Introduction to the co-manufacturing process

This past month has been a whirlwind. I traveled for 29 days to 8 different cities. All of the travel was for projects at work - some of which I have been on since I joined the company and one that was introduced to me in mid-March.

In product development, when we have a manufacturing facility produce a product that we have designed, we call that co-manufacturing or co-packing. The vast majority of my work involves development of products for co-manufacturing.

It takes seeking out a company that can do what we're planning to create, becoming familiar with the capabilities of that manufacturing site, and developing or customizing formulas for the available equipment and labor skills. Intense collaboration is needed between my R&D team and the manufacturing company's R&D team and production plant operators. After multiple benchtop tests and confirmation from the manufacturing facility's team, we agree to test it on the production equipment itself.

This is often the first time we get to see how well the product formula can be scaled up to a very large batch - often hundreds of pounds and dozens of gallons. There are several elements that can change in a scale-up process, and it's vital that the benchtop formula be as precise as possible.

Most of the time, I have had lots of success with the scale up processes. Often, this is because the manufacturing facility R&D and operations team have vetted the formulas, suggesting alterations and doing their own confirmation tests. It is ideal when they test the formulas separately from our tests and compare their versions to the versions we've sent them - the "gold standards."

Sometimes the process of scale up doesn't go very well. More on that next time.



The company sent our quality systems engineer and me to Thailand for a first production run for a organic rice partnership project, and I think I've fallen in love with the land and the food. I always knew that I enjoyed Thai food - the Malibu and Thousand Oaks-based restaurant Cholada got me absolutely hooked in college. But the food in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Kanchanaburi surpassed even my wildest imaginations.

The ingredients in Thailand are obviously different and a different freshness, flavor profile, and variety than those found in the US or imported. The food, therefore, tastes like a completely different and more vibrant food.

The typical dishes that I knew and ordered often were Pad Thai, several curries, some appetizers, and Mango Sticky Rice. I made it my mission to eat these dishes whenever given the opportunity.

For the most part, our hosts ordered the meals, and we were treated to some of their favorites. In Bangkok, we were hosted at the Blue Elephant cooking school, and we learned how to cook Tom Kha Gai (Coconut chicken soup), fried fish with chilies, mushrooms with black pepper sauce, and sour green mango salad. I had no idea that a mortar and pestle were such a significant part of the Thai kitchen.

We also experienced strong, bright orange, totally-not-bitter Thai tea (Thai Cha) served in a plastic baggie with a straw jabbed into the crushed ice. One must hold the baggie carefully, but the drink melts so fast, and you're so hot, there's not enough time to risk spilling it.

In Chiang Mai, we were treated to a saltier Mango Sticky Rice dessert (we ate it twice for breakfast), and the mangos were almost caramel-sweet. We also sampled Mangosteen fruit (the super fruit!), Rambutan, and Durien with our American expat host and his Thai wife and chef, who runs a canteen for a local government office. The Mangosteen was tart-sweet and came out in sections, almost like an orange. The Rambutan was sweet fruit similar to a lychee but a slightly less cloying.

Chef Noy selected a few durien lobes for us to taste, and the family looked on at us with some slight aprehension. Many folks dislike the pungent fruit. The samples she chose for us smelled like overripe banana peels with a slight sour-ripe finish. The texture was custard-like in that it was creamy once bitten into. The flavor had the almost-offensive over-ripe sweet fruit flavor, like you would get from bananas best suited for baking or cheese that has sat out for a little too long and has gotten sweaty. It wasn't the rotting flesh or gym sock flavor/aroma that I had imagined.

One late night, my coworker and I finished wandering a night street market and went hunting for food. When the cafes seemed boring - why eat western food while vacationing?? - we resorted to a packed little food stall across from a western-style hotel. With just three little tables, a main wheeled cart plus 1 wheeled standing-height cooler; the cook and his aide cranked out all sorts of stir fries, curries, and sauced dishes. For comparison-sake (for science!), I ordered the Pad Thai and the Khao Pad Prik.

OMG - probably the best I've had. Cooked in a smoking hot wok over a crazy high gas flame, the noodles took on a caramelized richness that could only be achieved at such extreme temperatures and lots of smoke. My colleague ordered a chicken green curry that had her sniffling and sweating in the 90+ degree night.

In Kanchanaburi, we stayed at a local hotel that felt more like a resort. Situated on the River Kwai and very close to the origin of the Burma railway, which was built by POW labor during WWII, there was a thriving expat community and bars, hostels, and hotels built to host them. We were directly across the river from a temple, and we were wakened on our second morning by the morning prayer or chants. It gave a romance and mystery to the sunrise over the river to be sure.

The weather in Thailand was pretty much what one would probably expect: HOT, HUMID, MUGGY. Then again, everyone has AC, so our little group of Thai and American hosts and business partners dashed into 7-11 to cool off several times. This is how sweaty I got in just 15 minutes in the factory.

In addition to some of the great sights and food, we also rode tuk-tuks and checked out some night markets. What an amazing area!

 If you haven't been, get yourself to Thailand.

If you have, what did you like?


On Juggling and Balance

BUCRA mills on my way work ~6:45a

Lately, I've been pretty buried in projects and deadlines.

