Laura Johnson spooned some chocolate chips into her mouth, chewed a bit, then pondered the resulting chemistry like a wine connoisseur.
"Quick flavor release, low melt, full chocolate flavor, slightly dark," she intoned after a few pensive swishes. "I like the texture, sweetness and the size. It corresponds well with flavors we're using where people want a good-sized bite."
The frontline flavormeister at the vast Publix Super Market Inc. dairy plant, Johnson, 54, has finely tuned taste buds that have played a big role in launching millions of dollars worth of ice creams, cultured yogurts, frozen yogurts and even tea, lemonade and soda pop. In the past four years, Johnson's taste sense got a real workout. Publix unveiled 105 new products at the biggest ice cream and yogurt operation in Florida. Much of her attention has been lavished on developing 39 new ice cream products, a 41 percent increase.
Dairy food marketing is a weird world of vagaries and contradictions. Product fortunes can be lost on such esoteric concepts as "mouth feel," the way a product feels swirling around your chops. Americans want to lose weight, yet the only ice creams with rising sales come riven with butterfat and sinful flavors. Who would have dreamed that cookie dough would become a popular ice cream additive?
Or, on the other hand, that Johnson's latest creation for Publix would be a line of reduced-carbohydrate ice cream for diabetics, the Atkins/South Beach diet crowd and others among the nation's estimated 70-million carb counters? (Reduced carbs? Natch. Fully armed with fat? You bet.)
Americans, it seems, are none too adventurous about frozen dessert. A majority (52 percent) never venture past Plain Jane vanilla or chocolate in the ice cream freezer case. How else could something as timid as strawberry hold down a solid third place among single flavors, according to NPD Group.
Yet Publix uses ice cream, and the many fancy flavors, as a key signal to consumers that it celebrates quality foods and has all the latest goodies for foodies. So for Johnson, the frontline dairy plant research and development director, coming up with an ever-changing variety of new, exotic and indulgent flavors is Job One.
She releases three new limited-edition flavors every quarter. Her Santa's White Christmas Red Velvet ice cream has developed a following so devoted they send letters and e-mails to Publix headquarters each season asking for the first date it will be on sale.
Her favorite concoctions: Banana Split, Key Lime Pie and Chocolate Cherish Passion (laden with tiny cherry-filled chocolate hearts for Valentine's Day). A few potions that were . . . let's just say . . . ahead of their time: kids ice cream in cotton candy, watermelon and grape bubble gum flavors; cottage cheese with mixed vegetables, zucchini or sun-dried tomatoes and herbs. "I loved it," Johnson said. "Not enough other people did."
One supplier even tried to talk her into lobster-bisque and lasagna flavored yogurt.
In food marketing, far more new products flop than succeed. The reasons are all over the board. But a foodmaker that just sticks with the old standbys misses out on the new hits and is therefore losing ground.
Picking flavors is a collaborative process. Marketing staffers suggest how Publix should respond to consumers' changing eating habits. Category managers track what people buy to steer decisions of what Publix food plants should add to the shelves. They all turn to Johnson to rustle up the recipes, wade through ingredient suppliers' ideas and fine-tune the flavors, emulsifiers and stabilizers into a hit.
Every year she submits 80 sample flavors to the brass, including many that had been passed over repeatedly (creme brulee ice cream, anyone?) because her bosses only have so much to spend.
Her work, however, is part of a larger trend. Supermarkets are relying more on their own private-label products to win customer loyalty. Most are made by other suppliers using the store's label, as Publix does for its fresh, chilled orange juice. Some chains such as Winn-Dixie operate their own food plants, too.
But Publix, which employs thousands in an array of food processing plants scattered across Florida and Georgia, has made its own brands _ from packaged salad greens to cole slaw _ a key ingredient in the chain's marketing strategy.
The formula dates to chain founder George Jenkins, who declared that Publix's own private brands should be equal to or better than the leading advertised brands.
