2007 Executive Team of the Year

Return of the Empire

By Dan Malovany

In 2007, Roman Meal is launching the brand across five food categories by relying on thought and product innovation, a bold marketing strategy and a desire to reestablish the company as the king of whole grain foods.

Some things never change. Take health and nutrition. During the Roman Empire, the typical diet for average citizens consisted of whole grains and fruit. Specifically, they ate oatmeal, wheat and barley, as well as apples, pears, dried plums and raisins. Olive oil was soaked into bread, while wine was the preferred beverage at the time. Romans also treated themselves with spices such as cinnamon from the Far East.
Unfortunately, gluttony was a problem, too, as the rich couldn’t help but gorge themselves on an orgy of pork, lamb, cheese and high-fat foods. Fortunately, trans fats weren’t an issue back then.
Today, people across the world still eat too much. Gluttony has turned into an obesity epidemic on all corners of the earth, but the typical Mediterranean Diet that was popular more than 2,000 years ago still is considered healthy and nutritious.
Throughout its 80-year history, Roman Meal Co. has been synonymous with health, nutrition and whole grains. In fact, more than 25 years ago, its current chairman, Chuck Matthaei, had the foresight to trademark the phrase “natural whole grain goodness.”
While a quarter century ago is hardly ancient times, Matthaei certainly was ahead of his time. Back then, variety breads were in their infancy, and Roman Meal was one of the only whole grain products in a predominately white bread aisle. That’s no longer the case in this mature product category.
“Clearly, now, the domestic bread landscape has changed dramatically in the sense that every major bakery has their own line of variety breads,” notes Gary Jensen, executive vice president and COO of the Tacoma, Wash.-based company.
After arriving two years ago, Jensen and the management team began “defining the DNA of Roman Meal.”
What they found was that the brand and its natural, whole grain image are perfectly positioned for today’s consumers. They just had to leverage the brand.
To do this, the management team began developing a sound strategic plan that, first of all, gave additional value to its bakery customers who are licensed producers of Roman Meal breads domestically. The new business model creates a multidisciplinary approach to elevating consumer awareness of whole grains in the United States and across the world, and a plan to invigorate an array of food categories with innovative, nutritious products. The goal, albeit lofty, is to regain its stature among retailers and consumers as “a global leader in whole grain foods.”
“The reality is that we want to be something that is more than ‘made with whole grains,’” Jensen explains. “We want to have the whole grain position that’s reinforced and supported by the nutritional delivery of our products.”
Last March, Roman Meal began rolling out whole grain products beyond the bread aisle. Its initial foray targeted the snack bar category. Despite the burgeoning number of nutritional, health and energy bars loaded with protein, vitamins and supplements, there was a void of all-natural, whole grain alternatives.
To fill this gap, Roman Meal came out with snack bars that contain 5 g. of fiber, fruit juices and ingredients such as walnuts and raisins that can be found on any supermarket shelf. The 2-oz. bars each have 190 calories, but contain no saturated or trans fats, no artificial sugar and no high-fructose corn syrup. They come in oatmeal raisin, cranberry walnut and apple cinnamon flavors.
In December, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) rated the bars as the No. 1 “Best Bites,” its highest recommendation based on such nutritional attributes as a high amount of fiber and a low amount of “bad” fats. Perhaps more importantly, CSPI in its Nutrition Action magazine raved that the Roman Meal product was “one of the best-tasting Best Bite bars you can find.” Now, this third-party validation is driving consumer and retail interest in the line.
“When you see articles like by CSPI and people start to recognize Roman Meal can serve a broader purpose to customers who are interested in making more whole grain choices in their lives, it’s exciting,” Jensen says.
Currently, Roman Meal is rolling out four new snack bars, including apricot almond, blueberry, pineapple coconut, and peanut butter and dark chocolate, which is one of the category’s most popular flavors.  
To bolster its position on the shelf, Roman Meal changed the architecture of the packaging for all of its new products. Newly redesigned packaging for its snack bars, for instance, highlights the reformulated products’ nutritional attributes, including their all-natural ingredients, 100% whole grains and category-leading 6 g. to 7 g. of fiber per serving.
