Utensils clank against stainless steel counters amidst the buzz of excited chatter and soft whirrs of an industrial-sized refrigerator. This is Tillamook’s R&D Kitchen in our new Portland outpost. It’s a hub of imagination and exploration, where science and creativity meet in sweet and savory symphonies. It’s here that we gathered with five folks across different departments to chat about innovations coming out of our 109 year-old, farmer-owned co-op. What we heard is that everything is grounded in a specific purpose: to bring people better dairy in a way that’s relevant, honest, and completely delicious.
Note: click audio clips throughout to hear our innovators in their own words.
First up, why is innovation so important to Tillamook?
Although we’re big believers in the power of a humble chunk of cheese, we also know that trends are constantly evolving. So as our fans’ tastes change, we adapt. No one knows this better than Jill Allen, our R&D Director for Cheese and Butter, who’s been with us for nearly two decades and serves as official company cheese-taster. Click below to hear Jill explain changing tastes:
What is the key to innovating?
For us, the most important factor in developing new innovations is listening. We’re constantly investigating exactly what it is our fans want and whether there’s a way we can pull it off that’s uniquely Tillamook. For example, the idea for our Sauce Starters came directly from a focus group attendee. Click to hear how Carrie Ericksen, our Director of Consumer & Shopper Insights, witnessed the spark of an idea come to life:
Where does innovation come from?
The team at Tillamook is always hungry for learning more, knowing that inspiration can strike at any moment. Their laptop screens are riddled with food blog posts, restaurant expeditions are commonplace. Steve Marko, our Senior Director of R&D, explains, “We grew up loving our products and loving our food. So we cook together and new ideas are spawned all the time.” Jill also points out that looking backwards is just as crucial when it comes to developing cheese. Click to hear how:
Our team also knows that creativity can come from anywhere, which is why so many ideas are welcomed from unexpected sources. For example, because everyone at Tillamook is passionate about great food and our products, new ideas are shared all the time regardless of roles. And of course, creative inspiration is rarely limited to the workplace walls. Sibel Candemir, our Director of Cheese Category, tells us with a smile,
I get a lot of unexpected sparks from just watching my kids interact with their friends...in their natural habitat. So it’s amazing, especially for ice cream, for instance. It's just a goldmine.”
How do teams work together to innovate?
Aside from genuine excitement for Tillamook products, the collaboration between teams is the driving force behind innovations. Click to hear Carrie talk teamwork:
What helps create a diverse cross-functional team?
Tillamook is made up of people from a variety of backgrounds with unique perspectives. For example, some folks have worked on numerous dairy farms whereas others came from industries like wine or medicine. But it was their shared passion that brought them to Tillamook.
How does Tillamook keep it real while innovating?
One way Tillamook keeps it real is through smart partnerships with trusted makers, particularly with our Special Batch Ice Creams. Lindsey Zehner, our Assistant Category Manager for Ice Cream, explains how her team looks for partners that resonate with our fans. We’re lucky to have collabs with some of the Pacific Northwest’s greatest, such as Stumptown Cold Brew Coffee and Pendleton Whisky - because we know you’re only as good as the company you keep. We also keep ourselves honest when developing new products. Hear Carrie explain how doing things the right way sometimes means walking away:
Sibel adds the importance of preserving our values and traditions as we innovate. She says,
There's always a way to reinvent ourselves while still staying true to who we are.”
Finally, on the topic of real, how does the team make ice cream flavors that taste so spot on? Lindsey proclaims, “You use the real thing!” As part of the development process, the team will make the real versions of ingredients and flavors over and over to make sure we’re nailing it. ‘Pancake Breakfasts’ were a frequent occurrence while creating our Buttered Maple Pancakes flavor - all in the name of science. What have they made a lot of lately? Birthday cake. A lot of birthday cake. That’s all we’re saying.
What’s on the horizon for future innovations?
We couldn’t resist asking the team what they were excited about for what’s next, in case they had any juicy (cheesy?) tidbits. Jill jumps in,
I'm really excited about developing many new types of cheeses that are Tillamook. So we might develop a new cheese that's common within the industry but we have our very own twist on it that makes it Tillamook.”
Jill, you’re saying all the right things. Hear Jill explain how new cheeses are made:
Steve adds that he’s excited about the new culinary ventures Tillamook’s getting into. Click to hear below:
Lindsey hints the same for ice cream, that we’ve really only scratched the surface. She says,
Beyond just flavor development...I think there's different ways that we can deliver ice cream that are exciting and we’ve got a lot of room to continue exploring that, too.”
Explore on, you pioneers you.
Any final words?
If there was one major takeaway from our talk, it’s the incredible passion for Tillamook’s mission shared by everyone involved, regardless of role, title, or background. It all starts on the farm, but it certainly doesn’t end there. Steve sums it up perfectly-
I think when we joined Tillamook, we joined it for a reason. We believed in it. We trust it. We love it. And it's a joy to come to work.”
Needless to say, know that you can expect more coming out of this R&D Kitchen in the future. Way more. And know that it will be developed honestly, truly, with the intention of bringing more people some real good dairy.