Monday, December 8, 2008

A Rich Source of Innovation: Rich Products

Rich Products, the large private company marketing frozen foods and other products, has an interesting history of innovation. Thanks to for a well-written history of Rich Products. The company began with serendipity in looking for soy-based alternatives to dairy products. Here is part of the story from
Robert E. Rich, Sr., first learned about product substitution during World War II through the War Food Administration. After the war, he put that knowledge to use and directed a laboratory team to search for a vegetable-based replacement for whipped cream. His product was to be based on soybeans. In 1945 Rich was on his way to visit a distributor on Long Island and packed some of his soybean-based whipping cream in dry ice for the long train ride from Buffalo, New York. He had intended just to keep the cream cool, but it was frozen solid when he arrived in Long Island. When Rich mashed the frozen mass, he found that it still whipped up beautifully. The discovery launched the beginning of a frozen nondairy products industry.

Rich's innovation, named Rich's Whip Topping, was lauded as "the miracle cream from the soya bean." This was 1945, when the frozen food industry was burgeoning. Rather than marketing to supermarkets, Rich targeted his product to the foodservice sector, reasoning that restaurants, schools, hospitals, and other cost-conscious operators seemed a likely audience for the product. Rich quietly built solid markets, carving a niche that remains unchallenged.

During its early years, Rich continued to create variations on its Whip Topping. In the 1950s the company came out with the first commercial line of frozen cream puffs and eclairs. Its next innovation came in 1961 with the development of Coffee Rich, the nation's first frozen nondairy creamer. Since its introduction, Coffee Rich dominated the market, claiming a 90 percent share into the 1980s. The product was also ahead of its time in health considerations: along with Whip Topping, Coffee Rich was the only 100 percent cholesterol-free, low-fat cream product distributed nationally.

In the 1960s Rich Products began marketing frozen dough. While supermarkets wanted the aroma of fresh baked goods tempting shoppers, it was too much trouble for them to set up expensive bakeries on their facilities, and frozen dough met their needs perfectly. In the early 1960s, Rich began construction on a nondairy plant in Fort Erie, Ontario, just across the Niagara River from Rich's Buffalo headquarters. This plant is still in operation, producing both frozen dough and nondairy products. By the mid-1980s, Rich was operating what was the world's largest frozen dough plant in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The dough, for breads, rolls, and pastries, was sold to supermarket chains throughout the country. Rich Products Corporation was incorporated in 1965. In 1969 Rich acquired Elm Tree Baking Company in Appleton, Wisconsin, adding frozen baked goods to its product line.

Later Rich's would develop and aggressively patent the Freeze Flo process, which allows pies and other frozen materials to stay soft when frozen. Thanks to that process, ice cream could be kept soft even at zero degrees Fahrenheit - a significant advance in ice cream technology.