The product development process for SME food businesses: classic mistakes, hurdles, pitfalls and how to avoid them
Johnny is a food designer who combines his background in Materials Science – for which he has a doctorate – with years of cooking experience to create delicious things for the world’s best restaurants and bars, and leading food and drink brands.
Through his consultancy practice he’s aided a range of food start-ups to bring class-leading food and drinks to market and improve and perfect existing products and processes.
He is regarded as an expert on fermentation, using it as a tool to amplify flavour, create new products and increase sustainability. He has a particular passion for butter, ice creams and condiments.
Johnny is here to give us his take on what it takes to launch a food product from personal experience. Take it away Johnny…
Before you start, make sure there’s a market
You may think you have a brilliant idea. An unfilled niche that the world has been waiting for. You’ve created some delicious titbit that people will be queueing around the block to purchase: the new Cronut, the next Impossible burger, the cold brew coffee to launch a thousand morning commutes.
And you may well have! But it’s worth doing some due diligence to check there’s a viable market for such a product before you pile your time and money wholeheartedly into it: Are similar products already sold? Is there space for a newcomer? Are there lots of newcomers flooding that space? Would people be willing to buy your product, and for how much?
Part of this research may involve selling at a small market or getting local grocery stalls to stock your product, but don’t underestimate some good old pen and paper research first.
At the Business and IP Centre of the British Library you can access Mintel reports for free. These contain data about market sizes for various products and sectors. For example, how much do Britons spend on soft drinks each year? Which soft drinks categories are expanding, which are shrinking? Similarly, look for trend forecasting about which markets are expected to expand or are expanding.
Feedback, feedback, feedback
Your palate may be very different from that of your customers so gather as much feedback from as many different people as you can.
Test your products on your loved ones and give them to colleagues and neighbours. Get them into as many mouths as possible early on, note down what people say, how they taste to them, how they make them feel, and what their expectations around such a product are.
But don’t trust your loved ones too much
I’m sorry to tell you this but… they lie! In order to protect your feelings, your parents, partners and besties might not tell you what they really think about you’ve made. Instead, hunt down the most brutally honest people you know and test out your product, idea and pitch on them. People with absolutely zero filter are best for this.
Think about shelf life
You can have the most delicious product in the world but if it deteriorates in quality quickly, or worse, spoils in a way that could make someone ill, then your brilliant business idea will flounder.
With produce like breads and pastries, the shelf life and how that fits into your plans is probably quite intuitive and straightforward. But for most other things – say, condiments, soft drinks, anything “ready to eat” – the length of the shelf life and its importance to your ability to make money can be much less obvious. It’s somewhat simplistic, but a longer shelf life normally means you can be more profitable.
You need to protect against spoilage (from moulds or bacteria, for example) and make sure the quality and taste of your product doesn’t degrade with time even if it’s still safe to consume, for example a juice changing colour or separating, which might be unappetising to some consumers.
To assess spoilage you can get labs to conduct shelf life tests, and these are the same people who could analyse the nutritional composition of your product for your labels.
How will your business and production scale up? It’s all well and good making 50 or 100 of something in your kitchen, but what would happen when you come to make 500 or 5,000 or 50,000?
There’s a big difference. You can’t just pop to your local shops to buy 25kg of cocoa powder or Siberian ginseng. You could just about buy 25kg of sugar from a supermarket, but it would be more expensive that way. (I once tried to buy ALL of the cabbages in a supermarket in Munich for a fermentation workshop, about 40 in total. Confusion, resistance and chaos ensued!)
From the outset, research where you would buy your bulk ingredients from. Large-scale suppliers will sometimes send samples for you to test your recipes with. Also, research what your process might look like if or when you scale up production. Would you need to tweak your process or recipe, and how?
A few seemingly trivial things that often trip people up when they scale up: liquids with bits in can clog up production lines; big batches take a lot longer to heat up and to cool down; storing and transporting large amounts of raw ingredients can be logistically tricky and more expensive than you anticipate.
Think about the non-edible stuff
Be realistic about the costs for all the non-food and drink related things you will have to do.
To set up your company there will be legal fees for registering your company name and trademarking, fees for designers, packaging and labels. Sorting out your packaging is particularly important and time-consuming – labels can be a nightmare! If you are fortunate enough to be listed in a supermarket there will be minimum marketing spends that are typically large.
You don’t need to know these costs down to the penny but having them – and their potential scale – on your radar when you’re perfecting your brilliant ideas in your kitchen is very advantageous in the long run.
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Edited by: Chlöe Hamilton