Flavor remains one of the most significant factors consumers consider when purchasing dairy products.
For 70-year-old, third-generation, family-run McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams, the customers are a huge part of the creative process in flavor generation.
“We are always monitoring and hearing feedback from consumers on what flavors they’d like to see,” said Michael Palmer, chief executive officer, McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams. “We try as hard as possible to make these flavors come to life while staying true to McConnell’s brand and mission of quality, and deliciousness above all else.”
While McConnell’s is a dairy, Palmer said, the company is equally as involved in the larger world of food and wine and has been for decades. In part, he said, this is what drives flavor innovation for McConnell’s.
“Co-owner Eva Ein is a chef and restaurateur in Santa Barbara, Calif., and I’ve been a winemaker for over 25 years. And it doesn’t stop there,” Palmer said. “We’re so lucky to have a team where so many are equally interested in the things we are — food, wine and sustainability of the food system. It’s this passion for food that really drives everything we do at McC’s, from looking at new and/or trending ingredients, to considering what’s happening, seasonally.”
McConnell’s is unique in that it’s a vertically integrated dairy and dessert manufacturer.
“We don’t just make our ice creams (artisan ice cream companies typically co-pack their products), but we make everything that goes into them — swirls, variegates and inclusions. In fact, we built a full commercial, pastry and R&D kitchen inside the dairy, which is pretty unique,” Palmer said. “We have a staff full of ideas which means that the development process is pretty democratized. And while we do have a system, it really is about paying attention to overall directions in food for how our brand would approach a certain trend, for instance, and then allowing individual team members to have a voice in suggesting interesting ideas to explore. From there, it is bench testing iteration after iteration until we all agree it’s just right. We are always tinkering in our kitchen.”
Most of McConnell’s flavors are released dependent of the season and seasonal moments, Palmer said.
“Last year we released a summer line — Vacation a la Mode — which was inspired by summer favorite rum-based cocktails,” he said. “We try to be playful and true to brand, while also looking at interesting ingredients, trends, or ways in which we can add something ‘McConnell’s-esque’ to a given flavor profile or combination. More than anything, we try not to be too trendy. Trends come and go, and while we want to be sensitive to them, we’re more driven by what works for McConnell’s.”
For McConnell’s, marketing a new flavor to consumers begins with teasing new flavors before they are released to amp up excitement.
“Once the flavor is released, we make a big social media push to get the word out about the new flavor,” Palmer said. “But partnerships and collaborations are also a big part of our playbook. And when we collaborate, it’s less about calling a company or personality to say, ‘Hey, let’s make a flavor together,’ and much more about really diving in and working on it together until it’s just right. We take collabs pretty seriously — they have to really work for both parties.”
Flavor innovations in the company’s ice cream portfolio include Honey & Cornbread Cookies, Sea Salt Cream & Cookies, Sprinkle Cake, Sea Salt Cream & Cookies, and Toasted Coconut Almond Chip, to name a few. McConnell’s recently released its collaboration with Garrison Brothers — Whiskey & Pecan Pralines — for the third year in a row.
“Every year consumers respond very positively to the flavor,” Palmer said. “The first year we sold out within the first two weeks of launch, and each year since we’ve continued to increase the inventory and continue to move through the flavor at a rapid pace.”
Chef crafted butter maker Churn Foods creates flavors that simplify its consumers’ recipes while simultaneously elevating them with ease.
“We carefully curate flavors that are able to achieve both of those goals while also using real ingredients, like truffle, garlic confit, shallots and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, that make any dish taste even more delicious,” said Chef Michael Tashman, founder of Churn Foods.
Tashman said the company was created to empower people to cook like chefs at home.
“Each flavor profile is carefully selected, keeping in mind what consumers are looking for and what dishes they like to make so that we can help them level up with one simple ingredient,” he said. “We love hearing feedback from our consumers on what flavor they’d like to try next, and keep these in mind as we develop new flavors.”
New flavor innovations for Churn are born out of inspiration in ingredients that consumers gravitate toward every day, like garlic, shallots, and pesto, Tashman said.
“We also conduct research on what’s trending, such as everything seasoning and miso. Once we have an idea for a flavor combination, we then go into the production stage and experiment with flavoring,” he said. “After multiple rounds of trial and error to make sure we get the exact flavor we want, we have a finished product that we can bring directly to our customers, chef-to-shelf.”
Tashman said Churn first started selling its butter in farmers markets, which gave the company the best face-to-face opportunity for its customers to try out butter in Churn’s early stages and provide feedback.
“Now most of the consumer insights we receive are through social media and customer reviews,” he said. “Social media has been a great platform for us not only to reach more consumers, but also used as a means for feedback. We also take our reviews to heart, making note of what consumers are loving, and what we may need to change in order to meet their needs.”
Current flavor trends tend to spark from consumer preferences and experimentation, Tashman explained. Weird and unexpected combinations trend every now and then, along with resurgences of classic flavors.
