Rich Products was established by product innovation. Today we find this private, 70-year-old company is equally committed to new product and process innovation. Last summer saw Rich’s officially open its new Innovation Center, the result of an $18.5 million renovation at its global headquarters in Buffalo, N.Y.

Known for its 1945 launch of Rich’s Whip Topping (a soybean, non-dairy alternative), Rich’s has become a diverse $3.3 billion company with 34 plants worldwide. Its people and operations produce more than 2,000 different items for distribution in more than 100 countries. In the U.S., Rich’s operations reach all channels with a broad portfolio of non-dairy and dairy-blend toppings and icings, pizza, bakery, meat, dessert, beverage, snack and specialty appetizer and seafood products.

The reality in business, however, is that you’re either moving forward or falling behind. Thus, Rich’s committed in late 2012 to renovate the large, 25-year-old atrium area within its Buffalo headquarters. The project (officially completed in May 2014) included 84,000 square feet of dedicated space for a new, state-of-the-art Customer Innovation Center and the creation of the new Atrium@Rich’s, a self-described company and community “family room” that can host close to 1,000 people for meetings and events.

“Our success depends on our ability to continuously improve and challenge the status quo with new innovations and insights,” says Bill Gisel, Rich’s president and CEO. “The objective behind our new design was to build a structural metaphor for us as a company.  We are an organization with strong family values, blended with world-class professionalism.  The juxtaposition of our ‘family, living-room-style’ Atrium@Rich’s with our state-of-the-art Innovation Center provides our customers with a warm, welcoming environment and incomparable access to innovation resources that are the best in the industry.”

“The Innovation Center in Buffalo is the focal point for sharing learnings and exchanging concepts from all corners of the globe. The new state-of-the-art capabilities in this center allow our global R&D associates to collaborate with customers, suppliers and culinary professionals to better understand emerging opportunities and design more relevant product solutions,” he says. “Ideas for innovation and research around new products both funnel in and radiate out from this active nerve center.”

Designed to Deliver

To be clear, Rich’s Phase One project emphasized cutting edge culinary development while more R&D enhancements are on the way (see “More In Store,” above).

In this initial stage, Rich’s challenged project architects and designers to create a home-style atmosphere (reflecting the company’s family values) and design spaces that inspire collaboration, engagement and innovation. Rich’s says its designers applied what they call a “C3 philosophy” (Creating a Connected Culture) to produce flexible and collaborative spaces. Meanwhile, building accents used the company’s corporate branding colors and took cues from Rich’s messaging about company history, global businesses, core family values, leadership and customer commitment.

Rich’s also used the renovation to create a home for “speed-to-market innovation” and natural work team members. These spaces let a global team of culinarians, bakery technicians, cake-decorating experts and R&D scientists quickly collaborate to share resources and ideas. For example, a new Learning Lab (modeled after best-in-class facilities from various industries) has a “journey mapping” wall, smart board, and videotaping and live streaming services.

One new space (recently renovated) lets trained sensory professionals gather and conduct full sensory product evaluations. These technicians will have the necessary equipment to better examine product flavors, textures, aromas and visual appeal.

Last but not least, visitors cannot help but notice the Atrium@Rich’s, which is a primary centerpiece of the renovation. What first debuted in 1989 as the Rich Renaissance Niagara Atrium has been reimagined as an open, modern corporate “family room” that can host close to 1,000  people for meetings and events—not only for Rich’s but also for community organizations. The new Atrium features a three-story fireplace, built with 20,000 reclaimed bricks from a 19th century Chicago warehouse.

Cutting Edge Culinary

Rich’s describes the Innovation Center as a “multi-purpose, customer-focused collaboration facility that is part state-of-the-art conference center, part high-tech test kitchen, part TV production and broadcast studio, and part learning laboratory.”

The new space features two expansive kitchens: one designed and equipped as a broadcast-ready “Customer Solution Studio” and another, created as a flexible, multi-use “innovation kitchen” or test kitchen.

Officials say both spaces can easily be configured (thanks to equipment on wheels) to replicate customer operations and/or demonstrate how Rich’s products, recipes and solutions can be integrated into customers’ food preparation environments.  Each kitchen has live streaming, recording and editing capabilities. One kitchen closely replicates typical kitchens in foodservice operations; the other is geared toward bakery facility applications. 

“Our kitchen facilities have been built with our customers in mind,” says Stephen Rich, Innovation Center chef. “Our show kitchen has a spacious, high-tech product presentation area complete with advanced videoconferencing capabilities.  And with the test kitchen, we have all the equipment and resources necessary to recreate a customer’s exact kitchen environment and food preparation processes, so we can show how our food solutions seamlessly fit into the customer’s situation.”

Beyond all their operational practicalities and demonstration advantages, the new kitchen facilities also have homier qualities.

“The kitchen often is regarded as the heart of the home, which is an ambiance we’ve recreated in our Customer Solution Studio,” says Rich. “We’re saying, ‘Welcome to our home.’  The idea is to put customers at ease by actually bringing them around the kitchen table, instead of preaching to them in some boardroom.  This is not your typical sales setting. When we host customers, the feeling here is much different.”

He continues, “It’s like that party you have where everyone always gravitates toward the kitchen and real conversations suddenly are springing up over the kitchen island or among small groups sitting on bar stools. People are getting to know one another, our customers feel more involved, and now we’re having genuine discussions, instead of us telling them what we think they want to hear. These are authentic interactions that help build relationships.”

Bill Gisel adds, “The Innovation Center now gives our teams great speed and latitude in driving innovation and engaging customers in joint problem-solving.  It has injected a new energy into the customer experience and product development process, while enhancing the collaborative work experience for associates—at both the Buffalo headquarters and in the more-than 100 countries where Rich’s does business.” 

Wide World of Rich’s

There’s an underlying truth that you can’t be everything to everybody. Rich’s officials realize that the new Innovation Center cannot replicate or replace all the fundamental product development required for the company’s many product categories as well as operations on many countries on every continent.

While Buffalo remains the hub of research in several categories (toppings and icings,  pizza, bakery, desserts ) remember that Rich’s also offers shrimp and seafood, appetizers and snacks, BBQ meats, meatballs and pasta, ice cream cakes and even authentic milkshakes. Meanwhile, there are operations in Canada and Mexico as well as countries in Europe and the Middle East, South Africa, Asia Pacific and South America.

“Rich’s continues to operate multiple Product Solution Centers (PSCs) around the world,” notes Franz. “The new Innovation Center in Buffalo supports Rich’s global network of manufacturing plants and PSCs.  The systems within the Innovation Center provide improved speed and flexibility for teams from Rich’s sales, marketing, R&D, and culinary functions to drive innovation and collaborate with customers on problem-solving.”

He continues, “At the same time as our Buffalo-based Innovation Center opened, we constructed and opened a new innovation center in Woodbridge, Ontario, to serve our Canadian customer base.  We have additional PSCs located in many countries across the world to ensure our R&D talent and innovation resources are close to our customers.  We are a global company, but food is a local business. Therefore, it’s critical we have the resources in the market to ensure our support caters to local tastes and customs.”