CHCAGO — A breakfast sandwich featuring crushed Cheez-It crackers folded into the biscuit dough. A Mediterranean-inspired hummus bowl topped with Morningstar Farms Italian sausage-style crumbles. Eggo Mini Homestyle Waffles loaded with savory toppings.

These are among the creations born out of the Menuvation Center, Kellogg Co.’s new away-from-home innovation hub where a team of chefs collaborates with foodservice operators to develop cutting-edge menu items. Described as a “science lab, a kitchen and an idea incubator all rolled into one,” Kellogg’s Menuvation Center is housed at The Hatchery Chicago, a food and beverage incubator dedicated to supporting local entrepreneurs.

Kellogg has created a process called iCRAVE (Consider, Reimagine, Analyze, Verify and Execute), combining proprietary insights, prototyping and analytics to develop breakthrough menu innovation.

“Customers can come to us as Kellogg and have a transactional relationship — ‘I need product X; can you get that for me?’” said Shawn Busse, director of research and development. “And that’s fine, but we found in order to get to really big and creative ideas, insights are at the heart of that. It takes time for us to understand our operators, the consumer, culinary trends, trends in health and wellness, and to put those things together to create great ideas.

“That’s really where our process is rooted in insights and understanding the customer. That’s why that collaboration between our customer and Kellogg is so important, so that we really understand our customer’s operating environment and who their consumer is, what occasions they’re focused on and even what their back-of-house capabilities are so that we can create solutions that work for them.”

Cheez-It breakfast sandwichThe Menuvation Center is a resource for customers of all sizes but designed specifically for operators with 50 to 150 units, said Chef Matthew Jost, culinary business development manager. The kitchen contains various pieces of equipment that may be arranged to simulate an operator’s back-of-house setup.

“We made that investment in order to provide an all-around customer experience, so it’s not just simply, ‘This is how it works in our oven. I have no idea how it will work on your equipment,’” Mr. Jost said. “We’ve actually brought that equipment in … so it really proves the concept.”

An important trend in today’s environment is preparing and packaging foods for takeout and delivery. Another trend is familiar foods with a fun twist, or “comfort 2.0,” Mr. Jost said. Take the Cheez-It biscuit sandwich, for example.

“Those are the kinds of insights we can provide and show people that it’s not just simply, here’s a stunt food, bright and showy like a unicorn shake,” he said. “This is actually something that’s going to sell over and over again and provide good revenue and good margins.”

As plant-based eating gains momentum on menus, Kellogg offers a variety of solutions under its Morningstar Farms brand, as well as its recent extension, Incogmeato.

“Plant-based meatballs is a great opportunity to offer unique flavor opportunities along with a plant-based offering,” Mr. Busse said.

In the early stages of the pandemic, many foodservice operators minimized menus to reduce operational complexities. A solution for simplification is using one ingredient in multiple applications, Mr. Jost said.

“As a partner we look for ways to optimize the different foods we sell, so you can, for example, use this Morningstar spicy bean burger can be a quesadilla burger, you can use it as a simple breakfast sandwich, or you can stack it with a bunch of other different plants,” he said.

Kellogg hummus bowlPrior to the Menuvation Center, Kellogg’s Away-From-Home team partnered with restaurant chains to introduce such concepts as Froot Loops donuts and Frosted Strawberry Pop-Tarts milkshakes. While not all collaborations may lead to co-branded menu innovation, Kellogg’s broad portfolio of iconic brands lends itself to creations offering nostalgic novelty. Additionally, discoveries born out of the Menuvation Center may influence research and development in Kellogg’s packaged food business.

“One of the benefits of Kellogg being a global company are the opportunities we have to share insights and learnings across the business,” Mr. Busse said. “We’re certainly going to learn things in terms of insights and trends that will translate to the retail environment or may translate to our global businesses in other parts of the Kellogg organization.

“That’s one of the great things about the iCRAVE process, too. When we identify what the customer challenge is, it allows us to tap into the broader Kellogg organization and our global insights team, to tap into our packaging engineers or to tap into our R&D organization to engage with that customer to come up with the insights to drive bigger ideas.”