How important is ice cream to the formula? Very. While store brands account for about 20 percent of an average supermarket's bulk ice cream sales, at Publix the house brand generates more than a third. With sales of $621-million, Publix became the 27th biggest dairy manufacturer in the nation in 2003, according to estimates by Dairy Fresh, a trade journal.
Because shoppers cannot buy them from the competition, Publix sees its store brands as a point of differentiation from grocery competitors and Wal-Mart Supercenters.
"We're constantly trying to give people something outside the vanilla and chocolate realm," said Jay Jaskiewicz, director of dairy manufacturing. "Laura is our secret weapon."
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None of this was on Laura Johnson's radar screen as a kid. She grew up the middle child of seven in a rigidly religious family in Winter Haven.
Movies were banned. As a teen, she boldly clashed over the family ban on dancing. Her career aspiration was to be a good mother. Today, a grandmother with nine grandchildren, she'll rent videos. Her favorite TV show remains The Waltons.
Dad was a chef at one of the top restaurants in town.
"We weren't wealthy, but we ate well," she recalled. "His specialty was sauces."
She quickly labeled waiting on tables a tiresome, dead-end job. Her future husband hooked her up with a lab job at a citrus processing plant. Then she moved to the lab at the local health department. She left after four years to raise a family. Then, when the youngest of her three kids reached 4 in 1980, she noticed that Publix was building its first dairy plant. She won a job after an interview in the construction trailer.
One of two quality-control lab technicians, she learned dairy science by trial and error. Managers encouraged her by sharing their knowledge and sending her to seminars and trade shows. Lab tests required frequent tastings. She honed her taste buds into a vocational tool.
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The Lakeland dairy plant is a plumber's nightmare. Miles of shiny stainless-steel pipes, holding tanks and fast-freeze units wring every last drop of food products out of 26 tanker trucks of milk a day.
Publix gets all but about 5 percent of its whole milk from Florida and south Georgia dairy farmers. The rest comes from other states because Florida cows produce less milk in the late-summer heat. They get spooked even more by hurricanes, so Publix had to ship in milk from Kansas and Texas after Hurricanes Charley and Frances blew through last month.
All the raw milk is stripped down to skim milk. Pasteurization requires heating milk from 37 degrees to 170, then quickly plunging the temperature to 35. Then fats are blended back in to create the base for yogurt, cream cheese or homogenized milk in low-fat, reduced-fat or full-fat varieties.
The ice cream mix is chilled to a soft-serve 21 degrees so barrels of nuts or cookies can be dropped in, or twirling nozzles can spin in waves of caramel syrups. To lock in flavor, the assembly line parade of packaged ice cream is marched through a 60-degree-below-zero freezer so it is brick-hard.
Johnson's simple glass-walled office is smack in the middle of all this, right next to the plant operator's control room. Inside she has an ice cream machine for mixing small batches for sampling. She is constantly called out to the assembly lines to taste test products so they match her flavor profile.
Weekly, she and an assistant brainstorm products and ingredients in a process Johnson calls "messing around." That's where she came up with her first hit 15 years ago: a chocolate chip mint ice cream that's still sold in a similar form. At restaurant meals, she seeks out dessert flavor combinations that might work in ice cream or yogurt. Weekly, she is out in supermarkets checking out the competition and monitoring the latest sensations in two places: the candy aisle and the bakery.
"I have to catch myself sometimes because I love ice cream," she said. "I stick to tiny samples that really only add up to a serving or two a day."
She keeps her recipes a secret, stashed in a company database. But she knows most of them by taste. Her overarching rule is pretty simple.
"You want the product to taste exactly like what you say it is on the package," she said.
So when one supplier's peach is really more like apricot, she makes adjustments or looks elsewhere.
Multiple flavors complicate matters. The secret to her banana split was a banana flavor that made every flavor in a banana split recognizable in each bite.
Sometimes she bends the rule. Her Jack Rabbit Fudge featured white chocolate and butter pecan laced with a hint of cayenne pepper. "The heat sort of sneaks up on you," she said.
