A factory for (almost) every new idea
“It’s raining new ideas in the food industry,” says strategist and project manager Dewanand Mahadew of TOP. “Perhaps never before have so many people been so conscious of new food concepts as they are now. Converting those new ideas into products is not so simple. Luckily, we are good at that.”
If Dewanand Mahadew were to explain how complex the role of food has become in modern society, he gives the example of a teenage girl who turned 16 and received a cake with 16 candles on it for her birthday. “That cake doesn’t make her happy,” says Mahadew. “But she becomes happy with the photo she takes with her phone of that cake. She puts it on Instagram.” The more likes the photo gets, the more successful the cake and therefore the birthday.
There was a time when food simply had to be cheap and widely available. The task facing the food industry was to produce as many calories as possible at the lowest possible cost. Mass production was then relatively simple. “That time is past,” says Mahadew. “We now know that overeating is unhealthy and that those who want to be slim and attractive should not eat too much. In this society, food has acquired other functions.”
Food now has to be fresh, look attractive, and taste good. A colourful array of trends has all sorts of ideas about what healthy food exactly is, about which components should be absent or present in food. And all those ideas are constantly changing. Once animal protein was necessary to stay healthy, then we had to start worrying about the cholesterol-raising properties of eggs and meat. And at the moment, protein in sports has acquired an almost medicinal meaning.
“Perhaps the most important development in food today is the protein transition,” Mahadew gives as an example. In the substitution of animal proteins by plant-based ones, all those aspects of the more complex role of food return. Plant-based proteins are often cheaper than animal ones, production is often less burdensome on the environment, and according to the Ayurveda mindset, plant-based proteins are also healthier.
Inspired by these ideas, creative individuals and companies develop cheese, yogurts, or dairy drinks based on plants. If they succeed in making such a product in a kitchen or laboratory, there is still a lot, a lot of work to be done to make that product profitable and hygienic to produce. “Good and promising initiatives can falter on that,” says Mahadew. “The time and costs involved in scaling up processes are greater than new food inventors realize.”
Scaling up a process is not a matter of multiplying the pilot setup and setting up ten identical versions of the setup in the laboratory next to each other, so to speak. “Making the machines ten times bigger is also not an option,” emphasizes Mahadew.
When customers with a prototype product turn to Mahadew and his colleagues, they redesign the customer’s production process. They reverse-engineer it. They carefully study the original production process, break down the steps, and then design a new process – one that produces the same product but can be executed on a large scale and complies with all legal guidelines for hygiene and the environment.
“We’re no longer talking about classic mass production, but about mass customization,” says Mahadew. “We create a tailor-made process. A process that is flexible and meets the customer’s wishes, but where the costs are as low as with classic mass production.”
The customers who turn to TOP are diverse. Sometimes they have designed a concrete product, sometimes they have ideas. “The latter group of customers has specific ideas and wishes about a product they would like to sell but do not want to produce themselves,” says Mahadew. “We can also help them.” That’s relatively new in the food industry. “Contract manufacturing is already established in other economic sectors such as the automobile industry, but the food industry is not there yet.” says Mahadew. “We can help product owners mature their products and factory owners upgrade their facilities for contract manufacturing.”