From Concept to Jar: Launching Our Peanut-Free Spread
Creating a first-of-its-kind food product is no easy feat, but with our Peanut-Free Spread, that’s exactly what we set out to accomplish. Now that our Top 9 Allergen-Free spread is available to consumers, we sat down with our Senior Food Scientist Meaghan Sugrue, it’s primary developer, to talk all things Peanut-Free Spread and how she took it from concept to jar.
Lindsey Pfeiffer: Hi Meaghan! When you first joined Voyage Foods just over a year ago, did you know that you would be working on the Peanut-Free Spread from the start?
Meaghan Sugrue: Hi! So I actually had no idea that I would be working on the spread. When I was interviewing at the company, things were pretty hush-hush and we were still operating in stealth mode. But I think they wanted me to focus on the spread because in my previous role at Kraft Heinz, I had been working on sauces, which was a lot of the same processing and ingredients. In hindsight, I think it was definitely the perfect category for me to work on.
LP: What initially excited you about working on getting the Peanut-Free Spread ready for its debut?
MS: I think the thing that stood out to me most was that it was our first product to launch and was going to be consumers’ first introduction to Voyage. So obviously, that was very exciting––and nerve-wracking. I also liked the fact that I was creating something Top 9 Allergen-Free that tastes like peanut butter, because there wasn’t, and still isn’t, anything on the market that’s quite like it. Also the fact that it is really affordable and meant to be around the same price as Jif peanut butter. But I think more than anything, that it was our first product, and was so clearly meant for people who have food allergies or have family members with allergies. It was really exciting to be on the project team that was bringing that to life.
LP: What was it like being essentially the only one in R&D working on the spread? Especially given your background coming from a global food manufacturer with much larger R&D teams.
MS: Well, I think another reason why I was put on this project was because at my old job, I had a lot of experience scaling up products and working with the factory teams, and there were only two other food scientists working alongside me. But coming to Voyage, it was still kind of a mindset shift positively in the sense that if I want to do something, I can do it. I don’t need to get consensus from everyone else that’s involved in the project, I can just go out and try something new. And that kind of thinking is really encouraged here.
At the same time, I didn’t know everything about these systems, what outcomes to expect, what was good, what was bad. Sometimes that gave me analysis paralysis, because a lot of times at a big company, it’s more straightforward. But on the flip side, nothing was off the table. Different types of ingredients and processing equipment were all fair game. And I was really inspired by my coworkers who didn’t come from a large company background and thought much more creatively about problems. So even though I was the only one working directly on the spread, I always tried to involve people, whether that was quality and operations or R&D managers at different points. I really tried to solicit feedback from them and get their input, especially when it was different than my own opinions and findings.
LP: Do you think that level of innovation and creativity you’ve found at Voyage is more challenging to achieve at a larger company?
MS: 100%. At Voyage, we can build a system around our products, whereas at a big company, they tend to have very dedicated systems and are creating one particular thing. The opportunity for that level of innovation isn’t usually in place in that kind of environment. And I think these big companies know that, which is why they acquire and work with smaller brands, rather than build something entirely new internally. That’s why companies like ours have been so successful: we don’t have those permanent guardrails around what we create, which has allowed us to innovate and change the landscape of food.
LP: You mentioned you had that freedom and autonomy to try out new methods and ingredients. What was your process of taking the spread from where it was when you started to where it is today?
MS: Since there had been an intern at Voyage already working on the spread when I joined, I had somewhat of a head start, particularly in terms of its texture. My job was really to nail down the flavor, getting it as close to the taste of traditional peanut butter as possible. So it was really more about removing certain ingredients, adding others, and improving the overall flavor. After that, it was all about scaling it up.
LP: Within that development process, how important were tastings with other members of the R&D team and even other team members?
MS: From flavor screenings to shelf life tests, the employee tastings were really important throughout the entire development process. At the beginning, there were a lot of informal tastings where I would try a new flavor compound, a new ingredient in the base, or replacing an ingredient, and have other members of our R&D team taste it against a control to see how close the flavor was to regular peanut butter. Having that immediate feedback, rather than waiting for a more formal, quantitative test to get that answer, was really helpful for continuous improvement of the spread on a day-to-day-basis.
Also, as the scientist that’s developing a product, you tend to have a very emotional connection to it, so you need other people who can be impartial and objective to validate what’s working or point out things that you might be missing. But fellow R&D team members weren’t the only ones involved in the taste tests. Having the whole company take part in the testing process helped everyone to feel more connected as a team and be able witness smaller changes to the spread as they happened instead of only seeing the final product.
LP: What was more challenging in developing the Peanut-Free Spread: the taste or the texture?
MS: Both definitely came with their own set of challenges. Taste is harder to initially develop, but once you have it, it’s a lot easier to stay consistent with that and scale up. But with texture, a lot of times, it’s not always identical from batch to batch, even with the same recipe, which can make scaling up a bit trickier.
LP: How has working on such a challenging product helped you grow as a food scientist and develop your skills in the field?
MS: Going through the process of creating the Peanut-Free Spread, a product that is unlike any other on the market, has been really rewarding and has definitely helped build my own skills. Now that it has launched, I’m working on different iterations and line extensions, and my learnings from creating the initial spread have been really helpful in developing those new products.
But outside the development of the spread specifically, working at Voyage has really helped in the way I approach and solve problems now, which has been an important lesson in life, not just within my role as a food scientist. Joining a team so early definitely came with its challenges, but it’s been really cool to serve as an ambassador for Voyage’s R&D process as a whole.
LP: Now that the spread has been available to consumers for a couple of months, what has it been like to see reviews and feedback start to come in?
MS: It’s been really cool to see and it makes you realize that what we’re doing is completely new. Earlier this year, when we exhibited at the Sweets & Snacks Expo in Chicago, it was definitely somewhat challenging to describe what we’re doing briefly, since what we’re creating is so unique. So I think it’s really cool that now the spread is out there and people can taste it for themselves. It’s a completely different experience tasting it versus just hearing us describe it. Of course, in the process of developing the spread we would hear feedback from investors or other people in the food industry that have worked with food all their lives, people who know intimately the issues around ingredients, allergens, and processing. But consumers tend to have more questions about the spread and how me made it, so now that they can get their hands on it, it’s great to hear positive feedback. I’m incredibly validated when I hear consumers say things like, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to taste peanut butter, I can finally know what a peanut tastes like!”
On the other hand, we shouldn’t discount the constructive feedback we get from our customers. Even though it’s obvious to me what the key issues are within the food system that we’re trying to solve, that level of knowledge and understanding isn’t the same for everyone, especially for people who don’t spend as much time thinking about and working in the food industry. For me, making sure that we can communicate what we do well and address valid consumer concerns is just as important.
LP: You just celebrated your 1-year anniversary at Voyage! What has been the best moment in the past year?
MS: I think the most memorable moment was when we tested whether we could actually make a batch of the spread commercially. It took three days, working 10–12 hours each day, but we did it. Of course we had some hiccups along the way, but at the end of it, we had Peanut-Free Spread. It was so rewarding knowing all of the time and effort that went into it. And when we tried it, we realized that the taste and texture were what we had hoped for.
The other cool thing was that it wasn’t just R&D that was involved: it was a whole team effort. Throughout the process, even when challenges and setbacks came up, I knew that we would get through it. As a team, we used those challenges to learn from and help us grow. That week was definitely a turning point, because even though it didn’t always go to plan, we had complete trust in each other as a team that we could pull it off, and we did.