The ideas are still top secret, but the program isn't. The Schwan Food Co., based in Marshall, Minn., brought members of its talented Chef Collective together for the second Kitchen Collaborative to create products that taste great and are made with responsible, sustainable and natural ingredients. The desired outcome is innovative products that will lift the frozen food category and showcase Schwan’s culinary commitment to customers, consumers and employees.
While the Kitchen Collaborative is chef-centric, it’s truly a company-wide initiative. Both culinary chefs and R&D personnel work directly with the chefs, with marketing and other business units also very much involved. An advisory group representing various company disciplines determines areas of focus for the collaborative's members, who are then given “homework” assignments ahead of coming together. Chefs shop stores and look for gaps in various categories, they purchase and prepare items at home to get a sense of quality and taste, and they consider trending ingredients and formats they’d like Schwan to have on hand for the creative get-together.
“There’s a new definition of quality that reflects premium, artisan and the globalization of America,” said Susan Allen, senior marketing director at Schwan. “We recognize that consumers have greater access to information and seek bold and adventurous flavors. They’re also flexible eaters, and no longer adhere to three standard meals a day. Wrap that all together, and it gives you an idea of what we’re trying to achieve.”
While R&D and operations need to ensure that ideas will actually work, the collaborative's members are encouraged to be creative and think big. The collective broadly brainstorms flavors and trends that might be applied to different categories. From there, teams of chefs create myriad variations and then present to the team for taste testing.
“These eight talented chefs each bring their own perspective, and it opens our [Schwan team members’] minds to new possibilities. We all are working to create the best possible products,” said Michael Gunn, director of culinary for Schwan's R&D department.
Schwan’s Chef Collective includes:
- Jet Tila, owner and executive chef, The Charleston in Los Angeles, and Pakpao Thai, Dallas, as well as The Food Network’s "Cutthroat Kitchen" and "Guy’s Grocery Games."
- Adrienne Cheatham, executive chef, Streetbird, Harlem, N.Y.
- Adrienne Mosier, executive chef, Boston Urban Hospitality, Boston
- Ann Kim, owner and executive chef, Pizzeria Lola and Hello Pizza, Minneapolis
- Brian McCracken, principal, McCracken Tough Establishments: Spur, Tavern Law, Coterie Room, The Old Sage, Needle & Thread, Washington state
- Dana Tough, principal, McCracken Tough Establishments: Spur, Tavern Law, Coterie Room, The Old Sage, Needle & Thread, Washington state
- Stephanie Cmar, owner, Stacked Donuts, Boston
- Todd Erickson, owner and executive chef, Haven and Huahua’s Taqueria, Miami
- Michael Gunn, director of culinary, The Schwan Food Co.’s R&D department
- Deb Hey, corporate chef, The Schwan Food Co.
- Matt Horn, corporate executive chef, The Schwan Food Co.
Celebrity chef Jet Tila is no stranger to grocery retail, as his family opened the first Thai grocery store in the United States in the early 1970s. “I’ve worked in various levels of the food industry, not just restaurants, and I have to say, Schwan’s is the real deal, a flavor-first company committed to creating the gold standard of quality, authentic and healthier frozen items,” he said. He’s worked with Schwan for six years and takes great pride in some of the products he’s helped develop, particularly for the company’s Home Service division and the Pagoda retail brand.
Collective chefs have headed back to their own kitchens, but they’ll continue to collaborate with Schwan as the company works to create market-ready versions of the products that were brainstormed and created at Schwan’s Product Innovation & Quality center. Stay tuned!