Perhaps the most dramatic move involves creating a sharper image for the bars’ packaging and leveraging the wholesome goodness inside. Instead of a “100% whole grain snack bar” descriptor, a banner across the top of each box clearly declares “whole grain & fruit.”
How Romanesque.
“Fruit gives you permission to believe it’s going to taste better,” Jensen notes. “Fruit also has a connotation of being good for you.”
Marching Into New Categories
Taking the Roman Meal brand into different product categories isn’t new. In fact, the company has a history of innovation. Over the years, the Matthaei family has introduced such products as whole grain waffles and Chuck Rolls, filled snacks that are similar to Hot Pockets. Although the products never took off, they reflect a foundation of innovation at the company.
Under its new strategic plan, Roman Meal is going to hop into new categories in a big way. By the end of 2007, for instance, the company expects to have five active product lines, including bread, bars, convenient hot cereal, crackers and refrigerated biscuits. In fact, any food where Roman Meal can create good-tasting, whole grain alternatives is fair game.
This is not only good for the brand, but also for its core group of bakery customers who produce Roman Meal bread across the nation.
“The more places Roman Meal is located in supermarkets, the higher equity of the brand and, therefore, the better the value is for our bakery partners,” Jensen says. “If the Roman Meal brand has more relevance to consumers because they are buying the cereal, that is going to have a halo effect to the bread line”
In many ways, Roman Meal is borrowing the page from major companies such as Kraft Foods, which has transformed Oreo into a mega-brand by introducing innovative items in new categories. Likewise, Kellogg Co. last year announced its plans to create a mega-brand out of its Special K line. Roman Meal is developing innovative products that hone in on categories throughout the supermarket and on multiple eating occasions throughout the day.
“When we get the five active lines running, we can legitimately say that we’ve made it easier for consumers to add whole grain products to their daily lives, particularly as it relates to snacks,” Jensen says. “Bars, however, can serve as a meal replacement.”
Internationally, Roman Meal breads are produced in eight countries. After discussing its new plan with overseas bakery partners late last year, Jensen realized that “consumers are interested in making better food choices everywhere.” The snack bar concept, for instance, was a hit with its partners in Japan, and such interest eventually might lead to production outside of the United States. Roman Meal also is developing new bread products such as an eight-grain variety for Guam.
“Delivering whole grains in a variety of forms is a very viable solution,” Jensen notes. “Anywhere you can think of whole grains and any country is an opportunity for Roman Meal.”
Moreover, from his discussions with the company’s international customers Jensen picked up a few new product ideas, such as the half loaves that are popular in Japan. Such a concept could be relevant for empty-nest couples and Baby Boomers in the U.S. market.
“Becoming a global leader in whole grain foods has everything to do with innovation because the more we learn what’s happening in other parts of the world, the better partner we can be to the bakeries in the United States,” Jensen says.
Rounding Up the Troops
Launching five active product lines and having an established brand in 10 countries are just two of Roman Meal’s goals for 2007. The company also plans to meet with its core bakery customers to provide more value and be a better partner.
For example, its product development team has created a line of breads containing double the mix that has “a nutritional profile, a fiber delivery and a whole grain delivery that’s among the best in the industry,” Jensen says. The breads deliver more than 90% of the recommended 48 g. of fiber in two servings. They’re flagged under the Roman 100% Whole Grain and have a packaging architecture similar to its snack bars with the products’ nutritional benefits boldly stated on the front of the bag. The new line is called Roman and not Roman Meal, partly because its baking customers commonly might truncate the Roman Meal name, and consumers will likely do the same. Moreover, the abbreviated name helps differentiate the new breads from its icon original.
“We’re not changing anything on the original bread because the loyalty to it is amazing,” Jensen says.
That loyalty comes from female consumers ages 50 to 64 who are conscious about their health. It’s also a demographic group that is greatly underserved by bakery companies, which tend to target moms ages 18 to 50 in their media buys. Jensen says he is “relentless” in insisting that all new products and everything else associated with the brand must take care of its core consumers first. They’re what make the Roman Meal position in the market different from others brands out there.
