When you see frozen food at the supermarket, you may not think about it and many people don’t even know it but they’re actually a result of food science. Just like any other item that needs to be manufactured for consumables, a lot of food will always start with a concept, whether the concept comes from the consumer or from a marketing aspect. That’s what food science is all about. Brandon Shepherd, CEO and Founder of Mile High Food Science, talks about paints a picture of what the food science space involves and what goes on behind food product development and manufacturing.
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Food Science: From Concept To Shelf with Brandon Shepherd
We’re up in Denver and we’re visiting with Brandon Shepherd. He’s the CEO and founder of Mile High Food Science. Brandon, welcome to the show. Tell us a little bit about your business and who you serve.
We are a food product development consulting company that works with a lot of major consumer package goods companies here in America as well as in Central America.
When folks would go food design, what does that mean? Paint us a picture, we’ve got this picture that you probably can’t see that well in the video in the background, but it’s the thing called Side Shots. Let’s talk a bit about that and maybe that will paint the picture for them.
A lot of food will always start with a concept, just like any other item that needs to be manufactured for consumables. Whether a concept comes from the consumer or from a marketing aspect, that’s where the idea starts. Once the data is gathered, it will be handed over to a product developer or a food scientist to say please make this product that can be manufactured in our facility at these certain costs.
We see that typically in the frozen food counters and the supermarket regularly. As you look at it, we were talking about Side Shots. For the listener they talk about food science and that’s certainly not how I grew up. There were family recipes that we’d worked with. What I see from what you were talking about, why I was excited about having you on the show is you did Hot Pockets where you did product development for Hot Pockets and then you’ve actually had a foray into the cannabis industry as well.
When I graduated college, there was no such degree as a food science degree. This industry and this position has grown immensely over the past decade, two decades. Food science has become a household name now almost. Everybody knows a food scientist somewhere. Those are the rings that I travel in. The need for this kind of product development and knowledge of the science and manufacturing of food is becoming a very important and necessary in this environment. Food is the number one manufacturing business in North America. There are more food manufacturers than anything else. The industry seems very innocuous and we all have to eat, but it is a behemoth of an industry.
You graduated college and you worked at a dairy place. You worked at a manufacturing facility of some kind. Then at some point you got hooked up with Hot Pockets?
Yes. I actually just fell into the food industry. I was working. I had just come back from a teaching job in Japan for a year and 911 had happened while I was there. When I came back there were zero jobs to be held. I was a camp counselor. I did work with my dad when he could afford it. Then I was a microscopist for a long time and I just happened to fall into a temp job at Nestle handheld food groups, which was located in the Denver Tech Center at the time. Worked there for a week, sling and Hot Pockets on the bench top. Making them by hands actually. They gave me a job offer the next week and the rest is history.
Your degree is microbiology. That’s a torturous path from microbiology to food.
I fell into it and I got pretty lucky that my career path took me to food.
You went from basically assembling Hot Pockets, you got a job offer. What were the types of things that you were doing for Nestle that led you to where you are today?
The first position that I was offered was a filling technologist. If you know a Hot Pocket, it’s made of two pieces, the dough and the filling. Most of our processes were either product optimization, to make them run better through the factory or was cost reduction was a lot of what we did. That was a lot of the maintenance. I was fortunate enough that Nestle sent me to the American Institute of Baking, where I became a certified baker out of Manhattan, Kansas. One of the best baking schools in the world, especially for manufacturing of baked goods. Then they gave me a promotion to bakery technologist. That’s where I got to work on the crust instead of the filling. It was at that time where we had the concept of the Side Shots and was able to launch that product in nine months from concept to on shelf.
For the folks that aren’t aware of the Side Shots, it’s basically a bun wrapped around like a hamburger filling.
It was a slider. Sliders were huge at the time and everybody wanted to get into the slider market. It was a no brainer for a Hot Pockets to go in to the same concept. It was just the form and function was very difficult to achieve through large scale manufacturing. This was the compromise in our attempt to penetrate that market at the time.
That was something that you took from concept to market in nine-month timeframe.
Scale up and everything through the factory, which is a pretty short time for this type of product at that scale.
Typically, folks have a comparison, like the Hot Pockets or the breakfast, toaster, jelly filled, whatever. What’s the typical timeframe to take from concept to nationwide distribution?
