Better Process, Better Products

The nation’s best aquariums? Any list would include the one located in Monterey Bay, Calif., as well as those in Baltimore, Houston, Chicago and Chattanooga, Tenn.
Then there’s Marshall, Minn., where nearly 100 people work in a self-described “aquarium” at The Schwan Food Co.’s $15 million corporate research and development center. This 87,000-sq.-ft. operation features specialized kitchens, labs and pilot facilities to support Schwan’s diverse product line.
Yet those bells and whistles are not what’s most important to Kristy Griffin, corporate senior vice president of product and market strategy. This 14-year company veteran would rather talk about how Schwan’s six-year-old building facilitates a meeting of the minds.
“Never underestimate the power of interaction,” she says. “One of the most exciting things about this building is what we call our ‘aquarium.’ It’s our main area, spanning 8,400 sq. ft. (labs included) that is very open, with windows and natural lighting. We have cubicles there with culinary chefs, applied scientists, product developers and process engineers all sitting next to one another.
“This allows our people to have a continual exchange and share their product knowledge,” she adds. “This saves time and increases communication. Then, our people can step right into a nearby lab or pilot plant and keep working.”
Build Platforms for Growth
Griffin easily names ways in which increased collaboration has improved processes and products. For example, she says an impromptu discussion led product developers and process engineers to create a timesaving method of drawing up and printing three-dimensional prototypes of equipment modifications.
Then again, Griffin says her group is challenged not just to solve problems, but also to “build platforms,” so to speak.
“We have to make sure that we’re thinking long term,” she says. “It’s more than thinking about one-off line extensions and just the next pizza variety. Rather, we need to help our business partners and Schwan’s through continuous innovation efforts. It’s a matter of creating products that are new to both Schwan and the world.”
Case in point: Schwan researchers conducted a wide study of consumers’ habits and attitudes about pizza, freshness and supermarket shopping. That led the company to develop Freschetta Build & Bake, the first national branded line of pizza component products, including individually packaged cheeses, meats, crusts and sauces.
Responding as well to increased interest in all-natural foods, Schwan worked specifically with celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck to develop a new all-natural line of super-premium frozen pizzas under the Wolfgang Puck name. The six-item line made its debut last fall.
For her part, meanwhile, Griffin says she keeps her eyes on “the aquarium” and on what lies ahead.
“Innovation is everybody’s job,” she says. “My biggest challenge is to foster a team culture that empowers people to take more risks — with everyone looking further out at the types of products that will contribute to our growth years from now.”