Editor’s Note: Last summer saw Tyson Foods complete its sale of the Sara Lee frozen bakery operations and business to the private equity firm Kohlberg & Company. Subsequently, Kohlberg formed Sara Lee Frozen Bakery (SLFB), led by Chief Executive Officer Craig Bahner and headquartered in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., a Chicago suburb. 

Approximately 70% of SLFB’s business goes into the foodservice channel with the remainder sold at retail, including in-store bakery. It sells frozen pies, cakes, muffins, croissants, pastries and waffles, which are sold under four core brands: Sara Lee®, Chef Pierre®, Van’s® and Bistro Collection®. Products range from mainstream and entry-level cakes and pastries to gourmet hand-made cakes and desserts, and everything in between. SLFB employs approximately 1,300 people at the company’s headquarters and two factories in Traverse City, Mich., and Tarboro, N.C.

This June saw SLFB open a 10,000-square-foot research and development facility and test kitchen, which are co-located with the company headquarters. Here, Prepared Foods talks with Judy Lindsey, Sara Lee Frozen Bakery’s Research & Development Director and a 30-year industry veteran. 

Prior to SLFB, she most recently spent 14 years at Product Dynamics, a division of RQA, Inc., which became Brisan Group, Chicago.  As general manager, she led a team of consumer product researchers, sensory specialists and product developers in assisting Fortune 100 companies and entrepreneurs increase their understanding of their products and integrate consumers into their product development process. 

Lindsey also held senior executive R&D roles at the former ConAgra Frozen Foods, as well as Kellogg Company.

Prepared Foods: You have an extensive food industry background. In what ways have past work experiences prepared you for Sara Lee Frozen Bakery?

Judy Lindsey: Each previous role and company focus in my career provided a building block of experience that is critical to my ability to provide the breadth of R&D leadership required within the Sara Lee Frozen Bakery start-up.

At Kellogg’s, I learned about new product implementation and commercialization. ConAgra taught me about frozen product development and manufacturing. Lastly, Product Dynamics / Brisan Group taught me more about consumer understanding, the broader product development process and it exposed me to new tools and applications.

In addition to the technical and business experiences gained, I worked with teams of experienced food science and culinary professionals and helped them bring out their best work for each company.

PF: What are a few of your short-term goals for the remainder of this year and leading into 2020?

Lindsey: We have a lot happening as we continue to build up Sara Lee Frozen Bakery as a new, stand-alone organization. That work will continue throughout the remainder of this year with key growth activities, such as the recent grand opening of our new Kitchens of Sara Lee innovation center. We are also implementing several systems and processes to help create greater efficiencies in our product development cycle. 

This summer, we’re launching 16 new items this across our foodservice and retail businesses and have begun a multi-year reformulation plan to address cleaner labels across our full portfolio. For us, that means naturally sweetened without use of high fructose corn syrup and removal of artificial flavors and colors.

PF: We’ve seen news about your new ownership investing in research and development. What can you tell us about your innovation group?

Lindsey: Our desire to delight consumers by making sure our products are “worth it” is at the heart of why we’ve invested in our expanding our team and building a purpose-built innovation facility. We’ve increased our total R&D team from three to six team members.

Sara Lee Frozen Bakery R&D consists of six dedicated resources, though I want to note that they’re not just any resources! We have assembled a team of passionate bakers, including one certified Master Baker; three food scientists who also are trained and experienced pastry chefs; and one entry-level food scientist with confectionary experience.  Our team experience is steeped in baking. In fact, several of our team members have started their own bakery businesses, taught baking and pastries classes and or have owned a local bakery.

PF: Can you tell us a little more about how those disciplines best work together? 

Lindsey: Bakery is a balance of science and art so there is no desire to separate them. They are intricately combined in all aspects of our development process. 

Culinary is the focus during the exploration and design phase of a project. Here, we’re asking, “What is the standard for a specific item?” “What techniques can be blended to deliver a twist on a new innovation?” and “What is happening within the fringe culinary culture?” 

Science comes into play when determining the right ingredients and unit operations that can produce the culinary characteristics that define the product. 

Together, the culinary eye focuses on unique touches that will entice the consumer and the science impacts commercializing in the bakery and setting quality standards to make sure the culinary touches are not lost.  The blend of the two is the only way we can make sure our products delight and inspires and are truly “worth it.”

PF: What do you see as trends in the retail and foodservice dessert categories?

Lindsey: In grocery and in-store bakery, many of our best-selling products are full size cakes and pies—but dessert lovers are increasingly wanting smaller portions or single slices, which are selling fast. Eighty percent of dessert occasions are snacks and increasingly, many consumers simply don’t want to commit to a 10-serving pie outside of special occasions. We see an opportunity to take many of our traditional grocery best sellers and scale their servings to ensure they meet our customers’ needs. 

On the other hand, in foodservice, a key obstacle operators face involves the challenge of finding qualified labor. Years ago, we perfected our pre-baked and pre-sliced pies and these are a great way to help customers menu great tasting pies but without the added prep and labor. We’re investing in our pie capabilities and expanding the lineup—including efforts to introduce new seasonal pie offerings for this coming holiday season.

PF: This is certainly a pivotal time for Sara Lee Frozen Bakery to have such dedicated investment and focus.  In what ways do you most expect to help customers see a difference in new product innovation at Sara Lee?

Lindsey: We’re back in business as a focused and dedicated bakery for the first time in more than 60 years and actively investing in our business and product portfolio. As a leader in categories like pies and cheesecakes, we see a great opportunity to partner with our customers and build a strong innovation pipeline. Our customer is our “boss” and we’re just getting started on that work.

Consumer needs and wants are driving many of our R&D priorities—such as our clean label and reformulation agendas. We’ve also completed our initial clean label work on all of our Chef Pierre® Hi-Pies® and Cobblers. Likewise, we’re applying the same clean label criteria and working on our traditional fruit pies, open-faced pies, croissants and muffins next, along with many of our Sara Lee® brand pies and pound cakes in grocery.

We want our passion for great food to come through  and I expect our customers will see that in a) their experience with our products; how we are true to the art and the science of baking;  how we listen to their needs and work cooperatively with them to assure their needs are met; and how we delight their consumers. 

Once again, Sara Lee will be the world’s most beloved bakery because of the irresistible foods we have created.