SOLON, Ohio – In Solon, not far from U.S. 422, there’s a giant science experiment going on.
Actually, multiple experiments, every day, all day.
Within the enclave of Nestle buildings in Solon is the customer innovation campus for Stouffer’s and other divisions. That campus is a cooking hub, where hours of trials and tastings result in restaurants getting a finished product or a grocery store being able to stock frozen lasagna.
And if you think the research is just a few chefs adding salt or tossing in some spices and calling it a day, you’d be way off. The countless experiments take place in a back-and-forth with customers to arrive at what they hope is a tasteful – literally – product.
It’s the behind-the-scenes science that Stouffer’s prides itself on. This year, Stouffer’s is marking its 100th year in business.
1922: Buttermilk, brands and baseball
The company’s roots are entrenched about 20 miles away in downtown Cleveland, when Abraham and Mahala Stouffer started serving buttermilk and crackers in the Arcade. Abraham’s father had a creamery business that eventually merged with another company. The couple focused on the burgeoning Stouffer Lunch in the Arcade.
“Apparently the thing to do back then was to drink buttermilk, and it was sweeter,” Nestle Professional marketing manager Todd Muller said. “Then they added crackers and apple pie and sandwiches, and here we are 100 years later.”
That buttermilk stand wasn’t the only thing that was different about life in Cleveland in 1922.
That year, a first-class stamp cost 2 stamps. A gallon of gas was 11 cents. Public Auditorium was dedicated. The Palace Theatre opened. And a company was born.
The first Stouffer’s restaurant was opened two years later. Sons Vernon and Gordon joined in the 1920s, and the company was off with expansion, in both products and restaurants, branching into Detroit, Pittsburgh and elsewhere.
They embraced modern kitchen facilities of the day, a trait that carries into the current campus. By the 1950s, they were producing frozen foods in Cleveland, and in 1966 the company moved to Solon. That shift marked a then unknown connection: Exactly 100 years earlier across the globe, Nestle began operations as a condensed-milk company.
Stouffer’s path is a quintessential business-buyout story: In 1967, Stouffer Foods merged with Litton Industries. In 1973, Nestle S.A., bought Stouffer Corp. from Litton. Nestle S.A. eventually would buy Litton in 1980.
One of several moments in the sun for Stouffer’s came in 1969, when the company provided the food for the Apollo 11 astronauts in quarantine following their pioneering voyage to the moon.
Vernon Stouffer was known for a few things, including being a former owner of the Cleveland Indians who once came very close to selling the team to George Steinbrenner. He also was known for being very precise and striving for consistency, Muller said.
“Brands are about trust,” Muller said. “At the end of the day I am picking this brand because I trust the great experience I had last time.”
He paraphrased Vernon Stouffer’s philosophy, saying, “Hey, if you’ve done it at one restaurant and you’ve got all your details and procedures, why not roll it out the same way at every other restaurant?”
To do that requires innovation, flexibility and determination, Muller said, and that’s where the customer innovation campus comes in.
“Part of food-service is working closely with (corporate) customers who come here and take our products and build out dishes that are specific for them and their concepts, make sure it works for them,” Muller said. “We also do customized products for chains. All of this kitchen equipment is designed and planned to replicate what our customers have.”
That equipment accommodates “plug and play” capabilities to allow for appliances to be switched out, based on who the customer is.
“There’s a variety of ways people get to the finished plate that you have,” he said. “You can take a Stouffer’s food-service lasagna, which is different from what you can buy in a grocery store, cause it’s designed differently – it’s designed to hold and cut and plate, it’s a different formula. Some operators will take that directly and say, ‘Here it is.’ Others will embellish it and change it, add sauce, add cheese.”
Science – and business – in Solon
In a way, making buttermilk is a science experiment, so consider that a harbinger for what goes on in Solon.
It’s not uncommon to see many people walking throughout the product-development area looking like a cross between a scientist in a white lab coat and food worker with hair net. The difference that sets apart the Stouffer’s campus from a scientist’s lab is the aroma. On a recent tour bacon permeated throughout.
It’s an FDA facility that remains culinary- and chef-driven, for dishes that can be made, shared and consumed on site.
Many of the brainstorming starts in the ‘ideate’ room. The room resembles a lecture hall but has a high ceiling – the philosophy is higher-than-normal ceilings yield a “psychological freedom” to think more creatively. That process is necessary when it comes to Stouffer’s being able to consistently produce more than 100 products.
One panel room is equipped so when shades are closed a yellow light bathes the food and leaves it devoid of color.
“That takes out all the color of the food that you’re eating, so if our technologists just want to focus on the flavor and, ‘Hey, we’ll worry about the color later,’ they can do so,” Muller said.
