Ramesh notes, “and portion size and product form lend themselves to multiple menu applications, including the emerging small-plates trend.”

The essence of the Spirit of Innovation Awards is the recognition of teamwork integral to a product's creation. In developing Latin Latitudes, McCain USA implemented a team that crossed all of McCain's inter-company disciplines--from marketing, R&D, sourcing, finance and sales, as well as support from the company's executive chef--to ensure the project was “managed for success,” explains Ramesh, “providing high visibility for Latin Latitudes throughout McCain, as well as eliciting input from every function.”

Sidebar 1: All About the Team

The development team behind McCain Foods' Latin Latitudes:

  • Santhi Ramesh Marketing
  • Joe Beitzel Marketing
  • Don Flynn Quality
  • Mark Brammer Procurement
  • Don Vande Yacht Purchasing
  • Mark Roberts Supply chain
  • Sue Schommer R&D
  • Mike Truby R&D
  • Jerry Kube R&D
  • Dave Poska Finance
  • John Taylor Sales
  • John DaLoi McCain's executive chef

Sidebar 2: The 2005 Spirit of Innovation Awards

Prepared Foods, in concert with Ventura Foods, has established the Spirit of Innovation Awards to identify exceptional product development teams for their work on exciting new products in the food and beverage industry, items both for sale in a retail (grocery) store and those available and designed for foodservice penetration. The award-winning products embody the notion that innovation is one part pioneering ideas and one part inspirational teamwork.

Next March, Prepared Foods staff will begin accepting nominations for the 2006 Spirit of Innovation Awards. These nominations, which are to include detailed explanations of the development processes and challenges overcome, may be submitted by a company or by a vendor on its behalf. Entry forms and further details may be found on the Spirit of Innovation section of Prepared Foods' (click “Spirit of Innovation” on the left menu) or contact William Roberts, 630-694-4348 or e-mail

Sidebar 3: 2005 SOI Awards: Foodservice 2nd Place

For a new company to make its mark in the marketplace requires a number of factors--innovative ideas, creative personnel (preferably with experience in such a competitive environment) and, considering these new companies often are smaller, a strong amount of teamwork.

FGF Brands (Concord, Ont.) had its innovative idea: a tasty, miniature fudge brownie fused to a premium-quality, miniature chocolate chip cookie. It also had self-appointed limitations: no trans fats, no hydrogenated oils and certified kosher.

The impetus for the product came from an awareness of the trend toward bite-sized snacks--well, that and the awareness of the never-ending demand for chocolate-based snacks. To meet this goal, FGF Brands launched what it terms is a new foodservice category--tiered (filled) miniature brownies. The creative efforts certainly were worthwhile, as proven by the products' acceptance into Starbucks' (Seattle) locations, where the coffee-flavored, fudgy brownies sell by the name of Espresso Shots.

FGF developers fused miniature fudge brownies to a miniature chocolate chip cookie, both of which are made with premium-quality, Belgian-style chocolate. Then, for the Espresso Shots version, the brownie is deeply flavored with Starbucks' proprietary espresso roast coffee. Non-espresso versions are available at other foodservice operations, made with different ingredients and are branded as Thingamabobs Fudgy Brownie Bits.

“In the first four months of the bakery's existence,” recalls Jim White, company founder, “FGF Brands' six-person team of creative spirits developed a fudge brownie that relies on rich Belgian-style chocolate for flavor; we invented a technique--and then invented and built machinery--to fuse the tiny brownie to a miniature chocolate chip cookie that also contains rich real chocolate, not compound chocolate...The same team invented a way--and machinery--to fuse our miniature fudge brownie to a crunchy peanut butter cookie.”

Sidebar 4: 2005 SOI Awards: Foodservice 3rd Place

The past couple of years have seen parents take an increased interest in the foodservice offerings available to their children at school. With health concerns and obesity issues being the primary focus, soft drinks have borne the brunt of parental wrath, but foods have been under siege as well. Realizing the increased attention to cafeteria healthfulness, not to mention the government's increased attention to whole grains in this year's revised Dietary Guidelines, ConAgra Foods (Omaha, Neb.) made a strong demand of its developers--develop the first whole-grain pizza targeted for school lunches. The result would be The Max Whole Grain Pizza, delivering a full serving of whole grains and a proven taste equivalency measured by child taste testing--in addition to a percent consumption analysis in a school feeding study conducted by a major university. Effectively, it would double children's consumption of whole grains in a product they already love.

Creating the product at ConAgra would be a unique multifunctional team of grain technologists, nutrition scientists, school lunch product development and marketing, sensory scientists and ingredient engineers. These individuals would combine “to change the company's current operating paradigm, to allow a new whole-grain pizza dough to meet and exceed current constraints on processing, sensory, stability, logistics and value,” explains Susan Waltman, senior director of nutrition science and strategy with ConAgra. Rapid foodservice development timelines would serve to complicate matters further, but these were much needed to have new capital approved and a successful launch this year, she notes.

Pizza may be the more famous of The Max line, but ConAgra Foodservice also took a whole-grain approach to Hispanic foods available in school cafeterias with El eXtremo, a line of whole-grain burritos and chimichangas, both of which also are made with the Ultragrain whole-wheat flour.