Education: B.S., Food Science, Kansas State;
Associations: Nohner is a member of the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT)
Where you’ll find him: IFT Annual Meeting & Food Expo, International Dairy Foods Association events
Rich Nohner (second from left) and Kemp’s R&D team
Prepared Foods’ Food for Thought is a feature interview series involving food company R&D professionals, nutritionists, research chefs and other industry executives.
In this fourth edition, Food for Thought talks with Rich Nohner, director of research and development for Kemps. Now part of the Dairy Farmers of America, Kemps, St. Paul, Minn., produces and markets fresh milk, premium ice cream and frozen yogurt, frozen novelties, sour cream and cottage cheese through retail supermarkets and foodservice channels.
Kemps operates six manufacturing facilities in Minneapolis, Rochester, Farmington and Duluth, Minn., and Cedarburg, Wis., and employs about 1,200 people. Kemps says it has a reputation for innovative new products first-to-market product launches such as Kemps IttiBitz and Kemps Frozen Yogurt Parfaits.
Prepared Foods interviewed Nohner earlier this spring, while he was home recuperating from knee surgery.
PF: We’re sorry to hear you’re laid up – but let’s work with that for a moment. Many people turn to ice cream for comfort. What are a few of your favorite comfort foods?
Nohner: I’m working on eating healthier but I’m a real sucker for desserts. Set some bread pudding or rhubarb pie within range and I will find it.
PF: Where did you grow up? What ice cream and dairy brands were most familiar?
Nohner: I grew up in Watkins, a small town of about 600 people in central Minnesota. I worked summers at the local creamery filling 100-lb bags of dry powder and helping in the cheese-making department. At home, we always had ice cream and novelty items in our freezer. Milk and cheese were staples. At that time, I could eat as much as I wanted without gaining weight.
PF: Ever imagine you’d be leading a major dairy company’s R&D department?
Nohner: Not ever! I had always planned on being a coach or physical education teacher. I’m not sure how but the power of dairy pulled me away in a new direction.
PF: Let’s talk about the power of dairy. What does Greek yogurt’s popularity tell us about consumers?
Nohner: Greek yogurt’s popularity shows us that the right nutritional benefit—coupled with great taste—can revolutionize a category. Consumers love Greek yogurt for the benefits associated with higher protein. They also love the product’s great smooth and creamy texture.
PF: Is protein a nutritional superhero?
Nohner: Yes, consumers can’t seem to get enough of it. The satiety benefit provided by protein is such a key part of weight management programs.
PF: How does Kemps address consumer health and wellness concerns?
Nohner: We have a concerted effort to grow the better-for-you segment within our frozen desserts portfolio. We already have a strong frozen yogurt portfolio and we always are looking for ways to enhance its consumer appeal with formulation enhancements as well as new flavors and forms.
PF: Let’s shift and talk about ice creams. What do consumers want when it comes to indulgence?
Nohner: For our brand, it is all about fun and unique flavors. We have had great success developing premium ice cream flavors with a “local” twist. This year, as an example, we offered a variety called “Pearson’s Nut Goodie.” Its flavor system matches the taste profile of a very popular candy bar made here in Minnesota.
PF: How about other fun flavors you’ve created for this summer?
Nohner: We just launched a flavor called Grand Slam Monster Cookie with the endorsement of Major League Baseball and Minnesota Twins fan favorite, Joe Mauer. It is a fabulous tasting flavor and is selling very well.
PF: I love Kemps playful marketing efforts and tagline: “Kemps. It’s the Cows.” What does that say about your company’s personality?
Nohner: Consumers view our brand as “warm and charming.” It is a brand that has been cherished by generations—known for its freshness and high quality. Consumers have grown to expect and love the constant innovation at Kemps.
PF: Can you translate that personality and reputation to new product development?
Nohner: Yes, absolutely. We just launched Kemps SnoBlitz, the first single-serve soft serve mix-in product sold in supermarkets. It brings all of the fun of going out-- toan in-home eating experience. We’ve also got great, indulgent flavors like Brownie Batter, Peanut Butter Cup, and Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough.
PF: Last year, what were a few challenges for your group?
Nohner: The slow economy and unprecedented high commodity costs. Together, it meant that many innovative projects were diverted to cost reduction and savings.
PF: Let’s look at another factor influencing R&D. Dairy Farmers of America acquired Kemps last year. How has that helped?
Nohner: DFA has helped us with capital needed to manufacture some of our newest products. For example, Kemp’s SnoBlitz required new manufacturing equipment and DFA supported us with that investment. We see more of that in the future. It’s been a great partnership.
We’re also working more closely with their R&D department. We’re also seeing some good synergies and possible new products from that relationship.
PF: What was a new product highlight from 2011?
Nohner: I’d say our SnoBlitz, a ready-to-eat Blizzard* type product. Again, it required capital investment. DFA saw the potential and was willing to invest in it.
PF: We had one Kemp’s food technologist approach us to nominate you for “Boss of the Year.” How do you approach leadership?
Nohner: I guess I consider myself a guiding (fatherly type) leader. I really consider our small group as my work family. I try to maintain a good balance between work and Kemp’s being a “fun” place to work.
I use a “hands-off” approach and let our team members work on their own as much as they can. I act as a resource when help is needed. I encourage innovative thinking and cooperation across the different functional areas. I promote continuing education and other ways a person can grow and develop.
PF: How do you continue growing as a leader? Who inspires you?
Nohner: By keeping up on new technology and attending. educational conferences and seminars. My superior, Rachel Kyllo, is great! She is a great resource of inspiration and encouragement to me. Meanwhile, my younger team members continually inspire me with their new ideas, thoughts and enthusiasm.
*Blizzard is a registered trademark of American Dairy Queen Corporation, Minneapolis