Cooking to order

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

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Why hire a full-time chef when you only need his expertise three times a year? Elaine Watson looks at the rise of the interim market in product development

As a full-time development chef at a food manufacturer, how many days a week do you genuinely innovate? "I'd say one day a week, or perhaps two," says NPD Direct founder Robert Kedzlie, "which begs the question, why pay an experienced chef five days a week, 52 weeks a year, when you might only need his expertise three or four times over that period?"

This might have a depressingly mercenary ring to it, but it actually makes sense from a creative as well as a commercial point of view, insists Kedzlie, who spent 20 years in the industry working for companies including RHM and Geest before setting up his own product development solutions company.

If you are looking for inspiration, he says, where are you more likely to find it -- from a chef that's been working on the same products at the same company for last three years, or someone who has worked for 10 or 15 different manufacturers and gained experience of working with a score of different customers and product categories over the same period?

"People get stale, process-driven and constrained by their environment and experience to the extent that product development is geared to what their factory can make rather than what consumers actually want," he says.

As a result, it is often the larger, more efficient plants that find it harder to innovate, because they don't have the flexibility of a smaller company, he adds.

"The smaller players are increasingly leading the field when it comes to innovation and creativity."

Call in the experts

After leaving Geest to sell his services on an interim and consultancy basis, Kedzlie's diary quickly filled up. "People want you for all sorts of reasons," he says.

With offers coming in thick and fast, Kedzlie built up a network of associates with extensive experience in the industry and set up NPD Direct, a business offering advice or practical assistance in all aspects of the NPD process.

At the helm are Kedzlie, Vivienne Perkins, who has 25 years' industry experience at companies including Dawnfresh Seafoods and Solway Foods, and Sam Attew, who was a food technologist at Marks & Spencer and head of recipe dish development at Safeway.

For up to a third of its clients, NPD Direct will now handle all of their product development requirements, says Kedzlie.

"The NPD cycle goes in peaks and troughs. People are buying in expertise as and when they need it, effectively outsourcing the NPD function, which US manufacturers have been doing for years. The UK is just catching up."

While the market for permanent NPD positions is still buoyant, companies are increasingly seeing the value of buying in expertise on a more ad hoc basis, says Cheftech founder Celia Wright, who provides companies with support on everything from concept and process development to machinery commissioning and crisis management.

Demand, she says, is driven by retailers. "They want to get products to market more and more quickly. When they want samples, they expect to get them immediately. You hardly have time to order in the ingredients!"

With own-label manufacturing plants increasingly spreading their risks by servicing at least two customers, there can be sudden spikes in demand if both customers do a review at the same time, she says.

"This is when you get the panic-stricken phone calls from manufacturers."

The need to smooth out demand across the year by introducing new lines into plants that are geared towards seasonal products is also driving the market for businesses like Cheftech and NPD Direct, she claims.

"If you don't have the expertise in-house to move into a completely new product area, you need to find someone that has."

Bringing in outsiders can also breathe new life into a stale NPD department, she adds. "If you've been working on sausages for two years, it doesn't matter how creative you are, you could run out of inspiration.

"Bring someone else in, who has just been working on a great green peppercorn sauce for beef in a ready meals plant, and you have the basis of a great new sausage recipe."

Staying at one company for too long is not a great way to keep the creative juices flowing, anyway, adds Tony Robertson, a chef who has worked with several big name clients on a consultancy and interim basis.

He says: "Some chefs get burnt out and move on of their own accord. Others are asked to leave. They are effectively dumped by their employers who will then re-recruit, because they want to bring in fresh ideas."

As to whether Tesco politely asking you to 'value engineer' another 5p off your unit price is the best way of stimulating those creative juices, it all depends on your attitude, says NPD Direct's Vivienne Perkins.

"I've been in this industry for a long time and I've come to realise that a can-do mentality is absolutely essential, in the NPD function as well as everywhere else.

"The bottom line is that customers don't want to hear you whingeing about how unfair life is. They want you to inspire them." FM

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