A good timeframe is anywhere from a year and a half to three years.
The shelf life is typically how long?
That’s the interesting part about food, especially frozen food. Frozen food has a much longer shelf life than other products. The shelf life of a Hot Pocket is around eighteen months. The best buy date has really little to do with the consumer. It has more to do with the product, getting through the distribution from manufacturing to on shelf. It can take up to six months, eight months for even a product to get through the distribution before it’s on shelf. The retailer acquires that shelf life in order to get the quality of product in your hands in time.
You’re talking about this one was on the shelf and in demand for about five years.
When I worked at Nestle, they published a book and gave it out to everybody and one of the interesting things I pulled from it was a line extension, which is what this is. A line extension is simply taking the base product and adding a new flavor to it or something. The original Hot Pocket was pepperoni and ham and cheese. Everything else is a line extension. The typical success rate of a line extension in this kind of a company is 2%. For a product like this to sit on the shelf for five years after production, to me is a success.
I get fascinated about what you do, as a typical consumer, you go past the shelf of all the frozen this and frozen that and you’ll see something that’s unusual, like the rage now I think is the Little Cup. You’re dropping out again and you microwave and you have your own omelet in a deal. You go, how many of us made omelets, but they make it convenient and microwaveable, and so that’s out there. Then poppers, the Jalapeno Poppers for a while was a big deal with various cheeses and so on and so forth.
Tortino’s pizza, the little tiny pizza bites. That was the number one competitor.
Maybe it’s just me. Maybe there are a lot of folks that are really familiar with this arena, but I was not sure. For those that are outside of Colorado, don’t know that the cannabis industry is fairly robust here. You were talking about, you did a cannabis brownie at one point and you broadcast it and all that stuff.
Here in Colorado, we are fortunate enough to have a new market, a billion-dollar market up open up overnight. One of the components of this market is food. It was an opportunity that we thought we should go after. We have created several products that are used in the cannabis industry as well. We worked with a lot of clients here that have existing products where we help them extend their shelf life or get better, more consistent dosing in their products. Just to make the product quality better.
The chewing gum is one that just stuck in my mind. It’s something I wouldn’t have thought of personally. If you could walk us through the thought process, timeframe, design and then execution.
Fortunate enough for us since we’re a very small, tight knit company. We can move much faster than the nine-month timeline that we have here. We feel we have a concept for a chewing gum with cannabis in it. We actually have some products that had been made and distributed here in Colorado. We fell into that concept in another one of these and we just happen stance to fall into it. The first production machine we made was in my garage to test the concept, prove the concepts. That worked, so we went full steam in this and actually was able to develop a very well received product that is unique. There’s not another one out there as far as I know in this market.
When you develop a unique food product, whether it’s that one or that one, can you license patent to protect your design?
In this instance, we are licensing this formula and the process to third parties who wants to manufacture and distribute it under either our name or a private label name. In the food industry, I tell people never patents anything in the food industry, especially a formula or a recipe or a process. Because someone like me will come right up behind them and say, I can change this and this and get this same exact outcome. What we’ve done actually in our gum base is we’ve separated into three bags, so that you have bag A, bag B and bag C, which now we can hold our IP closer to us but make it available to these licensees in a very usable form.
I’m like, “What in the world were you thinking about when you decided, I’m going to make some cannabis chewing gum.” How did that thought come to you?
We are constantly looking at new products, new trends, what’s out in the market, constantly reading my LinkedIn feeds to see what’s new, what’s out there. Then the other side of it is, just the experience of working in a company like Nestle or like Dean foods, that have the resources to pull a consumer data, that have the resources to pull in a consumer testing, that kind of stuff. Where you learn to say this is the smartest decision to go after. Whether it’s low barrier to entry, ease of manufacturing, uniqueness of item. The cannabis industry is saturated with gummies. Every single company and their brother makes a gummy and they’re huge. They’re probably the number one consumed edible right now.
From my experience in the CPG industry, it is not easy for a new person to penetrate a market that is also overly saturated, but everybody is. Our goal is to say, “What are those products that aren’t out there, so we don’t have to compete with a lot of people and that are easy to make and can be low cost? I want every single consumer to leave that retail store with one of my products. If it takes being the lowest price, which is, right now, is a good incentive. That’s one of our strategies.