“I want to take care of them before we try to do anything else, and they will respond,” Jensen says. “They’re magnificent in what terms of their loyalty. Roman Meal is truly a love mark to this particular audience, and we want to recognize that and take advantage of it. If you are a domestic baker, you don’t need us to try to be an also-ran with your own brands that are marketing to younger females.”
So ingrained is the company’s position on its core consumer base that its stated vision is to be a leader in natural whole grain goodness with health-conscious women over 50. Its merchandising, print advertising, TV commercials and other marketing efforts all are geared at this demographic group, which has tremendous growth potential as the Baby Boomer generation continues to age.
Overall, Roman Meal’s management team has been organized under its new business strategy.
“Each functional leader owns one of the business imperatives,” Jensen says.
Take, for instance, the staffers who report to Jensen. Steve Buckholdt, director of quality assurance and regulatory, oversees the company’s total quality culture initiative. Here, the goal is to raise the quality of Roman Meal breads by having its bakery technicians go out in the field and troubleshoot any issues to create products that consistently meet or exceed consumers’ expectations.
“Invariably, if you solve a problem for Roman Meal, you solve it for other comparable products on those same line in those facilities,” Jensen says.
Patrick Finney, vice product of new product innovation, owns the development of “leadership in thought and product innovation,” which is the soul to creating unique new products that fit or enhance the Roman Meal brand. Todd Kluger works with Finney on innovation, but also promotes the brand and the goodness of whole grains by overseeing marketing.
On the sales side, Rob Byrne, vice president of customer collaboration, is in charge of building relationships with the company’s domestic bakery partners, while Dan Scrivner, director new business development, works with retail customers.
In all, the company has 31 employees.
“Rob is our industry expert as it relates to baking companies,” Jensen says. “Patrick is an expert in translation. He takes the words of the consumers and marketers and turns them into products. Todd is involved with reinvigorating and adding relevance to the brand among consumers, and Dan is our retail trade expert.”
Sheri Wakeman is the vice president of finance and administration. And Jensen’s role on the international side involves business integration and strategic facilitation.
“I would say that we all work together on becoming a leader in whole grain foods,” he notes. “My primary responsibility is being the strategic leader of the organization. However, our roles can change as the projects or initiatives develop.”
Jensen adds that he has been working with the Roman Meal brand for at least 20 years, during which he was group marketing manager at Campbell Taggert baking company, which has been integrated over time into Sara Lee.
“I have always had great admiration for the [Matthaei] family and the brand,” he says. “Years ago, I told the folks who called on us from Roman Meal how well positioned they were for the baking world with whole grains, and that was before whole grains had become a focus of the consumer.”
Coming to Roman Meal two years ago wasn’t a difficult decision. In fact, Jensen thought it might be an adventure.
“It was not hard for me the think about how I might able to become a part of the organization,” he says. “It really goes back to the opportunity to work with a great brand when its positioning couldn’t be more relevant. It just felt like it was the right place at the right time.”
Roman Meal has acknowledged that it’s struggled in recent years because of the low-carb craze, competition in the variety bread segment and its failure to change with the times. In 2006, however, the financial picture rebounded significantly and now the company has become bullish on its prospects. In fact, the goal is to double the business’ sales over the next five years under its current strategic plan.
The company, however, must stay within its niche and resist pressures to be everything to everyone. Losing its focus would be a recipe for failure Jensen adds.
“It goes back to the fact that Roman Meal has been doing the same thing for almost 100 years,” he says.
Or, as the saying goes, “When in Rome, do what the Romans do.” SF&WB
Appealing to the Masses
When developing a new product line, don’t stray too far from the most popular flavors until the line gets legs. That’s the advice Gary Jensen constantly gives his management team.
“I continue to give the lecture about chocolate and vanilla ice cream, and that lecture says, ‘Don’t make your introductory flavors so exotic that they don’t capture the mainstream testes of consumers,’” notes Jensen, executive vice president and COO for Roman Meal Co.
At the company, new product innovation runs along a Bell Curve. At the base on the left are the most popular flavors in the category. As the flavors get more exotic, the products move further along the curve.
