Ah, what to get the company that has everything? How about a Culinary Innovation Center? 
Actually, that’s exactly what happened at OSI Group LLC, one of the world’s largest food processor-suppliers to foodservice, private label and contract manufacturing customers. Founded in 1955, this private, $5.9 billion company produces nearly everything -- and operates more than 50 facilities around the globe. From its Aurora, Ill., headquarters, OSI serves the world’s largest fast-food chain operators in North America, Europe, Asia, India and Australia.
OSI offerings include beef products (burgers, meatballs, pot roast, etc.); poultry products (chicken nuggets, other battered/breaded items, seasoned pulled chicken, etc.); pork items (bacon, sausage, hot dogs, seasoned pulled pork, etc.); dry sausage items (pepperoni, salami); and prepared sides and sauces, including salsa. In China, the company has three vertically integrated poultry operations that control everything -- from feed mills and hatcheries to broiler farms, harvest facilities and further-processing plants. Elsewhere in Asia and India, OSI also owns complete, farm-to-factory operations that process both fresh and frozen vegetables. 
Translating those many product capabilities into actual custom new product ideas are Christopher Hansen, OSI’s corporate executive chef, and Dr. B.K. Girdhar, vice president of product development. And now, those experts have an entirely new resource.
“We had been thinking about a Culinary Innovation Center (CIC) since 2000,” notes Girdhar, a 36-year industry veteran. “In the last 10 years, our customer base has become more diverse, and these foodservice customers are increasingly sophisticated. We needed that space to be able to properly showcase our abilities and respond to customer needs.”
Girdhar says OSI started drawing up CIC plans in 2007, the same year it hired Hansen (a former chef for Chicago Spice Company and, later Givaudan) as OSI’s new corporate executive chef.  One of Hansen’s first duties was to join Girdhar in designing and equipping the CIC, which fills nearly 3,000 sq ft on the first floor at OSI’s headquarters. OSI completed construction and remodeling in 2010 and opened the CIC in January 2011.
Because Inquiring Minds Want to Know…
PF: What’s one of OSI’s new foodservice products that’s become a personal favorite?  
B.K. Girdhar: I am a huge fan of our sous vide items, whether beef, pork or chicken. Using this process, we make products that are so moist and flavorful, as the cook-in-bag technology locks in all the taste and eliminates product loss and dehydration. The end-product is so delicious and versatile. It can be used in many applications: as a center-of-the-plate product; in a sandwich or wrap; or on top of flatbreads as an appetizer. 
Chef Christopher:  We are working on a whole-muscle steak right now that is tender, juicy, flavorful and really delivers on a true steak experience. That’s my latest favorite! Customers are looking for convenient products that really deliver on flavor, and this one definitely does.
The new space features a working test kitchen fitted with everyday foodservice equipment -- various ovens, grills and even water baths—to mimic real back-of-the-house operations. There also is a sensory lab, presentation room, conference room and staff office space.
“Culinary plays a significant role in product development. All foodservice chain operations have chefs on staff now, and we didn’t want to just offer our ‘chef perspective’ as a me-too,” says Hansen. “We saw this as an ideal workspace for each team of chefs -- from the customer as well as OSI -- to collaborate. It is essential to have the opportunity to innovate and test those innovations in the appropriate setting.” 
“We felt it was important to help showcase our capabilities, as well as our professionalism,” adds Girdhar. “OSI has always believed in partnership with our customers, and we wanted a comfortable place for them to work with us. This CIC facility provides just that: a great area to cook, an ideal setup to serve, and a conference room when it’s time to set the food aside and discuss our business goals. It is a win-win from all sides.”
For that matter, Girdhar now can share a real success story -- a win-win scenario -- from the new facility. 
“We recently developed a completely new product concept for a customer. The CIC allowed us to test it according to the restaurant’s requirements -- using the operator’s procedures and the exact equipment they would use.” 
“We learned that we needed to modify our product slightly, to meet those conditions and make it successful for the operation,” Girdhar continues. “Without the CIC and the appropriate equipment, it would likely have taken much more time and effort to perfect the item. It also would have been more expensive to produce the product, and then ship it (possibly multiple times) to a restaurant operation for testing. By having all of the appropriate equipment in the CIC, we were able to replicate the back-of-the-house experience and get the product development done in a quick and cost-efficient manner.”
“Our customers truly enjoy [the CIC],” adds Hansen. “Since there are three rooms -- the kitchen, presentation room and conference room -- it is a very functional space to host them. It also gives us direct access to OSI’s corporate officers if needed, because they are located in the offices upstairs. And, if there are regulatory, commodity procurement or logistics questions, we can get the answers right away.”
For his part, Hansen notes that the CIC also has sous vide equipment, which previously only was available in a plant, on a full production line.
“It can be a challenge to halt a production schedule just to make a small [sous vide] test batch,” says Hansen. “With the CIC, we do not have to deal with that. The same goes for sausage-making. The CIC has grinders, mixers and stuffing equipment, so we can produce these items on a bench-top level and replicate the production line to a certain extent.”
It’s here that Hansen and Girdhar point to even more news in OSI’s near future. This fall, the company expects to renovate and open an 8,800-sq-ft space as a new R&D center, off-site from its Aurora headquarters. Once completed, the new R&D center site will house a staff of food scientists and chefs. 
“In this new space, we will be able to incorporate each and every process capability we have in our plants,” says Girdhar. “Over time, we also will select and test cutting-edge equipment that we may not yet have in place throughout the operation -- but that could be considered for the future.”
Girdhar continues, “Here’s the beauty of this scenario: We can create, test and present new product concepts in the CIC, then proceed with production online in the R&D center, because it will be fully equipped as a pilot plant.” 
Back at OSI’s headquarters, Hansen and Girdhar say the new CIC is the perfect place to host OSI’s larger global R&D meetings. A six-to-eight-person team -- including professionals from North America, Europe, India, China and Australia -- meets at least once every year in Illinois to share insights and discuss new products and processes. Girdhar says smaller teams assemble, as needed, for specific projects.
“We can share items that may currently exist in one area of the world with OSI staff from other areas,” says Girdhar. “Then, they can show these new items to their customers, who may not have been exposed to such products. Secondly, this idea exchange and CIC facility helps us with any U.S. customers that may want to enter different [global] geographies. We have the expertise about appropriate foods and flavors from our global team members. Now, we can make the products here for any customer to taste and evaluate.”