I think about the past training that brings you to here for the major food production folks and so on. For the listener out there that’s like, “I’ve had this idea for this food product,” whether it’s family recipe or whatever, what’s the process for them to reach out to you and how do you make a decision? How do you help them make a decision whether there’s something to go forward with or not?
We get a lot of our leads through the LinkedIn or through a MileHighFoodScience.com. We have an entry form there as well as the industry connections that I have. A lot of it is referral. We do very little outgoing marketing or sales. What would typically happen is we get a request from a customer and let’s assume it’s a startup. I have this great idea. My grandma had this recipe forever and everybody loves it. I want to can it. I want to put it in a jar and sell it. That’s how valuable it is. The process that will come to us, basically there’s an evaluation. They have to fill out a lot of information and relay what they want. For example, serving size, ingredients, what ingredients can’t you use, what certifications do you want? We need to know pretty much the idea of what they’re imagining it looks like on the shelf, before we even start designing anything.The main goal of the very first encounter is to say, “Yes, this is doable,” or “No, this is not doable.” Click To Tweet
The main goal of the very first encounter is to say yes, this is doable or no, this is not doable. That’s where we start. Is there a point where we will advise that it’s probably not a good path to go down? There have been those instances, but that doesn’t mean that we should stop there. We will also say, here’s an alternative that we think that might be successful. Would you like to explore this avenue as well? We will give alternatives to products that we have very good insight to know that’s going to be a hard market to get into. Some of it could be regulatory. Some of it could be the laws that are in place. It’s going to take you money to overcome those barriers. Do you have that money? That’s the discussion we have. This is what it’s going to cost to go past. Once we’re done with you, here’s what it’s going to cost to go past that.
For the sake of argument, I came up with a salsa family recipe and we go through it. You go, here’s what it’s going to be and do and packaging and so on. Is there an outsource firm that will take and then make it for you or do you then have to do it yourself?
There are many co-manufacturers here in town and all over the country. Big and small that you basically take your recipe to and you say, here, can you please package this for me and here’s what I want label to look like, and they will do it for you. They have to make sure it’s safe. There will be some testing and there may be some changes that have to take place at that because they have to produce a safe product that comes out of that manufacturing facility but no, absolutely. Luckily enough here in Colorado, we have a thing called the Colorado Cottage Act to where there are certain criteria of food that you can make in your house and sell at a farmer’s market to get you started. They run under the Department of Agriculture and they want to promote people getting into the food industry.
I’ve seen in the market in Minturn, there will be somebody with jams and somebody else with noodles and all that stuff.
In certain products you can’t, like chicken. They won’t let you sell meat. Certain products that can really make you sick. I try to stay away from meats as much as possible. When it comes to not inside a factory.
We were talking beforehand that Central America has found your company. Why do you suppose and what kinds of things are they designing or developing, if you could say, for Central American market?
We were fortunate enough to have a contact that has several customers in Central America. We are the product development wing of this rather large company. They’ve hired us to do that. Just through I think good business practices and good business relationships. It started with one who recommended to the other, who recommended the other. Luckily, we were in the right place at the right time, I think is how we got those.
That’s usually called hard work somewhere along the line. The palate here in the United States may be focused on one way, I suspect. The palate in Central America may be focused on another. From the development side, what do you think is the most unusual food product that you’ve been working on for down in Central America?
We work on basically the same kind of beverages that’s we have here in the United States. The fruits are a little difference, maybe. There’s nothing really too strange that we’ve worked on that we would consider out of the ordinary here. We have designed some very interesting combinations that these companies would be reluctant to take a risk on, if I can put it that way. We’ve worked on some very fruit and vegetable type combinations of juices that you would never imagine going together. That just gives you the perfect experience. We did a guava-red pepper and this thing was amazing. You would never assume that drinking a red pepper on a hot summer day is desirable, but the two flavors and the experience was just remarkable. Something to that effect. We also work with a lot of coffees and teas and those types of drinks.
There’s a Dunkin Donuts coffee now. There’s a cookie dough coffee they’ve come out with, which would be a line extension. For the folks out there, before I forget, if they need to reach out to you or wanted to reach out to you, what’s the best way for them to find you?
