Big Ideas; Big, New Home

By Sam Gazdziak, Senior Editor

The brand-new Discovery Center represents the heart of Tyson Foods’ considerable research and development efforts.

It’s not as if Tyson Foods has struggled to come up with new products for the last few years. If anything, Tyson has been one of the most prolific companies in the meat-processing industry when it comes to developing new items, introducing hundreds of new items a year. Still, taking the phrase, “There’s always room for improvement,” to heart, Tyson has opened a new research and development haven in its Springdale, Ark., headquarters. Tyson’s Discovery Center, a 100,000-square-foot hub for new product innovation, was formally unveiled on March 6.
“We ranked No. 1 in product development in the foodservice industry for the last four consecutive years,” said Greg Lee, Tyson’s chief administrative officer, at the opening ceremonies. “However, since consumer needs are constantly changing, we must also continue to change and improve. That is why we are so passionate about understanding the consumer and creating new foods to meet their needs.”
The Discovery Center is the new home for all of Tyson’s new product efforts, on both the foodservice and retail side. It features 19 state-of-the-art test kitchens, a packaging lab, consumer focus-group and testing areas, dining/presentation areas, and a USDA-certified pilot plant. “There is no other research and development center [like it] anywhere in the world that we’re aware of,” said Dick Bond, Tyson president and CEO.
The idea for the Discovery Center has been in the works for several years. Bond said the building, including the pilot plant, was designed in 2004 and completed at the end of 2006, to a tune of $45 million.
“It shows great commitment by John Tyson, our chairman, and Dick Bond,” says Craig Bacon, vice president – corporate research and development. “This is not a short-term investment; this is a long-term investment in product innovation with all of our customers, both foodservice and retail customers, to ultimately get to the consumer new products.”
Lee pointed out that the Discovery Center is more than just the building. “It represents a food-innovation process [that] includes customer collaboration, consumer insights and culinary expertise,” he said.
There are about 120 employees in the Discovery Center, with more than 50 holding advanced degrees and 11 with PhDs. Bond noted with pride that 65 Tyson food technologists were training to become certified culinary scientists through the Research Chefs Association.
“Once they have completed their training and pass a rigorous certification exam, this will mean that two-thirds of the world’s certified culinary scientists will reside at Tyson Foods,” he said.
Planning for the future
Bacon says that when Tyson was planning the layout of the building, executives toured many non-competitive food industry development centers and incorporated the best of everything they saw.
The plans for the Discovery Center were field-tested as well. Hal Carper, senior vice president – corporate research and development, explains that the company built a working prototype kitchen inside a warehouse so that it could be tested by the people who would be working in the kitchens on a regular basis.
“We took our food technologists and technicians over to this location and had them work in this environment to make sure the flow was right and the lighting was right, and we tested it ergonomically as well as the effectiveness for meeting all of our needs. We made changes as a result of that [test].”
The 19 test kitchens are specifically designed for new product development for foodservice and retail products and are stocked with the equipment typically found in the backrooms of a restaurant or in a modern consumer kitchen. Tyson calls all of the equipment “plug and play,” meaning that appliances can be moved in or out of the kitchens, depending on needs. In the foodservice kitchens, for example, a new product that is being tested for a casual-dining chain can be made using the same equipment that is in the restaurant.
The foodservice and retail presentation kitchens have adjoining conference rooms/dining areas, where visiting guests can watch product being prepared and then get an opportunity to taste the results. The presentation kitchens also have overhead cameras, so people in the conference rooms can close off the kitchen for a quieter environment and still watch the activity on video screens located in the dining areas. The camera feeds can also be Webcast to people outside of the office.
“For our sales team out in the field, we can show them new items without bringing [the team] all the way to Springdale,” Bacon says. “We can talk with them via our Intranet about the new items we’re working on.”
Developing product is obviously a key part of the Discovery Center, but in many cases, developing attractive and convenient packaging is just as important. For that reason, the Discovery Center also includes a packaging lab, run by Steve Morris, director of packaging innovations. With a variety of packaging equipment at his disposal, Morris can work with all manner of packaging types and materials to find the right product.
“We have our product base, and we have our marketing, but we also need to develop our packaging,” he explains. “The lab itself is the setting where we can develop ideas in a more formal way than we have in the past.”
Tyson has won several packaging awards in the past, and it continues to look at new developments in a variety of packaging types, including deli, ready-to-roast and extended-shelf-life products.
“We’ve never had a space for Steve before,” Bacon says. “A lot of the things Steve has been able to do without a facility is amazing, in terms of customer needs and desires around packaging innovations. Now, Steve’s got a new home.”
Pilot plant pride
Tyson’s customers can walk into the Discovery Center and walk out with more than just a concept. Thanks to the USDA-approved pilot plant on the premises, they can leave with product that they can sell or test with their own customers.
The plant has three zones for production of chicken, beef and pork products. There is a viewing area in the center that looks down over the plant, so guests can watch the production of their product in development. The viewing windows have shades that can be drawn and secured when proprietary products are being made in the pilot plant. The plant has been designed to help improve the speed-to-market of the products developed by Tyson. Bacon notes that Tyson has about 100 manufacturing plants nationwide.
