Q&A: Saffron Road on the fast track

by Monica Watrous
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Jack Acree, executive vice-president of American Halal Co., helped launch Saffron Road in 2010.

STAMFORD, CONN. — Under the Saffron Road brand, American Halal Co. markets halal certified products made with antibiotic-free, vegetarian-fed livestock and non-bioengineered ingredients. The brand’s flagship line of frozen entrees features authentic global recipes and flavors, from Lamb Vindaloo to Chicken Pad Thai.

“In the natural channel, not including Whole Foods, Sprouts and the like, we’re now the No. 1 brand of protein-based frozen entrees,” said Jack Acree, executive vice-president of American Halal. “Which is a fact I’m particularly proud of, to have achieved that in such a short order.”

Saffron Road debuted on shelves in Whole Foods Market in the summer of 2010. Today, the company offers dozens of products spanning the categories of frozen entrees and appetizers, frozen desserts, chicken nuggets and tenders, crunchy chickpea snacks, simmer sauces and broths. Saffron Road products are available in 8,000 stores nationwide and had sales of $35 million in 2014.

The company is set to debut a new line of Mexican entrees with four varieties: Enchiladas Al Chipotle, Achiote Roasted Chicken, Chicken Enchiladas Poblano, and Beef Chile Colorado. The products include mesquite black beans and garlic rice, along with such ingredients as authentic Yucatecan Nixtamal corn tortillas and Oaxaca cheese.

Before launching Saffron Road with founder and chief executive officer Adnan Durrani, Mr. Acree helped build two of the fastest-growing businesses in the natural foods channel: Terra Chips, now a Hain Celestial Group brand, and Alexia Foods, which was acquired by ConAgra Foods.

In an exclusive interview with Food Business News, Mr. Acree shared insights behind product development and the challenges of meeting the increasing demand for natural ingredients.

A line of Mexican frozen entrees was developed with a top-rated chef.

 

FBN: What’s new from Saffron Road?

Jack Acree: The new launch for the first quarter is our Mexican line. In a typical Saffron Road way, we’re using the highest level of natural ingredients, as well as giving a cuisine like Mexican a little twist and flavor that hasn’t really been done in the past.

For example, the cheese we use is made from dairy that hasn’t been given growth hormones. The chicken and beef are raised without antibiotics and are humanely raised. We’re sticking to key attributes that have been so successful for us.

Tell me about the product development process at your company.

Mr. Acree: It varies. We’re a small company, so there’s not a rigid process that we go through.

For example, last year we launched Korean entrees. That was more of a traditional path, where we saw that Korean cuisine in general was on the rise. Our research is primarily what we see happening on the street, both in terms of restaurants that are thriving and also food trucks. We saw all those things happening with Korean, so we started working on that line in a fairly traditional product development process.

The Mexican line has actually been in the back of our heads for a couple years. We specifically worked with a chef named Gabbi Patrick. She owns and runs a Mexican restaurant in California, which is the top Zagat rated Mexican restaurant in California. She specializes in doing what we like to do, which is nueva Mexicana, taking the standard Mexican dishes and giving them a boost, giving them an update. She worked with us on the recipes.

Is this the first time you’ve brought a special chef or expert into the innovation process?

Mr. Acree: This was the second time. Typically with our other items, which span three different cuisines — Indian, Thai with a little Indo-Chinese mixed in, and Middle Eastern — the chefs that we have on staff or on site in our production facilities have those capabilities, and so we’ve been able to use their expertise and knowledge. But when we started stepping out of our normal comfort zone into Korean and Mexican, we worked with a well-known chef in the Korean sector, and then Gabbi for the Mexican line.

Who buys your products? Is your consumer base broader than individuals with a halal diet?

Mr. Acree: It’s much broader than that. The Saffron Road brand is by design a pretty wide and big umbrella, in that there’s a few different attributes that roll up to be Saffron Road.

Obviously, as you mentioned, halal, but also there are all of the natural attributes we bring to the product. We were the first frozen entree on the market when we launched that was using protein raised without antibiotics and certified humane protein that was 100% vegetarian fed and the like…

So, that’s our consumer as well — the consumer who cares about those things.

It also could be a consumer that strictly cares about gluten-free because over 70% of our products are gluten-free certified.