After conducting taste tests for the bars it rolled out last year, Roman Meal discovered that oatmeal raisin, cranberry walnut and apple cinnamon were the most popular flavors. This year, the company is rolling out peanut butter dark chocolate, a hugely popular flavor in the category, along with blueberry, apricot almond and the more tropical pineapple coconut.
Consumer is King
Why do new products succeed and others fail? That can be a $1 million or, in some cases, a $10 million question for companies.
To minimize risk in new product development, Roman Meal uses the Stage Gate process, which was created by Dr. Robert Cooper. Basically, new concepts travel through a series of stages before the products go to market. Each stage has a gate. There, the company’s top managers serve as gatekeepers, and project managers must answer key questions such as what problem are they trying to solve, what is the solution and who is the target audience. Project managers also work with product developers, conduct consumer research and put together a profit-and-loss analysis to best predict the concept’s viability.
Typically, large companies have a lengthy five-stage process that can take months or even years for a concept to pass through. Roman Meal has three processes, depending on the product and the level of risk involved.
For its new crackers, cereal and refrigerated dough, the company is using the five-stage process because of the large amount of risk. For line extensions, it takes a shorter three-stage process because the lower level of risk. Some international customers, such as Japan’s Yamazaki Baking, roll out thousands of new products a year. For these companies, the process is a straight shot. Because innovation also means speed to market to them, the process is 30 days at the most.
It’s not unusual for the new product concept to evolve during the Stage Gate process. About 18 months ago, Roman Meal initially identified a void in the market for nutritional cookies. During the Stage Gate process, research showed that the idea didn’t make sense to consumers. They said it’s a bar and not a cookie. That didn’t mean a nutritional cookie is a bad idea. Maybe it was just ahead of its time. It was just logical to go with the bar format at that time instead of spending resources building demand for the original concept.
“I didn’t see it as a flaw in the process,” says Gary Jensen, executive vice president and COO. “It was just one of the things that the consumer told you along the way. At the end of the day, the consumer is king. The process is here to serve us and not enslave us.”
Now This is New
Cereal, and not bread, was Roman Meal’s original product. Around 1910, an ailing physician named Robert Jackson developed a breakfast mush of whole grain wheat, rye, bran and flaxseed that he called Roman Health Meal. He also used it to make pancakes, muffins and bread.
Today, Roman Meal is again category hopping into new food categories. By the end of the year, the brand’s products will be found in five active products. Here’s a brief overview.
Bread — Roman Meal is introducing a line of Roman 100% Whole Grain breads, which have twice the mix as the original Roman Meal bread. Two slices have more than 90% of the recommended daily amount of whole grains. Look for the company to push its line of nutritious buns and rolls, as well.
Snack Bars — In 2006, Roman Meal rolled out three varieties: oatmeal raisin, cranberry walnut and apple raisin. In 2007, four flavors are being added, including blueberry, pineapple coconut, apricot almond and peanut butter dark chocolate. The 190-calorie bars come in 2-oz. packages, are all-natural and contain 6 to 7 g. of fiber, the most of any bars on the market.
Hot Cereal — Today, Roman Meal cereals come in 22-oz. canisters, which are hardly convenient for time-pressed consumers. The large packaging also has a high price point. The new hot, microwaveable cereal will come in a multipack of single-serve pouches. They’ll be high in fiber, loaded with whole grains and available in traditional flavors, as well as more exotic ones, possibly even pumpkin spice.
Crackers — Most whole grain crackers deliver 1 g. of fiber per serving. Roman Meal is spooling out ones with up to 5 g. of fiber per serving. The cracker will be a more traditional carrier. The size, shape and flavors currently are being developed.
“We have high expectations because they will be the first, truly nutritious, good-tasting whole grain crackers,” says Gary Jensen, executive vice president and COO.
Refrigerated Biscuits — Currently, Roman Meal is working on a couple of varieties. In fact, test bakes are on the way. The project is expected to come to life in the fall of 2007. Potentially, the line will be a co-branded effort with Roman Meal and major retailers across the United States.