Earlier this year, Ardent Mills took a quite literal approach toward “driving innovation” with the launch of its new Mobile Innovation Center (MIC), a converted tractor trailer that houses a state-of-the-art culinary center designed to bring culinary creativity, hands-on education and interactive R&D support directly to customers. The idea is that customers can work side-by-side with Ardent Mills chefs, food scientists and technical bakers, with direct access to the Ardent Mills portfolio of ingredients, in search of new product ideas.
Daniel Marciani, corporate executive chef for Ardent Mills, rode on the MIC over the last few months and provides a look at life on the road to culinary creativity.
Douglas J. Peckenpaugh: What was the original idea that drove creation of the Ardent Mills Mobile Innovation Center?
Daniel Marciani: The original vehicle actually came from one of our owners, ConAgra Foods, who previously owned it. As we looked at it, we saw it as a great opportunity to bring customers more innovation in an easier and more accessible way. Customers are always looking for new ideas, new education and new consumer industry knowledge. The MIC provided our customers a solution to all those areas, by just rolling into their parking lot.
Originally, we were looking for a new method to connect with customers. We knew we could just send them a sample bag of flour, but we wanted to offer something more engaging, personal and meaningful. So we began to talk about other methods to get customers to begin working with whole grains. We knew we had to change up the game. How could we make lasting impressions that really convince the customer to work with whole grains? It was going to take a combination of baking education, culinary integrity and creativity. With that in mind, we set off.
DJP: How is the vehicle set up, and what are its capabilities?
DM: The MIC is equipped with a state-of-the-art kitchen and bakery, as well as a multipurpose meeting space with audiovisual capabilities. Essentially, it offers a complete culinary center equipped to make everything from baguettes and bread loaves to pizzas, cookies, pastries and more. The MIC is driven around the country by our tour team, who also leads the onsite set-up. When fully set-up, the MIC fosters onsite culinary creativity, hands-on education and interactive R&D support.
DJP: So the idea is clearly to get this rig out on the road. Where have you traveled on the MIC since its launch?
DM: The MIC has been all over the United States, and even Canada. We’ve traveled down south to Louisiana and Kentucky, to New Jersey in the Northeast, over to the Midwest in Illinois, Minnesota and Nebraska, to far north in Ontario and Montreal, Canada … and everywhere in-between! The MIC brings our ingredients and experts to our customers’ front door.
DJP: Can you share some of the insights gleaned from your interaction and experiences with customers while working in the MIC?
DM: The true purpose of the MIC is providing personal, interactive and fun engagement with our customers. We’ve developed three different courses that our customers can participate in onboard the MIC: 1) Mainstreaming Whole Grains, 2) Global Grains and 3) Enlightened Eating. Each course provides a presentation on an industry trend, followed by a hands-on demo and application work. It’s validating to see and hear directly from our customers how much the Enlightened Eating trend (which we call the industry mega trend) relates to their own brands. What’s exciting is how it has opened the eyes of our customers to look at their products in a new way, and specifically how grain-based foods can make an impact.
We are working to help customers not only be followers of whole-grain trends, but to also be trend creators! We see customers come in expecting another workday and leave with a sparkle in their eye and excitement to try working with whole grains in their products. They often do not know that such simple techniques such as soaking, toasting, pre-fermenting and blending can make truly unique and great-tasting products.
DJP: How does Ardent Mills use the information it gathers from MIC travels?
DM: It’s rewarding for us to bring the MIC to our customers to show our dedication and commitment to them. The relationships we’ve built by showcasing who Ardent Mills is via the MIC have been invaluable. We understand that when our customers are working on the bench, they don’t necessarily have time to step away—that’s why we come to them. The MIC brings what’s new in grain innovation right to their front door. With a full portfolio of ingredients onboard, it’s a great way to learn how we can help them turn their next great idea into reality, side-by-side with our chef, food scientists and technical bakers onboard the MIC.
DJP: What have been your most-memorable experiences while on the road?
DM: We went to ConAgra Foods and were onsite at the campus for three agenda-packed days. Within those three days, we completed three education modules, a VIP tasting with key senior leadership, an appreciation lunch to 300 employees and multiple personal tours onboard where individuals could experience firsthand the Mobile Innovation Center in action. Several cross-functional members of the ConAgra team attended the modules, and it was fun to watch them get their hands dirty. Each module focused on a different application, followed by several tastings—from pizza, buns and pasta to snacks, topicals and dessert ideas.
Another memorable experience was our kickoff event for this year’s tour. We were down in New Orleans serving an array of grain-based, New Orleans–style dishes to the Research Chefs Association. We made items such as Dark Chocolate Rye Tarts with Puffed Amaranth Grits, Chopped Sustagrain Dirty Rice and Ultragrain Peach Cobbler Pies. As we were preparing the food, a New Orleans band came out and started to play the trumpets and horns and other instruments! That very well may be every chef’s dream.
DJP: What are some of your other takeaways from this journey?
DM: Although a majority of the MIC visits are direct to customers, we have also used the MIC to support several industry shows, as well as community events. Last year at Pedal the Plains, a three-day bike ride across Northeastern Colorado, sponsored in part by Ardent Mills, the MIC was parked in Sterling, CO, the second stop on the tour. During our day in Sterling with the MIC, we met so many local farmers who grow the wheat we mill into flour. Ardent Mills is a supporter of family farms, and we have strong partnerships with those farmers. Our farmers were proud we came to support the local event. As a farmer, it excited them to have a direct connection with consumers, and showed them that what they do as farmers when working with the right partners can make a difference in the quality of life for people in their own community and beyond.
DJP: What’s next for the MIC?
DM: The MIC is heading back to Colorado to round out the tour! We are doing exciting things with local customers while it’s here. In addition, Ardent Mills is a partner of the Colorado Rapids MLS soccer team. The MIC will be coming to the final home game of the year on October 10th, and we look forward to greeting all the fans!