A sophisticated receiving dock is used because so many ingredients come in regularly. And a pilot plant is equipped to produce larger batches of a product that might have to be scaled up.
The relationship between customers and company is a two-way street without filters or focus groups that allows customers to help drive the finished product, Muller said. Customers with specific orders can work directly with researchers. Other times, customers might take a more laissez-faire approach and leave the trial and error to the folks in Solon. The chefs on site take into consideration the equipment the company will be using.
“We can have the customer in the building, have the product-development technologist meet with them in the morning, show them the food – ‘How about this, this?’ Go back in the afternoon and show them another version, at the end of the day show another version. We can be done in a day, a process that could take weeks or months,” Muller said. “It’s about dialing in what a customer is looking for. That’s pretty darn cool.”
And what customers often look for is macaroni and cheese, that easy-to-make, comfort staple.
“You should see the number of ideas we have for mac and cheese,” Muller said. “I’ve been saying this now for 15 years, but America has not reached its satiety level on mac and cheese.”
He’s right: It can be an entrée, it can be a side dish, it can be high-end focus on a plate – lobster mac and cheese anyone?
“What’s interesting to me is how much food stays the same – lasagna, mac and cheese – these are just staples of Stouffer’s and have been for a long, long time,” Muller said. “Food trends come and go, but what we do is innovate – how do we change things a little bit within this? How do we catch up on some new trends? We went from a traditional yellow mac and cheese and now we have a white cheese offering with cavatappi noodle. People love it, it’s familiar – with a twist.”
The Solon facility houses multiple departments, with financing, marketing, product-development divisions, sales and others to allow for better collaboration. The nearby campus forms a culinary-products enclave across more than 40 acres that includes Lean Cuisine – a key product developed in the 1980s – DiGiorno and others.
The impact of the businesses is not lost on Solon Mayor Edward H. Kraus.
“Solon would not be Solon without Nestle,” Kraus said. “It’s an awesome relationship.”
As the story goes, Kraus said, decades ago, Pepper Pike native and businessman Jim Biggar saw a bumper sticker that said: “Solon Means Business.”
“That’s when they decided to move the frozen-food factory out here on Harper Road,” Kraus said. “Ever since then the campus has grown to the point where they have added various divisions throughout the years, they built a culinary center, they built a test kitchen, they built their research and development headquarters, and they have just been a tremendous partner for now over 50 some years.”
Nestle and Swagelok are the city’s top two employers, he said, with each having roughly 3,300 to 3,500 workers.
“What’s nice is they both are in a growth mode,” he said. “Swagelok just built a global headquarters. Nestle continues to grow and expand, and during the pandemic Nestle was basically feeding the world over the last few years. They are great local partners. Even during the pandemic Nestle brought frozen food to our senior center, they packed it up, and then they delivered it to seniors who are home-bound.”
It’s a century-long leap from a buttermilk stand to the current facilities that serve as a launching pad to develop concoctions of food. Moving forward, though, means keeping tabs on dining trends.
Micromarkets are gaining in popularity.
“These are really the rage,” Muller said about the self-service pantries that have a microwave where you can buy a burrito and heat it up in a hotel lobby if you arrive late or are on the go. They offer more than a vending machine and less than a restaurant.
With micromarkets, for example, the company has to take into account packaging consistent with microwaves, not ovens.
“There’s a lot of that innovation you wouldn’t even think is innovation,” Muller said.
It’s all about innovation through application, he said.
“People like the food they like, right?” he said. “It doesn’t change a lot, but then you put a little flavor in. That’s what our culinary group does: How do we take our core products and apply them to what’s happening today?”
The majority of what Stouffer’s does is retail business, Muller said. But keeping a close eye on food-service dollars is important. The question is constantly asked: Do Americans spend more food-service dollars out of home or in home?
Those two pieces of the food pie have been close to 50-50, Muller said, though “out of home” food expenditures have been flirting with passing in-home dollars.
“Our perspective at Nestle is we want to provide food where people want to get food, whether it’s the grocery store or food-service,” he said.
The spending pendulum can swing based on gas prices, inflation periods, recessions, labor costs and supply issues.
Also on the plate, so to speak, as Stouffer’s moves forward: Virtual dining, ghost kitchens, creating food with reheating in mind and plant-based initiatives.
“Stouffer’s doesn’t need to be recreated,” Muller said. “It’s a beautiful legacy. It just needs to continue to evolve to what the needs are today.”
I am on cleveland.com’s life and culture team and cover food, beer, wine and sports-related topics. If you want to see my stories, here’s a directory on cleveland.com. Bill Wills of WTAM-1100 and I talk food and drink usually at 8:20 a.m. Thursday morning. Twitter: @mbona30.
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