DENVER (AP) — Late-night brainstorming. Kitchen tinkering. Reams of research or an offhand joke. There's no telling where the next big thing in food will come from.
Thousands of new products get introduced each year, but what doesn't show up in grocery aisles or restaurants is who cooked up the idea to begin with, and how long it took.
It took more than a year for Frito-Lay Inc. to turn its cheeseburger-flavored Doritos Late Night All Nighter chips from white-paper idea to snack attack. And Qdoba Mexican Grill added Mexican gumbo in 2006 after a franchisee saw employees ladling tortilla soup over a naked burrito. It's still on the menu.
When Kashi was exploring offering healthy frozen entrees, it sought help from a consulting firm that has tapped the creative minds of everyone from a jewelry designer and an improv comedian to "Top Chef" winner Hosea Rosenberg.
"Some of the best products we've ever come up with started with some ridiculous, off-the-wall suggestion someone's just joking about," Rosenberg said.
In 2008, Doritos suffered a single-digit percentage drop in sales that might have pushed the brand to remind people of more occasions for eating snacks. But Rudy Wilson, Frito-Lay's vice president of marketing, said Doritos was just trying to deliver what customers want when it introduced the cheeseburger tortilla chips.
The orange chip looks like any other Dorito. But proprietary technology used in other divisions was deployed to create phased flavors, so someone biting into the chip might first taste a smoky barbecued meat flavor, then lettuce, pickle and mustard.
"One of the things we recognized with our fans is that they love Doritos at night, so when we did a lot of testing, we realized a lot of the flavors they love at night," Wilson said.
Teams looked at trends, hung out until all hours to see where their customers were eating and what, tasted all the leading brands. "We literally tried everything you could think of that's typical late night," Wilson said.
Wilson wouldn't release specifics, but said the cheeseburger-flavored Dorito is exceeding sales expectations. He wouldn't say which flavors got passed over, in case Doritos uses them later.
Not including customer research, PepsiCo Inc. spent $414 million on research and development of new products and different versions of existing ones for all its brands last year, according to regulatory filings.
Kashi, the seven-grain cereal and snack bar company, turned to the Boulder-based Sterling-Rice Group when it wanted to explore healthy frozen entrees.
Sterling-Rice, whose work includes researching cultural shifts, found that Kashi's customers were buying frozen foods, but they weren't proud of it, said Sterling-Rice culinary director Cathryn Olchowy. From there, the firm spent a day tapping about two dozen creative minds from a local think tank whose members have included an improv comedian, along with members of its own Culinary Council like Rosenberg.
Sterling-Rice spent about three months before submitting six ideas to Kashi for packaged entrees that are low-sodium and include higher-end ingredients such as lemon grass and coconut. Three of the six ideas have launched, Olchowy said. Kashi declined to comment.
One in 1,000 brainstormed ideas might make it to shelves, and one in three of those might succeed, said Launch Pad's Frank Kvietok, whose past includes developing Febreze products for Procter & Gamble Co.
Launch Pad is a firm that helps bring new products to market. For example, its product developers worked with beFull Solutions, maker of the Fullbar weight-loss snack bar. They scrapped a few ideas for a bite-size version before settling on one for the new FullBites line. Fullbar realized it could reach more people who needed or wanted to lose weight if it also sold what most already craved: snack food.
"We wanted something people could put a few in their mouth at a time," Kvietok said. One prototype looked like a breadstick, but it was deemed too messy.
A chip version was rejected as too entrenched in customers' minds as unhealthy, he said. A spherical shape lost out because it reminded people too much of breakfast cereal. Another puffed form looked too much like dog food. A popcorn shape was discarded because adding flavor to a kernel with so much surface area would have meant adding more fat and sodium.
The final form is more like tiny, crispy puffs. Choosing flavors — barbecue, sour cream and onion, cheddar — was relatively easy.
"We intentionally chose flavors established in the mindset. Let's not teach people how to like our food. Let's give them food they already like," Kvietok said. "That doesn't take much market research. Just walk down the grocery aisle."