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The Epic Hunt for Food Innovation

J.K. Rose | January 10, 2024

Food | The Originate Initiative

At MegaMex Foods, inspiration for new products often comes from surprising places.

“What we’re trying to do is capture any and all ideas,” says Kurt Lindsey, head of innovation and brand design at MegaMex Foods, a joint venture of Hormel Foods and Herdez del Fuerte, a leading Mexican food company. “The point is to explore and have conversations — innovation happens in the conversations between people.”

To this end, Lindsey and his colleague Nahall Kohan have assembled an expert team from various MegaMex Foods divisions, including brand management, R&D, e-commerce, packaging, and consumer insights who are continually meeting and swapping ideas by email and text.

Every quarter the team goes on what it calls “food safaris” around Los Angeles or to Mexico City for inspiration from the real world.

“The goal of our food safaris is to expose the team to ideas and stimulate conversations on how flavors might solve a consumer problem in our markets with our brands,” Lindsey says.

The MegaMex Team

The question of how to introduce Mexico’s cultural relevance and unique flavors to the American market is never far from his mind. On a field trip to the museum-like Xinú Perfumes boutique in Mexico City, the team learned how the perfumery blends regional botanicals for maximum olfactory impact. Scent is, after all, essential to taste. The sensation of flavor is a combination of taste and smell. Xinú bases its perfumes on native flora such as agave, marigold and Mexican tuberose. Fragrant botanicals also play an important role in Mexican cuisine. The aromatic blend of thyme, marjoram, bay and oregano forms the base layer of many national dishes.

The point is to explore and have conversations — innovation happens in the conversations between people.

Kurt Lindsey, head of innovation and brand design at MegaMex Foods

Finding a New Spin

A trip to trendy new Bee Taqueria in Los Angeles gave the team insight into the ways a new generation of chefs is putting their own spin on traditional Mexican cuisine. The humble taco stand was awarded a Michelin star in 2021 for Mexican-born chef Alex Carrasco’s experimental concoctions which include a “beet tinga” and pink tortillas that are colored with ground-up bougainvillea flowers.

“We’ll do both a combination of street food and fine dining to try to understand where the fusion influence is coming from and get inspiration,” Lindsey says.

“You’re full for days,” Kohan chimes in with a laugh. “It’s a hard job, but somebody has to do it.”

Bee Taqueria, Los Angeles

Innovation Solves Problems

Problem solving is a key part of innovation. One issue raised repeatedly during 30 hours of conversations with his contacts was consumer frustration with avocados: customers complained that the fruit was rarely ripe when they bought it from the produce section. Out of this criticism, a new product line was born: the WHOLLY® Avocado Diced and Smashed portfolio, which offers consumers ready-to-eat servings of avocado that have a longer shelf life than the fruit itself. The innovative line, which was launched in less than six months, garnered accolades from Good Housekeeping, Men’s Health and Progressive Grocer, and racked up impressive sales in its first year.

Another product line born from conversations between the innovation team and foodservice operators was the TRES COCINAS® pepper pastes, which take the labor out of rehydrating, destemming and seeding chili pods — the foundation of countless Mexican dishes.

Social media is another font of ideas, Kohan says. “A few years back we saw people mixing in sour cream and other ingredients with enchilada sauce. Consumers were interested in creamy. We realized there was an opportunity to develop something outside of the traditional red and green enchilada sauces.” After testing and refining a slew of recipes, the LA VICTORIA® brand launched a new line of creamy enchilada sauces in four distinct flavors: Creamy Green Chile, Creamy Tomatillo Lime, Al Pastor and Creamy Roasted Garlic.

Timing Is Key

Part of the trick of launching a new product is getting the timing right, Lindsey says. A few decades ago, most Americans equated Mexican cuisine with the offerings they might find at quick-service Mexican restaurants. Today, Mexican fare graces tables from California to Maine and the Mexican food market is slated to grow by $114 billion through 2026, according to Technavio Research. This means that there are a lot of companies competing with MegaMex Foods to launch new products and meet rising demand.

Once a year, the MegaMex Foods innovation team meets to review its backlog of ideas, considering factors such as feasibility, brand alignment and potential value. This process isn’t merely about hard metrics, Lindsey says. Intuition plays a critical role.

“There are some bad ideas — some of them have come from me,” he laughs. “But if I could sum up our team culture in one word, it’d be ‘iterative.’ New products are the result of an iterative process, not ‘here’s an idea and it’s done,’ it’s more of a continual refinement based on constant feedback along the way. We are striving for a mindset of innovation across the organization that relies on feedback and iteration that extends to everything we do.”