And then there’s the consumer that’s eating at these Korean restaurants or new Mexican restaurants or food trucks, which are typically the young shoppers who are entering the marketplace today. A lot of people call them “millennials”; I prefer to call them “young shoppers.” They expect these natural ingredients, but they also expect something different than a french bread pizza or whatever else might be offered that would have been a top item 15 or 20 years ago in frozen case. They’re looking for new excitement, new flavors in the marketplace.

I’ve been through branding exercises in meetings when companies talk about our consumers. Sometimes they give her a name and she has all these attributes, and I struggle to do that with Saffron Road because there are so many different people that we address with our products.

Beyond frozen entrees, the company manufactures snacks, sauces, broths, frozen appetizers and desserts.

What other categories do you see the brand entering?

Mr. Acree: In frozen, it’s possible we could get into family-size meals and the like. We see an opportunity there. There is a certain elasticity of price, of what consumers will bear for frozen entrees. And so that does get to be concern for larger offerings.

But we have reached outside of frozen as well. The simmer sauces, also the chickpea snacks. There is a huge interest and surge in sales of protein-related items, obviously the Paleo diet being the tip of that. Our chickpea snacks offer more protein than fat — 5 grams of protein, 3 grams of fat. They’re a quick, easy, on-the-go item and Non-G.M.O. Project verified. We use organic chickpeas. Those have been growing for us quickly as well and gaining acceptance across board, not just in natural channel, but also in Safeway and Harris Teeter and other supermarkets.

I don’t think we’ll enter any new categories than we’re in right now, which would be snacks, sauces, broths, and then frozen entrees and frozen nuggets and tenders. The tender product performs very well for us, and it’s up against some very stiff competition, but it definitely is getting a repeat customer. Halal plays into that, but that can’t be the answer for all the sales of nuggets and tenders. It’s just people responding to a premium product.

What are the challenges of developing products with natural ingredients and a halal certification?

Mr. Acree: The halal certification is fairly easy. Where it comes into play primarily is when we’re dealing with animal protein.

The No. 1 challenge we face is there is more pressure and more demand in the marketplace for (humanely raised and antibiotic-free protein). That trend is only going to continue.

We see spikes at other times when commodity prices for factory-farmed chickens are dropping. Our pricing is dependent on an entirely different system than the traditional markets are, and that’s really the biggest challenge.

And for non-G.M.O. products, especially for dairy, it usually means having to use organic dairy. Practically all of our non-frozen items are Non-G.M.O. verified except for the broths. All of our simmer sauces and chickpea snacks are, and four of our entrees are.

Previously, you were involved with Terra Chips and Alexia Foods brands. How and why did you get involved with Saffron Road?

Mr. Acree: I got involved with American Halal before there was a Saffron Road. Alexia was acquired in 2007 by ConAgra Foods, and I stayed on board for a while because I had never worked at a large food company before. I had always worked on the small scale, so I thought it would be a good learning opportunity, and it was. It was a great opportunity to see how things work on the other side of the tracks, so to speak.

But then this opportunity came up through a mutual friend of Adnan’s and mine. He told me about the ideas he had for what could be and was looking for someone like myself who could bring more than the ability to sell the products but also help him create the brand.

I came on board in January of 2010. We started early on working with Whole Foods to develop the brand. They were actually very interested and very supportive of launching a halal brand. Again, that’s not the only thing we hang our hat on. We thought we could be relevant to practically everyone, and now we are because we have vegan entrees.

I really enjoyed working with and getting to know Adnan. We got started with Whole Foods. We started the process in January of 2010, and we were on shelves of Whole Foods nationwide in August of 2010.

We had our first meeting with them and didn’t have our brand name. We had it at the end of March, and in May (Whole Foods) placed the essence of an order for nationwide distribution, and we shipped it out in July and it was on shelves in August.

That, in itself, would not have been a ConAgra experience or with (another large food company). It would have taken a lot more time to make that happen. And that’s what excites me about working here at American Halal and Saffron Road and any entity on this side of the business is being able to move quickly and not have layers of bureaucracy involved and get things done in a very short order.

What is your favorite product from Saffron Road?

Mr. Acree: My favorite Saffron Road product is probably either our Pad Thai or the Manchurian Dumplings. Manchurian Dumplings are an example of one of our lesser known items but completely unique and different. It’s vegan, and it will just completely knock your socks off.
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