Innovative flavors of Churn butter include Garlic & Shallot, Truffle, Pesto, Bruschetta, Black Garlic, Everything, Miso, Cacio e Pepe, and Maple Cinnamon. Last spring Churn launched its Truffle flavor with real truffle, which quickly became a fan favorite.
“With the speed of social media, trends can come and go quickly,” he said. “Because of this, it’s important for us to stay up to date and understand what’s buzzworthy so that we get ahead of it before it goes away, and perhaps even start a new trend ourselves.”
Flavored cheeses continue to gain momentum in grocery specialty cheese cases, as consumers demand more variety and innovation.
Roth Smoked Gouda, Roth Dill Havarti and 3 Chili Pepper Gouda have been the top sellers for Fitchburg, Wis.-based Emmi Roth for a number of years, said Kaitie Hackett, category manager.
“In recent years, we’ve seen more unique flavors that are helping to generate excitement and drive growth for the category.”
Those tastes change frequently. In 2019, for instance, alcohol-inspired flavors such as bourbon were the top-growing flavors. In 2022, spicy flavors took the top spot.
Dill, meanwhile, is the No. 1 flavor of Havarti. In 2022, Emmi Roth saw more herb-forward flavors enter the category, including Roth Tomato Basil Havarti.
The company’s newer flavored cheeses also include French Onion Havarti, Roth Hot Honey Gouda, Spinach Artichoke Gouda and Buffalo Ranch Gouda.
“Our team of expert cheesemakers, sales teams and marketing team continue to follow industry trends and look for opportunities to innovate in the deli cheese category, including new flavors and formats,” Hackett said. “We stay on top of flavor trends with help from our expert cheesemakers, input from our consumers and by using industry data. Tracking point-of-sale and menu trend data helps us identify flavors that are resonating with consumers.”
A top trend in flavored cheese, she added, is versatility with products that can be enjoyed on a cheeseboard or as an ingredient in a recipe.
The company has also seen a lot of nostalgic flavors trending, which drove the creation of its Roth Spinach Artichoke and Buffalo Ranch Gouda.
New in flavored cheeses from Green Bay, Wis.-based BelGioioso Cheese include a Hatch Chile Fresh Mozzarella Braid, Sliced Marinated Fresh Mozzarella logs, Smoked Scamorza-Rella and Blueberry Artigiano, said Sofia Auricchio Krans, a fifth-generation cheesemaker with BelGioioso.
“Often flavors are added to give the cheese its flavor,” Krans said. “At BelGioioso, we create quality cheeses that already have great flavor, and we complement with a flavor that enhances, sometimes less is more.”
According to Sudarshan Nadathur, chief flavorist, dairy and protein, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), food and beverage brands understand that taste is the leading attribute to not only achieve consumer acceptance of their products, but also secure consumer preference.
“There is a high bar to create authentic flavor experiences, whether that’s for dairy, alternative dairy or any other category,” he said. “Whether developed for a specific customer request or proactively to promote solutions to our customers, the main drivers of our flavor innovations are market dynamics and shifting consumer demographics.”
Nadathur said understanding where the market is heading and developing a set of tools that can support those products is vital.
“New developments in technology may offer opportunities to make flavors more stable, have more impact, or deliver more authentic or rich flavors,” he said. “Having expert knowledge to utilize those same innovations across various other segments ensures differentiated solutions can be produced in both existing and new products.”
ADM taps a global team of flavorists, food scientists and process flavor engineers who work within the art and science of flavor creation and are always exploring new possibilities, such as perfecting the rich creaminess of dairy products or dialing in the comforting taste of vanilla, Nadathur said.
New flavor innovation usually starts with a challenge its customers are facing.
“We employ the vast technical resources at our disposal — from our global facilities producing quality raw materials to our expert teams — to solve those challenges,” Nadathur said. “We anticipate the challenges ahead, as well as support customers’ unique requirements, delivering differentiated solutions for the product development of today and tomorrow.”
Adam Dalebroux, senior sales manager for Star Kay White and seasoned R&D specialist in the dairy industry, said many customers rely on market insights and consumer trends to drive their innovation agenda, while others come up with flavor concepts that trigger nostalgia.
“Other innovations come from developments in new technologies and modern ingredients that provide a benefit like lower sugars, more sustainable practices and plant efficiencies to name a few,” he said.
In most cases, Dalebroux said, Star Kay White’s customers are looking for something specific and provide a project brief or request.
“We work cross functionally to develop products to meet these customer requests and ensure we are providing the highest level of quality from lab development to production,” he said. “We also keep the consumers in mind and run an internal market insights program. This gives us direction to develop products and flavors based on trends, which we can then take to our customers to help drive innovation.”
The consumer is always considered while innovating, Dalebroux said.
“It may be fun to push the limits and see what’s possible when developing new flavors and textures, but if products are too polarizing, they won’t be purchased,” he said. “Innovation needs to be a balance of new and interesting, while also filling a consumer need or want.”
— Andy Nelson contributed to this story