How food is like fashion

by Joanie Spencer
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Distinctive Foods Chicago Flats and Wisconsin Flats gourmet flatbreads
Distinctive Foods produces flatbreads, crackers and other baked goods.

ATLANTA — How does a $10 million flatbread and cracker producer compete in the same space as powerhouses like Mondelez? Through adaptability, flexibility and creatively staying on-trend, said Josh Harris, president and chief executive officer, Distinctive Foods, Wheeling, Ill. Mr. Harris participated in a baker panel May 2 at the Biscuit & Cracker Manufacturers’ Association (B&CMA)’s annual technical conference May 1-4 in Atlanta.

“The world has changed,” Mr. Harris said. “And today the cracker and flatbread market is highly saturated. There are dozens of competitors, from the small companies like us up to the major multinational companies.”

In order for a smaller business like Distinctive Foods, which produces flatbreads, crackers and other baked goods in a 25,000-square-foot facility, to remain competitive, the key is being nimble enough to ride the trends, Mr. Harris said, noting, “The solution we’ve come up with is to be very flexible and adaptive, and you have to be creative and move very quickly.”

Food, Mr. Harris explained, is like fashion. And fashion is always changing and evolving, due to the demands of fickle consumers.

He used Quaker — the company where he got his start in the industry in 1985 — as an example.

Quaker products - chewy granola bars, rice cakes, Gatorade
Mr. Harris said Quaker has evolved immensely since he started there in 1982.

“When I started in the business back in 1982 for Quaker oats, it was basically oatmeal, Life cereal, grits and Cap’n Crunch,” he said. “Now it’s chewy granola bars, Gatorade and rice cakes. Nobody ever would have conceived what direction the food industry would go in.”

And, he added, it’s not just about the amount of change but also the accelerated pace of change.

He explained that the company’s smaller size enables it to be more flexible because it’s not tied to a lot of automation.

“We’ve been working assiduously,” he said. “And being a small company, we don’t have as many processes and procedures or capital investments, so we kind of ‘bob and weave’ in the market to stay on trend and continually introduce receptive products in the market.”

Distinctive Foods has been working on products with inclusions such as kale and spinach, as well as partnering with Ry Krisp for new product development.

Tying food to fashion, Mr. Harris explained that the reason why changing food trends are so successful is because the consumers themselves are changing.

“The kind of stuff I ate as a kid is nothing like what my kids eat now,” he said. “I don’t think anyone would have conceived what direction the food industry would go in today.” 
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