Our website and then send us a message off the website. That’s MileHighFoodScience.com. The other one is you can look me up, Brandon E. Shepherd on LinkedIn. That’s where we get a lot. That’s basically the only social media platform that we’re on.
That’s good for folks because I suspect there will be a few imaginations that will be peaked a little bit and to further down that thought process, I understand that there’s an opportunity for your chewing gum down in Colombia as well.
Colombia is a very open country at this point on cannabis right now. It’s going through some transitions. That’s an exciting market that’s going to open up as well and it’s just happens that we know people in these other countries that are legalizing faster than we are. Let’s take those opportunities while we can.
I’ve heard folks talk about CBD, which I get lost in the math and everything else there, but are you seeing a lot of food product design around that particular segment of the market as well?
It’s getting bigger. There’s still a lot of gray area about CBD. I think a lot of people are treating it as a nutraceutical. It’s going more into tinctures and tablets and pills and that type of lotions and that type of thing. As soon as the dust settles, we’re going to see a lot bigger opportunity in the food side on CBD, and hopefully there are more research that happens. That’s the big question is how much do I take? I have no idea.
Do you get involve in pet food design at all?
We have designed several CBD dog treats and we have some inroads and regular dog food as well. It’s not our focus. The cannabis dog treat world is another very great area. The regulations behind pet food are much more stringent than human food. CBD is not on the list of approved ingredients. It is illegal to put it in it. Are people doing it? Yes. Are they having very good results? I’m going to say yes from the results I’ve seen. I’m not a veterinarian and my dog can’t tell me if he feels real pain relief. I’m on the fence at this one.
I thought I would segue a little bit and start checking with some of the questions that we talk all the time about. For you, in running your business, what’s the most recent book or most influential book that you’ve read that’s altered your perception on running your company?
The most recent book I’ve read is How To Make Friends And Influence People. I don’t read a lot of business books, but I have to say the most influential book for my entrepreneurialship has been the Fountain Head. I read that when I was probably 25 years old and it made me realize why I thought the things I thought. To put clarity to just the way I thought. I took that as I try to take that as a lesson. I say, here’s how, if we just keep it consistent in working this way, it’s the right way to do it. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the book or not. That’s probably the biggest. I recommend everybody to read that book.
You taught English as a Second Language in Japan. How do you think that experience affected or influenced how you run your company?
The Japanese culture and how they run business is a very unique situation and it works very well for them, but I don’t think it works very well in the American culture of businesses. I do like to think about what more of the structure that they have and loyalty that happens with in a company there. A lot of them don’t even jump companies. They’ll stay in the same job for their entire lifetime. Which here, if you jumped seven or eight times, you’re moving up the ladder at that point. The other scale I took away from teaching foreign students and some of them weren’t young, a lot of them were adults, was how do you make it through eight hours and still look like you are so excited at that very last class. That was a very big lesson to learn that it was those people at the end of the day, we’re just as important as the people in the first of the day. You had to relay that, just have to keep your energy up. It was exhausting. It was absolutely exhausting to do that for eight hours straight.
Looking back over running the company, what failure at the time has served you and your company best that set you for future achievement?
I think we spoke earlier about, I used to own a rock and roll bar when I worked at Nestle. This doesn’t necessarily have to do with this company, but I don’t consider my rock and roll bar to be a failure, but it wasn’t a success either. What I did get out of it was probably a business degree that was more valuable than a Harvard. I learned more things about how to run a business, doing that thing, than you could ever find in a textbook. I take a lot of the lessons I learned in that place and apply it to all my future endeavors. That was probably the biggest one there.
If you were to take and say to today’s Brandon and go back and advice the Brandon that was just getting ready to buy the bar and make it, what would today’s Brandon tell that Brandon?
I had another person telling me this, and this is what I would tell my younger self is, you might as well sit outside the bar and hand everybody $5 as you walk by and it will, and you’ll lose less than owning the bar. My advice would be don’t get into that industry. One of the problems was we were a rock and roll bar. It was dark and it was loud and the drinks were cheap and Colorado outlawed smoking inside six months into my business. 95% of my clientele smoked. That’s just how it was. Now, instead of the patrons drinking a beer and smoking at the same time, they have to drink some beer and then go outside and smoke and then come back inside and drink some beer. It actually destroyed our business. It destroyed the music venue, little small local venue, a music business here in town. That’s what I think was a major factor, because we didn’t have a bar where the clients weren’t smokers. Those did exist, but that’s not what we wanted to do.