It happens every few months in R&D - you work hard on several ideas to check for viability of a concept, and then a few of them start to work out. It is fantastic when the projects that work out are spread out over several months, but other times, they end up on the same timeline, and you have to figure out how to wring more than 600 minutes from a 10-hour day.

In the case of my current job, we choose to adhere to specific customers' schedules to review certain grocery categories, so we (product innovation) are pressured to complete projects that will line up with the scheduled presentation dates. 

Recently, a really cool concept was presented to us as a "we have this, let us make it for you." We thought, this is great, of course we'll take it

Turns out, the idea is developed, but the depth of the concept hasn't been fleshed out. Fleshing out is needed, and the product developer needs to do that. 

*all eyes turn towards yours truly*

Shared 3rd place with a buddy at RCA's 5K in Denver

Yep, I have just taken on another new project with fewer than 10 business days between ideation and protocept finalization. 

That doesn't sound so bad, but normally, there is at least 3 weeks from ideation to concepting to costing to benchtop testing. We only heard about this idea around March 11th (that's my birthday, so it was easy to remember when I first heard the pitch), so it's not like we've really been sitting around.

Then you might be thinking, Well, it's not quite the end of April, and you have until the end of the first week of May - that's at least another 6 business days. What happened to those? 

I'll tell you: I'm already traveling for back-to-back manufacturing trials for all the projects I've been working on for the past year. 

All of them. Back to back. 

Some of that overlap is due to some project hiccups last year, and some of it is due to the food categories they are, and the customer-scheduled sales presentation dates. Some of it has just been luck of the calendar. 

At least none of them are the same week...

I was whining about the state of the project last Monday to a friend in Washington, and she quipped, "I've done some of my best work in really short times." 


Stopped me in my tracks really quickly. 

Why am I whining about trying to knock out a killer flavor and concept quickly? I love the product concept that was pitched; I'm contributing to a new flavor and a new category in one go! 

Hello, perspective

So yes, my time is tight right now, but it's good. Some lessons have finally been pounded home.

I was able to see that I was spending time at work on other nice-to-do activities and ones that I didn't feel right to pass off (file organization, kitchen management for caterers, consumer response tests/responses, data entry, kitchen cleanup, random meetings to talk about fears in projects - euphemistically called "red flags"). 

I wasn't spending the right balance of time on the activities that will bring the most profit, so to speak. I wasn't paying attention to the entrepreneurship mastermind writings I've been feverishly reading and downloading. 

As Gary Keller and Jay Papasan ask their readers in their book, The ONE Thing,  "What’s the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

The Mentee Podcast's Geoff Woods talks about calendarizing priorities - yes, that's a word and very much a verb - and letting the rest fall into place. Of course, I had to let a stressful project force me into figuring out what my one thing should be. 

Right now, that's working on these formulas and making sure that our products will ship for the manufacturing trials. Oh wait, one thing: formulation! 

After that, I've queued up all the paperwork that's needed for the projects: finalizing the technical documents needed to pass on my work to the teams downstream. Making sure that the vendors and suppliers are entered into the system. And confirming that landing zones for the manufactured product is arranged. And then some other random documents. 

Good thing I've got some time on airplanes for the next few weeks! I should buy the Boingo or GoGoInternet month pass. Hmmmm


Intangible Benefits of Professional Memberships

Not only do the benefits of being an active member of RCA make for a really fantastic annual conference, the connections follow you into trade shows. Right after leaving the RCA conference in Denver, I flew to Anaheim for the last few days of the Natural Products Expo. A behemoth of a conference, it is one of the most significant trade shows that Lundberg Family Farms attends, and nearly twenty of us attended during the trade show week.

I connected with multiple vendors, some of whom do business with Lundberg right now and some who would like to supply us with ingredients in the future. A few folks have asked “How was the show?” I have no idea; I mostly saw it when I was wandering from one vendor’s booth to the next. There were SO MANY PEOPLE and at least as many booths. Whew. I’ll recap that another time.

Anyway, one thing I loved about the week is that I got to connect with some chefs from the RCA. We met up at the Anaheim Packing House, a warehouse building that has been converted into a multi-business venue filled with beer halls, restaurants, ice cream shops, and a patisserie. Several of us gathered there for beer - and dessert, as it turns out. We each seemed to bring a new person to network, and the connections were so fun.

As we were chatting together, we realized that while we have such diverse backgrounds, we can really help each other. First, we bring different networks to the table. In addition, we bring perspectives that can help another look at a problem differently. The experiences that we each have were also different, and that made it really useful to say to another “well, this is how I addressed this problem…”

That same friend from the New Orleans RCA wrote several names and numbers on napkins and gave me some advice on some entrepreneurship and women leadership books. We didn’t get together to whine and cry – we were getting together to share a drink. And this, the community we’ve built, takes care of each other throughout our play time and work time.

I know this seems like a giant advertorial for a professional membership, but I’ve pledged to talk about my transition from line cooking to food manufacturing, and my activity in the RCA and friendships that have blossomed. Shameless plug for joining the professional membership of your industry – it’s worth it when you can make those solid connections.