Q&A with Dianna Fricke, J.R. Simplot Food Group
A product developer’s perspective on food origin and traceability
Prepared Foods talks about creating products with “from-the-farm” appeal with Dianna Fricke, CRC, CWPC, director of culinary at J.R. Simplot Food Group, Boise, Idaho. Simplot manufactures and markets prepared foodservice side dishes involving potatoes, French fries, fruits, vegetables and grains.
J.R. Simplot Company, a privately held agribusiness firm, has an integrated portfolio that includes phosphate mining, fertilizer manufacturing, farming, ranching and cattle production, food processing, food brands, and other enterprises related to agriculture.
Prepared Foods: We’re writing about products with local, regional and “from-the-farm” appeal. Are you seeing this trend?
Chef Dianna Fricke: I think one of the best examples of this in foodservice is referencing the source or farm where ingredients are coming from. You can see this at a restaurant like Five Guys, which features a sign that reads, “Today’s Potatoes are From:” and it identifies the actual farm where they were grown.
Here in Boise, another local restaurant, the Boise Fry Company, follows the same idea and it only sources potatoes from M&M Heath Farms in Buhl, Idaho. I think it’s a great gold standard for restaurants that can maintain that type of relationship with farmers. Potatoes are just one example but yes, I see it across the breadth of the menu including all ingredients.
An example from retail is a product from Annie’s that I saw earlier this spring at Natural Products Expo West. It was 2018 Limited Edition Organic Wheat & Oats Honey Bunny Grahams grown on a farm that’s advancing regenerative practices. The product listed the farmer, location and variety of wheat and oats used in the product.
I believe that transparency about where an ingredient comes from—is going to continue to be an area of growth and differentiation in the marketplace. You can even see a farm-to-consumer shift in the décor of many restaurants. Many have their walls covered with graphics of fruits, vegetables and farm animals.
PF: How do you approach “from-the-farm” appeal?
Fricke: At Simplot, we always are working with grower-farmers and looking at new varieties of potatoes and other vegetables. For example, when we developed our flame-roasted Fuji apples product, we roasted and reviewed the texture of dozens of apples while we looked for just the right texture, flavor and appearance.
Sourcing clean and organic ingredients to use in product development is absolutely trending along with an increased pantry list of products. Farmers are growing and experimenting with so many new and different varieties of fruits, vegetables and grains and we’re staying close to them as we think about new products.
Meanwhile, during my 20 years with the company, we also have gone back to update products and remove ingredients—such as artificial colors—that did not cause concern years ago.
PF: What’s a related new product you’re particularly proud of?
Fricke: Our Kitchen Craft French fries fit this theme. When you are dining out, one of the most craveable dishes—either at a ballpark or fine dining restaurant—are French fries tossed with yummy ingredients like butter, garlic, truffle oil, Parmesan cheese, parsley, etc.
We created a French fried potato that even a quick-service restaurant can use because all of the flavor is in the batter. Consumers can see the seasonings—rosemary and cracked pepper—right on the fries as though they were just tossed back of house with those seasonings. The best part about this for the operator is the fries are fully seasoned with sea salt and the flavor doesn’t transfer in the fryer to the oil. They also are gluten-free.
PF: How do you work with your R&D counterparts to ensure “from-the-farm” product attributes make it all the way to the finished product?
Fricke: In R&D, we have come to appreciate that is “less is more.” Customers are demanding products that look like they were prepared back of house and are minimally processed. I believe minimally processed as another way to say “from the farm” with a rustic appearance. I think we can achieve that in several ways—whether it is by leaving the skin on a potato, changing a vegetables cut or working with farmer to grow something new and unique.
When a product is left in a more natural state, it provides the operator with more opportunities to create new and different dishes from one ingredient. Versatility for a product is critical—as most restaurants have limited space for product storage, refrigeration and availability on the line.
PF: In what ways does Simplot communicate its own messages about farms, traceability and/or sustainability?
Fricke: A hallmark of Simplot’s communication on these topics is two-way dialogue. Simplot and its partners regularly engage in in-depth conversations about on-farm practices and environmental health. It’s part of how we do business.
For broader-based communication, we use all forms of communication—from working with titles such as Prepared Foods, to digital and social media. Recently, at the first “Idaho Sustainability Summit” at Boise State, we chose to highlight our grower partners working to advance sustainability practices. They are engaged in emerging seed technology, biological fungicides and other practices you’re likely to see on a USDA Organic certified farm.
We also use our Simplot-owned social media channels to spread the word about the work we’re doing. Our activities span everything from irrigation practices to new potato varieties that increase yields and nutrients like protein and vitamin C.
PF: Any concluding thoughts about today’s heightened focus on farming and various certifications?
Fricke: The breadth of Simplot’s business makes us unique in this regard. In addition to supporting the potato industry, we are committed to innovation across many other crops and products. Across our portfolio of businesses we are developing new solutions to meet the needs of the evolving marketplace.
A couple examples include biological nutrients for crop health as well as a new portfolio of organic products. We also have examples of certifications, such as tuna sourced from sustainable fisheries. As a general rule, we stay true to our agricultural roots and use a science-based approach. That said, you’re not likely to see us use claims such as “non-GMO.”