If you could take and put an ad on page one of the local paper sharing your company’s message or advice, what would it say and why?
The food industry is very rewarding, but it takes a lot of hard work. This is what we tell our big and small clients. We’re there to hold your hands. We are a on call food doctor. Back in the day you had your doctor came into the house calls. That’s what we do. I would communicate, I would try to communicate to the community that we’re here and we’ll even come to your house to help you do solve your problems, especially in the food industry.
For you, what’s been the best allocation of either time or initiative that’s helped your company the most?
The biggest influence we had that I could have put time into was actually when I worked at Nestle and when I worked at Dean Foods. Every time a vendor would come to the office, they call everybody and make the rounds. I noticed that not many people went and talked to sales guy, even if I wasn’t working on a project, they would still call me for example. I would always go out and talk to them, for whatever reason. I’m sorry, I don’t need any of your products. I’m not working on a project like that, but thank you, how’s the wife and kids? When I started my own business, eight, nine years later, those are the people that helped me get new business. Forging those relationships, taking that time and just being polite and nice to these people was paramount in my success later. They know everybody. The sales staff, the salesforce in this industry knows everybody. I was fortunate enough to have those resources to be available to me once I started on my own. That doesn’t mean that it was a home run every time, but at least I had some help getting started.
What’s the most unusual habit or what others may consider out of the ordinary that helped you or your company most and why?
I think my biggest habit is always trying to think of something else to do. We’re notorious here at this company for getting halfway through a project and saying, what if we did it this way? Typically, we’ll continue the way that finished that project out but now we have some information to do something that’s brand new. Probably my biggest habit, I don’t know if it’s considered lateral thinking or not, but that’s probably my biggest habits. I get sidetracked by new ideas.The food industry is very rewarding but it takes a lot of hard work. Click To Tweet
You look at the illustration of the Side Shots, in line extension, which you’ve been taught and you think, how can I take improve, make better, make less expensive or alter.
I think that’s the biggest thing. Where’s the opportunity to make this better?
You mentioned that gummy’s crowded market and the cannabis space but chewing gum not so much.
There are a lot of identifying those gaps and all that other stuff that goes along with it. A little bit of experience, just been through failing. A lot of it has to do with already trying it and failed. Well you can go for it if you want to, but here’s what we learned.
We paid a lot of money for this education. Over the past three years, what belief or protocol have you established in your company that has most impacted you or your company success and why?
That has to be convincing my wife, Barbara, to join the company. We saw a different turnaround in our entire business model.
She was a microbiologist too. What advice would you offer to a new CEO that’s assuming the role of CEO for the first time and why?
Probably a typical response is go with your guts, and the other thing is you’re going to make poor choices. That’s just how you learn, especially if you’re in a smaller CEO role. Like me, when I was CEO, I was my boss and I was CEO of me. That was it. Every choice affected me personally and it affected the business and some are better, some are good and some work, but you didn’t make those bad ones twice. That’s probably the important part.
Get the opportunity to make it one time. What’s the most misconception about you or your role as CEO?
Probably that I’m rich and powerful. I don’t actually think of myself as in the CEO role. I try not to convey that to my customers. I’m basically there just to serve just to make them happy. That’s about it. That’s a great question. I’m not quite sure on that one.
For you, looking back over the past three years, what would or should you have said no to and why?
If someone comes to you and says, “I have a client that has a celebrity blank,” that’s when I say no.
I understand. In the day to day operation of your company as CEO, what’s the personal habit or self-talk dialogue that keeps you in your company focused?
It’s the whole adage, eating an elephant one bite at a time. We do not turn stuff over quickly in this industry and we fail a lot in this industry. We’ll work six months on something and they get to call up, projects over. We’ve decided to go a different direction. Thank you. In the long haul, don’t be afraid to fail. You’re going to fail a lot in this site.
What’s a quote that you find meaningful or one that you use frequently?
Thomas Edison comes home every day and tells his wife, “I learned another way how not to invent a light bulb.” That’s where that failure side comes in. It’s not, you’re not failing to, but you’re learning how not to make a light bulb.
