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Food Development No Piece of Cake

Readying a line of soy and flaxseed snacks for their supermarket debut has kept BodyLogic founders busy baking, tasting, testing.

May 17, 2000|CYNDIA ZWAHLEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Joan Kofsky first shaped the dried fruit and flaxseed goo into a granola bar. Then she tried flattening it into a fruit leather. The consensus of family and friends remained the same: Yuck.

Despite its healthy ingredients, Kofsky nixed the unnamed gunk from the potential product line of BodyLogic, a small mail-order company she started in her San Diego kitchen with her younger sister. These early product-development efforts were low-tech but thorough. Armed with a small coffee grinder, Kofsky led yearlong experiments with flaxseed and dried soybeans, tracking results and soliciting regular feedback.

Interested in flax and soy for their plant estrogens, which are reputed to ease menopause symptoms, the women two years ago began trying to create tasty and convenient snacks they couldn't find in stores.

Since then, soy has grabbed headlines and the interest of the country's biggest food makers. The Food and Drug Administration in October approved claims that soy protein may cut the risk of heart disease by lowering cholesterol levels. In March, Kellogg Co. introduced a soy version of its Smart Start cereal.

"Every major food company is working on soy products because of that health claim," said Mary Mulry, president of Foodwise Inc., a consulting firm in Boulder, Colo.

Kofsky and her sister, Susan Grode, know that careful product development is crucial to remain competitive. It will be especially important as they ready their first line for sale in stores.

"Part of the early learning curve has told us what we have to do each time we invent a product--we have to perfect them," said Grode, an entertainment attorney in Los Angeles.

That's not easy, as the sisters have discovered. With no background in food science or product development, and working within the limits of their home kitchen, the process has been slow and painstaking.

Kofsky baked endless batches of bars and trail mixes, and spent days researching ingredients and tracking down sources. Her sister, who handles the business side of the operation, drove down for tastings on weekends.

It took a year or so to narrow the potential product line to its handful of snack mixes, including an Oy Soy Fruit Trail Mix, a Rice Snackles bar and sweet and savory toppings for yogurt, salads and cereal. Sales have grown slowly via word of mouth and BodyLogic's Web site, http://www.body-logicfood.com. Kofsky estimates sales last year at $450,000.

"Food product development is a very expensive operation, and the success rate is quite low," said Norm Haard, a professor in the Food Science and Technology department at UC Davis.

Technical challenges, such as preventing rancidity, are a major hurdle for companies large and small, he said.

Marketplace complexity is another concern. A potato chip maker, for example, ought to know that consumers in the New York market prefer dark chips, whereas Midwest munchers want a golden-colored product, he said. The fickleness of consumers who will reject a product when it's no longer "hot" is another concern for product developers, he said.

The intimate scale of their business helped Kofsky and her sister create an effective strategy to deal with these product development hurdles, Mulry said.

The sisters had a strong grasp of their market because their potential customers were much like them: women concerned about menopause symptoms and looking for food alternatives to traditional hormone replacement therapy.

The products were fine-tuned based on inexpensive but regular mailing of samples and scorecards to a group of friends and family for input on taste, texture and effectiveness. The relative lack of early competition in their niche gave Kofsky and her sister the luxury of time to master the tricks of working with fragile flaxseed and roasted soybeans, rather than paying a technical consultant to speed things along.

"In some ways, learning by trial and error is a good thing early on," Mulry said.

Kofsky knew that one of her main ingredients, flaxseed, could quickly turn rancid when ground to release its beneficial oils. Months of tinkering in a kitchen sticky with scattered seeds helped her learn how best to work with the oil seed, she said.

Baking stabilized the product, but because the mixes and bars were made without wheat flour they tended to burn easily. The varying moisture content of the soybeans, nuts and dried fruits also affected results. Some efforts scored high in initial appeal but turned to dust after being packed and shipped to family and friends for feedback, she said.

Her efforts to achieve product quality and consistent results are the basic goals for any food product development, experts said. Big companies may have more money to throw at the problem, but that doesn't mean they will hit more home runs than a small company.

"All this stuff you can do on the cheap, it just takes time and effort," Mulry said.

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