Alexia showcased new organic sweet potato fries and crispy rosemary fries at Natural Products Expo West.

ANAHEIM, CALIF. — Some of the most successful product innovation at Alexia Foods has made its research and development team a little uncomfortable.

Rob Johnson, senior brand manager for Alexia Foods

“Even if it’s not something we’ve ever done before, even if it’s something that’s not necessarily in our wheelhouse from a capability standpoint, even if it’s something we’re a little uncomfortable with, sometimes that’s where the best ideas come from,” said Rob Johnson, senior brand manager for Alexia Foods, a business unit of Omaha-based ConAgra Foods, Inc. “I can tell you over the last five years, the best things we have done have always made us a little uncomfortable just because they were more difficult or a little unfamiliar.”

Alexia Foods was established in 2002 by founder and chef Alex Dzieduszycki and acquired by ConAgra Foods in 2007. The company harvests its russet, red and gold potatoes on farms in the Pacific Northwest using sustainable farming methods. Beyond potato products, the brand also offers baked appetizers, artisan breads and organic frozen vegetables.

Recently, the company committed to transitioning all of its offerings to Non-GMO Project verification over the next year. Currently, 90% of the brand’s portfolio has been verified, Mr. Johnson said.

“We just have a couple of additional items that we have to run through the process and do ingredient sourcing on just to make sure that everything’s non-G.M.O.,” he said in an interview with Food Business News. “We’re really close on that. Virtually our entire line of products is Non-GMO verified or will be in the next 12 months. That’s been a big focus for us.”

At Natural Products Expo West, held March 10-13 in Anaheim, the company showcased new organic sweet potato fries and crispy rosemary fries.

“Our commitment has been to be transparent with our consumers, and adding an organic offering to our sweet potato lineup was the next logical extension for us once we were able to get a hold of the organic sweet potatoes,” Mr. Johnson said.

Inspiration for the crispy rosemary fries, which are shoestring-cut white potatoes seasoned with rosemary and sea salt, came from restaurant industry trends.

“We noticed a lot of higher-end restaurants were doing rosemary type seasonings or toppings on fries, so we started investigating how that might work for Alexia, and we were able to come up with this product,” Mr. Johnson said. “So far consumer response has been incredible.”

Alexia Foods regularly tracks flavor trends in food service and retail to guide product development, Mr. Johnson said.

Restaurants are putting their own spins on poutine.

“One of things we’re seeing a lot of is fries being topped with various things in restaurants,” he said. “Traditional poutine started to become popular a few years ago, and there’s any number of different takes on poutine.

“We spend a lot of time focused on what types of flavors our consumers are interested in these days. Is it ethnic flavors, spicy flavors, things that haven’t quite hit the mainstream yet? One of the things we looked at is tajin, which is a savory lime seasoning that you put on fruit. It’s popular in Mexico and some other South American countries. We don’t necessarily have plans for that specifically, but that’s just an example of the type of thing we like to keep close watch on.”

The company has resident “potato experts” who determine the best shape or cut for a french fry product from a technical standpoint.

“The biggest litmus test in terms of what cut style goes well with what seasoning is tasting the product,” Mr. Johnson said. “A couple weeks ago we did a big cutting. We’ve got a new line of products we’re working on, and we were trying to determine what the right cut style was. About 10 of us got around a table in our research and development kitchen, and our R.&D. folks had made about eight different cut styles, and we basically just created this matrix and tasted everything, and everybody took a vote, and we discussed what worked and what didn’t. That’s one of the ways we typically home in on the right product and flavor combination.”

The next step in product development is ensuring the availability of ingredients. One challenge Alexia Foods faces in product development is procuring large quantities of organic and non-bioengineered ingredients, Mr. Johnson said.

Beyond potato products, Alexia also offers baked appetizers, artisan breads and organic frozen vegetables.

“There are times we have had to go back to the drawing board because organic dairy ingredients, as an example, are tough to source and have a really long lead time,” Mr. Johnson said. “If there’s something that we have decided is a really good idea and tastes really good and we think consumers are going to like it, and then we find out later it’s hard to source the ingredient or it’s going to take a long time, maybe we have to reformulate. There’s a little bit of a cycle that goes on there.”

From there, the product concept moves on to consumer testing.

“I would say we have a pretty good track record thus far,” Mr. Johnson said. “We haven’t kicked out very many products after our consumer test phase. I guess we’re lucky in the sense that everybody likes french fries, and there’s a lot you can do with a french fry that consumers are going to like.”

Products in development are designed to replicate the restaurant experience, Mr. Johnson said.

“It has to do with different types of flavors, different types of experiences, different types of ingredients, all with a little bit of a cultural bent since we follow seasoning and flavor research, and that’s a big part of American cuisine these days,” he said. “How do you take something popular outside the U.S. and share it with the American palate? Again, poutine is a good example, (but) it’s really hard to deliver that type of a french fry experience in a frozen state. We’re not necessarily working on poutine specifically, but that’s a good example of the next frontier, something we’re trying to get figured out.”