“There’s not a process I can’t mimic or emulate directly in this facility,” he says. “In this one plant, I can do everything that I can do in the total of those other facilities, and on the same equipment they are using.”
Carper says that the plant will be a difference-maker for the company. “So often, the industry rushes to get product to market and has to do so on live production lines, so consequently, you’re not really able to take the best product to market, because you can’t afford to spend the time on live production lines,” he says. “With the pilot plant, we’re going to much better optimize the products we take to market and do it faster.”
Along with manufacturing new product, Tyson can also get consumer feedback with a consumer testing center and a sensory area. The consumer center has a two-way mirror with a back room, so that Tyson’s food technologists and customers can watch customers talk about the latest products. This room also has cameras that can broadcast the discussions on the Web, so customers in another location can watch the proceedings and e-mail questions for the consumers to answer.
The sensory area has 12 booths that allow sensory panelists to taste new products and answer questions on touchscreen computers. Specialized lights and fans can remove any outside sensory distractions, allowing the panelists to focus strictly on the taste of the product. Bacon notes that with 12 booths, the company can now accomplish in half a day what used to take two days.
Carper and Bacon will oversee the daily happenings in the facility. The two agree that the new center is a drastic improvement over the previous system, which had people in several locations. Bacon said that trying to accomplish several tasks in a limited number of kitchens reduced the effectiveness of the R&D efforts. Carper added that, without the space to bring in customers, technologists would have to go to the customers’ facilities to talk about new products.
“That’s still good, but many of our customers really wanted the opportunity to break away from their normal distractions and be very focused on new product development,” he says.
The building has been in operation since the start of the year, and a few customers have already been in the Discovery Center. Carper and Bacon say that the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
“They’ve been amazed,” Bacon says. “We’ve seen more activity, more development requests. More product development is occurring, and more samples are being sent out.”
He says there are more than 800 projects in place now. Carper adds that customers have picked up on all the ways that they can utilize the resources Tyson is providing.
“I’m very pleased that they’re looking beyond the building, and they’re understanding how all of the things that we’ve gathered together here — the consumer insights, the focus groups, the sensory capabilities, the focused kitchens around specific business units and customer needs, through to the pilot plant — they see how all of that works together and will benefit them.”
Meat Case of the Future
Another feature of the Discovery Center is a fully stocked meat case, displaying many products that fill pressing consumer needs. Tyson calls it the “Meat Case of the Future,” and it’s filled end to end with Tyson products.
Convenience and speed is something that time-crunched consumers are looking for, and Tyson has been releasing products that fill those needs. Last year, the company released Trimmed & Ready chicken breasts, which are hand-trimmed and allow the meal preparer to get the chicken out of the package and immediately start preparing the dish without wasting time cutting excess fat.
A similar time-saving product is Tyson Individually Wrapped chicken products. Studies have shown that consumers tend to buy proteins and immediately freeze them for future use. With the Individually Wrapped products, they can take out the portion they want to use right away, and the remainder is stored for later.
For consumers that don’t have time to prepare a meal from scratch, the company has released Tyson Fresh Meal Kits and Meal Kits. Containing such items as beef roast and chicken quesadillas, they can be put together with five to 20 minutes of preparation time.
During the center’s unveiling, Bond also addressed the trend toward bolder flavors, pointing out the company’s new Tequila Lime chicken wings in the retail market. The foodservice industry is heading down a similar path, he said.
“We’ve also started offering seasoned pork, and pulled pork and beef to our restaurant operators, and the trend for more bold flavors has trickled down to the young people who want things such as our Hot & Spicy chicken patties.”
Bond also introduced a new product for school lunches called “chicken chips,” which were available for tasting during the opening ceremonies. The chips are chicken nuggets that are formed into the shape of a potato chip. They are available in kid-friendly flavors like ranch and barbecue.
Several other new Tyson products were available for sampling, including a rotisserie pork loin, a steak lovers’ pizza and an omelet sandwich with bacon and carmelized onion spread. Along with showing off Tyson’s versatility — the company makes the dough on the pizza and the omelet and onion spread on the sandwich — the sampling helped demonstrate the types of things that were possible at the Discovery Center.
The chicken chips, for example, came about through interviews with students of all grades who came to a consensus that their school lunches were pretty poor (“School lunches suck,” was the exact phrase Tyson often received), and the pizza came after research showed that there weren’t many pizza options that were geared specifically toward men. As more and more foodservice operators and retailers make their way to the Discovery Center, those types of products and many others will continue to make their way out to restaurants and grocery stores.
“The Discovery Center is where we bring all our great resources together for true collaboration and joint value creation between Tyson Foods, our strategic supply partners and our customers,” Carper says. “In the Discovery Center we will conceptualize, develop, and execute joint value creation plans that will further differentiate Tyson Foods from our competition and leave our customers with a lasting agenda to do more business with Tyson, because we help them build their business more profitably and faster than anyone else.”
“That’s what this facility is all about,” Bacon says. “Get our customers inside this building, work together to develop ideas, to build prototypes and work on production out in the pilot plant, and they leave here with a new product.”