As it’s our expert teams that make Food Connections the success story that it is, we wanted our customers to get to know the people behind our products and processes and learn more about what goes in to creating our delicious treats. This month we’re talking to Miki, our NPD Manager, who gives us some fascinating insights into the vital role she plays at Food Connections.
What does an average day at work look like for you?
Upon arriving at work, I’ll receive a product brief from sales and marketing team. The brief is normally quite difficult, especially as I deal more with sports, nutrition and health products that demand specific qualities such as high protein, low sugar and low fat and are often subject to ingredients trends. And of course, different customers will have different criteria.
My job is to think about how to transform the ideas and theories of the brief into practice. I also have to consider sourcing the best quality ingredients at the best price, so I will meet with ingredients suppliers to talk with them and get samples, specifications, and prices. I’ll also need to check allergens depending on the type of product.
Next, I can start writing a recipe. My background is as a dietician, so I will also do the nutritional calculations at the same time, as well as costing the raw materials to see how much we can spend on the bar. When the recipe is complete, I begin producing samples in my very own, lovely NPD test kitchen. I usually spend a day or so making a sample. I have to be really careful with the method as the temperature, the way the product is mixed, and cooking times all have a great effect on the finished result – just one minute or a couple of degrees can change everything.
Once I’ve created something that I like, I will conduct internal testing and if this goes well I go ahead and send the sample to the customer. Depending on the customer’s requirements, there may be some back and forth to change certain elements such as the texture, flavour, colour, and appearance until the customer is happy to sign off on the product.
I’ll then send the nutritional specifications to the production and technical teams who will start writing their own specific product specifications (all the tiny writing you’ll see on a product’s packaging). To help them do this, I give them all of the information and specifications for each individual ingredient, as well as the size, weight, and nutritional details so they can check allergens and any nutritional claims such as high protein, fibre or low sugar and fat. Once finalised, we send this to the customer so they can create the product’s film and packaging.
I then begin to prepare for the production trial, which involves scaling the process I developed in my kitchen to factory level production levels. I work very closely with the production team to achieve this. This isn’t always simple – a kitchen sample could involve 1kg of an ingredient and this may need scaling up to 25kg or 50kg. Working closely with the production team really helps to bring the trial together.
Once the trial is complete, we send another sample to the customer for approval. Hopefully this will then lead to them placing a purchase order. During this time, I’ll also be testing the product shelf life. While I can usually make a rough prediction, we must conduct thorough tests and continuous quality checks. I keep samples in my kitchen and we also send samples to the laboratory at regular intervals to check water activity, PH levels and such like.
Then we will go ahead with the actual launch and the product will be available to purchase by customers!
What do you like most about your job?
The creativity and innovation. Every day is very exciting and different. I never feel like I don’t want to go to work. I always want to go in and see whether my ideas will work or not. Writing recipes and doing nutritional calculations is probably my favourite part of the job. It’s really fun because marketing might have a brilliant idea, but it may not always be realistic. So how do you translate it? My job is to realise the marketing ideas but also the production criteria. As an NPD specialist, you need to be really creative whilst at the same time very detail-orientated and practical with an open mind and an eye on food trends and fashions.
What do you think the most important element of your job is?
Flexibility. You have to be flexible because marketing and product trends are always changing – sometimes even overnight. For example, it used to be said that butter was bad and that margarine is better, but now attitudes lean towards margarine being bad and butter being better. And it’s not just about consumer dietary trends but also scientific research and allergen information. As an NPD manager you have to be really on the ball and constantly have your feelers out. You’re like a sponge absorbing all the information out there for each and every product.
What’s the most challenging thing about your job?
I think the responsibility. To me, it’s not just a flapjack – there’s a lot of science and thought behind each and every product. Creating a new product requires extreme precision and careful consideration, and you really can’t make mistakes. But this challenge is also what makes my job so rewarding as the hard work pays off.
When I create a product, I have to consider so many elements: the brief, technical specifications, nutritional specifications… Nutrition is so important; you can’t make any mistakes with the calculations. I’m also planning ahead the whole time, thinking about how the larger scale production will work. It can be a real challenge to make something that’s as close as possible to my idea in terms of texture and flavour but also really manageable and workable for the production team, or they simply won’t be able to make it. At the same time, I have to think about what kind of machines can make this product. Something may work perfectly in my NPD kitchen but just not work with the production machines.
This means that I have to communicate with all other areas of the business to make sure that everything gets done exactly how it needs to be done, from start to finish. I can be working on about ten products at the same time, so it takes a lot of flexibility, concentration, communication and juggling! It’s a massive challenge and the responsibility is huge but I love it!
What brings you the greatest satisfaction at work?
Seeing my products in shops and supermarkets. It makes me so proud! They’ve been created with so much love and care and are like my babies. It’s such a rewarding feeling to see the finished product on the shelf.
What the best advice you’ve been given at work?
I really value feedback on the products I am working on. When you spend so long working on a product you can become quite blind to it so getting a different angle and advice from the directors, the marketing team and the production team is really great and very useful.
What’s your favourite thing about working at Food Connections?
The people. They’re really lovely and the teamwork is superb. When I ask about doing a product trial, people are happy to help and really cooperative. Everyone is so helpful and so much love and care goes into each bar or product.
If you could only eat one Food Connections product for the rest of your life, which would you choose?
I’d choose a flapjack – probably the original Oaty flavour!
And one last question, just for fun… Tell us your best joke!
My three-year-old son is such a good joke teller, so this isn’t my joke but his current favourite…
What do you call a chicken staring at a lettuce?
A chicken sees a salad!
To learn more about our expert NPD services, click here or give us a call on 01530 830180 – we’re always on hand to discuss ideas for new products and see how we can help you to bring your concept to life!