The element of surprise. It’s a military strategy to capture the enemy. In the food and beverage industry, it’s a key way to capture consumers. 

Prepared Foods also received a surprising number of entries—totaling more than 110—for the 14th annual Spirit of Innovation (SOI) awards program. Co-sponsored by Ventura Foods, these awards recognize unique and important new products that address consumer and/or customer market needs (see criteria at True to its name, the award recognizes a company’s internal cross-functional teamwork—as well as new offerings that reflect even broader partnerships.

Taco Bell and Tyson Foods Naked Chicken Chalupa
Collaboration = Innovation: Taco Bell and Tyson Foods invested time, talent to develop the right chicken “shell.”

Speaking of progressive partnerships, Taco Bell and Tyson Foods joined forces to develop the Naked Chicken Chalupa, a limited-time offer menu item from January through March 2017. In this year’s SOI judging, the product earned distinction as “Editor’s Choice: Most Disruptive New Product.” 

Meanwhile, for the second year, Prepared Foods recognized winners in each of five additional product categories. They include best new retail food, retail beverage, alternative channel product, item for foodservice front of the house (addressing consumer trends) and item for foodservice back of house (addressing foodservice customer-operator needs). 

Steven Gomez, a Taco Bell product development leader, told Prepared Foods’ New Products Conference attendees the Naked Chicken Chalupa idea started out in 2014 with a seemingly random internal phone call. The caller asked Gomez, “What if we made a [taco] shell out of chicken Milanese?” 

By the end of that year, Taco Bell was working with Tyson Foods on a cross-functional collaboration at every level. Both companies’ chefs and product developers worked toward a crispy breaded piece of all white meat chicken that was pliable enough to fit the restaurant’s chalupa shell molds and hold traditional taco ingredients. Still more cross-functional teams worked to optimize production, packaging, product positioning and communication leading to the Naked Chicken Chalupa launch in late January 2017. 

The product received significant buzz and great reviews from Taco Bell fans and the foodservice media. In all, more than 31 million shells were sold from January 29 to March 4.

“To deliver for a consumer that craves unique experiences, it takes a novel idea that is supported by a highly collaborative team of passionate creators,” said Mandie Beck, CCS, a Tyson R&D project leader for foodservice national accounts. “As strong partners, Taco Bell and Tyson champion these characteristics and will continue developing fun, distinctive, ‘must-share’ products to allow consumers to ‘Live Mas.’”

Annual salary
Birds Eye Steamfresh Veggie Made Zucchini Lentil Pasta

Ready for more surprising new product news? One example involves Nestlé Prepared Foods, which unveiled new Stouffer’s Seasoning Wraps and took its well-known brand entirely out of the freezercase. And then there’s rotini and penne pasta that truly tastes like pasta—but is entirely made from vegetables rather than wheat. That’s a surprising story behind Birds Eye Veggie Pasta from Pinnacle Foods. Both products’ unique development stories—and tasty samples—earned equal acclaim (and tie scores) from Spirit of Innovation judges.

Stouffer’s Marketing Manager Whitney Cornuke told NPC attendees that while demand for “speed scratch” meals is on the rise, consumers won’t accept a solution that comes at the expense of sacrificing freshness and taste. That insight ultimately led Nestlé scientists to reach across the globe and work with their European counterparts on Stouffer’s Seasoning Wraps.

Stouffer's Seasoning Wraps
Quick meal appeal outside freezercase.

Made with heat-safe parchment paper coated in real herbs and spices, these wraps take guesswork out of cooking. Those preparing the meal simply need to place a boneless, skinless, chicken breast or salmon fillet in the wrap, fold and place in a stovetop pan. No oil is needed. Just three steps: wrap, press and cook. Seasoning Wraps cook chicken or salmon in 20 minutes or less. Four new varieties include Italian Countryside Herb, Roasted Garlic & Lemon, Roasted Tomato Herb and Lemon Dill.

Pinnacle Foods also has surprised consumers. Put simply, the company found a way to convert and extrude real vegetables—such as zucchini, spinach and lentils—into pasta penne and rotini forms. 

Sharon McGuire, Pinnacle Foods senior director-R&D, told NPC guests that each bowl serving of Veggie Made Pasta delivers a full serving of vegetables and no artificial flavors or preservatives. The product comes packaged in brand’s patented Steamfresh microwave-in-bag technology and is ready in just minutes (with sauce included). Four varieties include Spinach Lentil Rotini with Alfredo Sauce; and three zucchini lentil options (penne and rotini forms) with Original (no sauce) Cheddar and Marinara sauces.