Still under construction: tropical flavors and baked goods embedded in ice cream such as brownies and cake pieces. She's monitoring big ice cream brands that are now toying with putting three-cheese Greek phylo pastry in ice cream.
Her big project: a commemorative flavor for Publix's 75th anniversary next year.
"You can bet it's not going to be vanilla," she said.
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How she developed Publix low-carb ice cream line illustrates how a modern supermarket comes up with new store brand products.
It's sort of an exercise in reverse engineering.
Last fall, Publix marketers noticed that the Atkins/South Beach diet craze had spawned hundreds of new low-carb foods. Information Resources Inc. tracked 80 new entire low-carb brand names that zoomed from nothing in 2002 to $1.1-billion in sales during the 52 weeks ended June 30. Four of five of the new products are snack or dessert foods.
Armed with Splenda, the latest darling of the artificial sweetener industry, product marketers saw a way to slice out carbs for a ready market.
When Breyer's Ice Cream unveiled the first reduced-carb ice cream than five other bulk premium ice cream makers countered with rival lines within weeks. None of the other Florida supermarkets saw a store brand opportunity except Publix.
What cinched the deal for Publix was watching sales of new low-carb ice cream soar.
Sales of all low-carb products rose 5.8 percent in the 52 weeks ended June 30, said Information Resources. Food sales overall rose 1.7 percent.
"We struggle every day with whether we're looking at a fad or trend," said Dave Cerra, Publix business development director of frozen foods, nonfood and pet products. "When I saw the product movement of these low carb ice creams, it was clear people tried them and liked them enough to buy them again and again."
Breyers CarbSmart Premium Ice Cream was first out of the gate in October. By January, Publix had Johnson working up a flavor profile. She came up with four flavors _ vanilla, chocolate, butter pecan and cookies and cream, which including a low-carb cookie that complemented ice cream.
She had small groups of Publix employees blind-test her recipes in comparisons with the other six leading brands. After 10 revisions, she had the flavor profile nailed down.
Now the chain could do the math on profitability and pricing, figure out nutritional labeling and create a plan to market a low-carb product that met USDA and Food and Drug Administration regulations. Adding to the difficulty: The government is still working on a definition for low-carb foods.
Packaging can be critical. Sales of Publix sherbet, for instance, rose more than 50 percent when the company switched from a transparent container to a cardboard one with a slick beauty shot of the product. Publix chose a pure, white container with clean blue lines for its reduced-carb ice cream.
"We can't make any health claims because the government definition is still up in the air," said Shannon Langford, a category marketing manager. "So we're following the rest of the industry by saying it's for the low-carb lifestyle or diet."
Managers had to sort out what slower-selling items and package sizes could quietly be scaled back to clear the 30 inches of shelf space needed for a new line. Some valuable real estate was given up by Publix Homestyle Ice Cream, a line with a smooth custardy texture that Edy's made the ice cream industry trend du jour a few years ago.
By June, Johnson was working as late as 2 a.m. tasting the first production runs rolling out of the plant in Lakeland. Vanilla bean prices had tripled. Yet taste tests confirmed what she suspected: Vanilla needs to be a very intense flavor. Splenda was overpowering it.
Publix decided to eat the higher cost of vanilla because the product quality was more important than the margin. Even so, Publix price is $4.19 a half gallon (64 ounces) while the national brands get $4.99 for 1.75 quarts (56 ounces).
"It wasn't kickin'," said Johnson. "So I punched up the vanilla. Now it's kickin'."
Mark Albright can be reached at (727) 893-8252 or albrightsptimes.com.
ABOUT LAURA JOHNSON
CLAIM TO FAME
Her first hit came 15 years ago in a brainstorming session: mint chocolate chip. It is still sold in similar form today.
Johnson's next big project is a commemorative flavor for Publix's 75th anniversary next year.
Banana Split, Key Lime Pie and Chocolate Cherish Passion (laden with cherry-filled chocolate hearts for Valentine's Day.