The learning continuum
March 21, 2017
by David Busken
For the past 19 years, I’ve worked at a medium-sized bakery, co-manufacturing for many Fortune 500 bakeries and other food companies. The job required many long hours, but I had fun working with different R&D groups on a huge array of products. It was also a great place to use the customer service skills I had also acquired over the years. When you work in both formulation and processing, there are a lot of areas to contribute. Being a smaller private company, the bakery also had the liberty to invest in employee education. Attending seminars and conventions kept me up-to-speed with the larger companies and their R&D staffs.
The beauty of R&D is you are paid to make mistakes — but only once — and, hopefully, in the form of an experiment. When you formulate many different types of products, be it for mixes or to be packed at the end of the oven, you learn a lot.
For the past several years, I have been involved in developing a wide array of cookies and baked bars. Prior to that, the mixes we created involved just about anything you could think of, but mostly cakes and muffins and brownies. Each helps you do the other. When asked to do a “muffin top” type of cookie, first you should know what a muffin top looks like, and second, you should have some good ideas about how to formulate one. Another favorite is the chocolate-chocolate cookie/brownie cookie. Having formulated brownies, knowing some tricks from experience helps.
I also experienced new challenges in R&D that I might never have seen in regular production. R&D has to look at the whole life of a product. Shelf life is, of course, the big challenge. Drier or frozen products are perhaps not quite as challenging, but in soft-type products like cookies and bars, it’s about how to maintain that texture over time — often six months — while keeping water activity levels below what could potentially grow hazardous bacteria.
The other aspect of R&D, and really any customer interaction, is service. Answering the question before the customer asks should be the mantra in this area. What it screams to customers is that you care about their situation and you know their business as well as (or perhaps better than) they do. To do this, you must take time to look at things from their perspective. As a result, you become partners in their business.
With this kind of service, a co-manufacturer doesn’t have to worry about being the low-cost option in the industry. You just need to be just as good for people as you are for the products. The challenge is having the systems in place and the culture to respond quickly, answer honestly and communicate to the customer that their well-being is the top priority.
I was raised in the Busken Bakery family in Cincinnati; some of you may have heard of us. For almost 90 years, we have been in the retail and commercial baking business producing an array of products. Growing up, I learned that I didn’t want to work in production all my life, so I focused on R&D as a career. Hat’s off to those of you who crank out those millions of pounds of baked goods every day. While at that time, I didn’t appreciate all the nuances of the processes and formulas that went into making all the products, it did spark my curiosity. Nearly four decades later, here I am in the industry and still learning.
Please let me know if there are any particular hot-topic technical questions you would like me to address in future columns. In the meantime, I will focus on what seems to be burning up the airwaves and showing up on the store shelves.
Editor’s note: David Busken is a bakery consultant with more than 37 years of experience in various bakery R&D, processing and sales areas. He has expertise in developing baked bars and cookies, bakery shortenings and dry mixes.