You’ve got to have faith in the process because the outcome is not necessarily rewarded.
These big companies and the whole goal is probably, in a manufacturing, entrepreneurialship as a whole, is to find that one thing that sticks. For example, Nestle, we had a whole team of product developers and we released a lot of products and we worked on a lot of products, but only one or two hopefully took. Those would pay for the rest of the R&D for the other ones.
I think about when you go to the candy aisle in any store and you’ll see the old tried and trues and the favorites that are always there. Then you’ll look at it and go, “That’s weird, that’s new.” Then you come back to a period of time later in the weird news now, gone again. I think there are that periphery of trying out. I don’t remember the last time I saw a really brand-new candy bar of any description that really hit a home run.
It’s absolutely tough. The one innovator that figures it out, figures out that new combination because if you think about a candy bar, there are chocolate, peanuts. The other part is it’s very hard to penetrate at the same price point as a smaller company. It’s really a numbers game, typical big business.
If we were to talk to your colleagues and we asked them what you are best at, what would they say that would be and how do you utilize that strength on a daily basis?
Probably it would be the innovation side of me. I’m constantly trying to improve, create and optimize every aspect of my life. It probably drives my wife nuts. I’ve learned the most optimum way to load the dishwasher, for example. It just has to do with doing it 400 times over the past twelve years that you learn how to optimize it. That works very well in this industry. Our job is to make people who produce food, produce it as smooth as possible with very few issues.
There’s another guest on the show, Dick Lee. He did some work on the innovation side. I think about if you were sitting down and you say, “I’m going to think something up,” and it would be very hard to do. What do you use to populate the material between your ears that keeps you creative and keeps you thinking? What do you do?
I think it’s all about being observant. I walked down the candy aisle and it’s noticing that new thing and what is it? How did they do it? Then when you go back next time and observing that it’s gone, why is it gone? It’s all about trying to figure out all those mechanisms that makes something successful and what doesn’t.
My son, oftentimes goes to the Asian market and goes through and talks about what he sees in the aisles. He’s a bit of a foodie. I’ve been in a good market a few times and foods that I’m not used to seeing for sure. I think that populates my mind with that. I never would’ve thought of that.
The other part of it is, when I walked through the Asian markets, what’s missing there, for example, the second or third generation that is 100% American. What I see missing out of the aisle is the pizza rolls. If I had my dumplings and my gyoza and if I had pizza rolls right next to it, my kids or my grandkids, now I don’t have to go over to King Soopers. Absolutely, going through these different places where we’re not accustomed to shopping at or new types of products is very inspirational. It gets the gears turning. What could be.
I was really looking forward to visiting with you because this is such an area that’s out of my wheelhouse and was fascinated by what you do. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you taking the time out of a busy day to be on the show. Brandon, thanks so much for your time.
Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it.
- Mile High Food Science
- Hot Pockets
- Brandon E. Shepherd – LinkedIn
- How To Make Friends And Influence People
- Fountain Head
- Dean Foods
- Dick Lee – previous episode
About Brandon Sheperd
As Mile High Food Science enters its 5th year in business, we have emerged as a leader in new product innovation. With an extremely high launch rate, we have helped several business achieve their goal of producing a CPG product for retail sale.
Mile High Food Science can be your company’s resource for new product innovation, product formulation, and manufacturing assistance. We have the ability to formulate beverages, dairy product, baked goods, frozen goods, as well as specialty custom items. With countless hours of manufacturing experience, all products are designed and implemented with the cost, nutrition, quality and manufacturing components in mind.
Striving to bring you the best innovation in the industry, Mile High Food Science goal is to create a unique, marketable product that can be easily manufactured. We can also assist in creating innovative solutions for that next new product that will take a mere line extension to its own category.
Mile High Food Science was also the birthplace of Cannibles Brand Baking Mixes which was a catalyst for us to emerge into this burgeouning industry. The products that emerged from this concept is proof of concept that understanding food science and technology can lead to great innovation. Extracting Innovations is revolutionizing the cannabis edibles industry, and there are many great things to come.
We believe doing business with good people only serves to make good businesses great.
Specialties: Innovation, Product Development, Ingredient Sourcing, Cost Savings, Manufacturing, Plant Trials, Co-Manufacturing, Co-Packing