International Delight One Touch Latte
Latte Love: International Delights’ new offering means premium coffee experience is just one touch away.

Yet another company surprising consumers is DanonWave. Knowing that consumers value a premium coffee experience—but not extra time or expense—marketing, consumer insights, packaging and R&D looked for a way to enhance the International Delights creamer line. After a few years of collaborative efforts, the result is One-Touch Latte, a canned coffee foaming “topper” line in Vanilla and Caramel varieties. Consumers simply shake the cannister, hold the top over the coffee (a cup should be two-thirds full to leave room for topping) and press on a custom foaming dispenser.  

“We knew that making a latte at home can be challenging, and requires expensive equipment and going to the coffeehouse can be time consuming and costly, so we challenged our teams to create a simple, easy-to-use, and delicious, way for consumers to transform their morning cup of coffee into a latte in seconds,” said Lauren Baum, a DanonWave associate brand manager.

Bona Fide Craft Draft Coffee
Consistency by the Keg: Flavorful nitro cold brew coffee saves operators time, money and more.

Also targeting the premium coffee market is SOI Foodservice Back of House award winner Bona Fide Brewing Company. However, its mission with Bona Fide Craft Draft Coffee not only is to please consumers—but to improve a restaurant’s bottom line. The Goleta, Calif., company does this by brewing nitro cold brew coffee and then delivering it in kegs as a turnkey solution for hot or cold nitro coffee, tea and even maté drinks. 

“On average, 40% of brewed beverages are wasted due to over-brewing and loss of flavor while they’re held in dispensers,” notes John Goerke, Bona Fide founder and CEO. “One of our kegs holds more than 80 servings of perfect, consistent coffee. And because our product doesn’t require server preparation, each keg saves operators more than 20 filters and an estimated 1.5 gallons of water, 1.5 pounds of roasted coffee, and 1½ hours of labor.”

Club Sandwich with Jennie-O Turkey Store Lunchmeat
Jennie-O Turkey Store cuts sodium, boosts natural appeal for K-12 meats.

Prepared Foods’ Foodservice Front of House award winner is Jennie-O Turkey Store, a Willmar, Minn., business of Hormel Foods Corp. For its part, Jennie-O last year targeted a different segment of operators and consumers: K-12 school foodservice directors and finicky students. Knowing that both operators and students crave variety, Jennie-O developed as many as six turkey-based, better-for-you lunchmeats: Oven Roasted, Smoked, Ham, Pastrami, Salami and Bologna. 

“We designed this product line to include many of the most loved flavor varieties in lunch meats—but we made them cleaner and better,” says Renee Cool, Jennie-O foodservice brand manager. “We made each of these offerings all natural (minimally processed and no artificial ingredients) and we also reduced the sodium to ensure that these items would meet the school lunch standards and still deliver on taste and flavor.”

Braaten adds, “In the recent 52-week span, we have sold 1.5 million pounds of these items and the line continues to grow.”

Another award-winning meat company is SOI Alternative Channel honoree Johnsonville Sausage LLC. Last fall saw this Sheboygan Falls, Wis., company extend its hand-held sandwiches line with a Johnsonville Sausage, Egg and Cheese Biscuit, a fully-enclosed product with a real buttermilk biscuit, whole scrambled eggs, premium Johnsonville sausage and mild cheddar cheese. 

Johnsonville Sausage, Egg and Cheese Biscuit
Win-Win: New stuffed biscuit ideal for all-day breakfast appeal, grab-and-go snack sales. Also convenient for operator customers and consumers.

Sarah Babb, director of foodservice marketing, says the product appeals to convenience store operators and consumers alike. For starters, the give operators another all-day-breakfast option or grab-and-go snack alternative. Operationally, the frozen biscuits come right from the refrigerator or freezer and are ready to heat in just 50 seconds in the microwave. Unique packaging preserves quality from microwave to warmer, and allows the biscuit to maintain tender texture for up to four hours in a warmer.

Likewise, Babb says Johnsonville’s R&D team strived for just the right amount of filling-to-biscuit ratio and the right filling texture (not too runny or loose). Likewise, the biscuit had to remain tender to the bite and not be too crumbly and create a mess.

“Customer feedback so far has been positive and encouraging to Johnsonville,” she concludes. “There also are customers who appreciate being able to buy the biscuits unwrapped in bulk so they can merchandise them as being freshly baked. We are definitely meeting a need in the marketplace for portable handheld sandwiches that work for all-day breakfast and snacking.”   

Originally appeared in the October, 2017 issue of Prepared Foods as Surprise Party!