“It hasn’t really changed our call to innovation platform; it has changed R&D a lot,” Babu told FoodNavigator-USA.
Instead of whipping up different iterations of flapjacks in its office kitchen where any passerby could sample and give instant feedback, its R&D operations went back to its roots: the home kitchen.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Birch Benders’ R&D manager received multiple shipments of kitchen equipment and different ingredients to continue new product development in her apartment kitchen.
“Now her kitchen looks like a test lab,” said Babu.
To test products and gain as much feedback as possible, Babu and other team members either pick up samples prepared from the make-shift test kitchen or recreate the recipes at home by purchasing their own ingredients and following recipe instructions given by their R&D manager.
“It kind of goes back to the old days of Birch Benders of the founders making it in their kitchen,” he said.
“It’s not immediate like it used to be, it’s a little more manual. But, it also makes us feel closer to our consumer, because that’s how your consumer is eating it.”
Founded in 2011, Birch Benders aimed to disrupt the breakfast category, specifically the stagnant pancake & waffle mix aisle with dairy-free formulations, said Babu, who previously worked in M&A operations and business integration at White Wave Foods when it merged with Danone in April 2017.
Birch Benders' original pancake and waffle mix product requires the consumer to 'just add water' (no eggs or milk necessary) making the pancakes dairy-free, cholesterol-free, and fat-free. The company has since expanded its line of mixes to address other dietary preferences including paleo (made with cassava flour, organic coconut flour, and sweetened with monk fruit), keto (made from almond flour and no added sugar), and protein (16g of protein from whey protein concentrate) mixes.
“There’s always been a push towards better-for-you, clean label, and delicious [in every category]. And those are three prongs that we really focus on in our innovation,” said Babu.
When it came to pancake and waffle mix category, consumers were used to the typical, big name brands dominating the aisle, which offered little in the way of nutrition, he said.
“It’s not necessarily just about having a better-for-you product, we’re also basically allowing people to eat pancakes again who weren’t allowed to in the past due to dietary restrictions.”
Once the brand launched in Whole Foods, it wasn’t long until other retailers picked it up. Now, Birch Benders’ flagship just-add-water pancake and waffle mix is available in 19,000 retailers including Target, Albertsons/Safeway, Kroger, Sprouts, Walmart, and others.
“It was nice to have that first disruption, and that’s really what helped our story,” said Babu.
Once the pandemic hit and stay-at-home orders upended the usual day-to-day routines of most consumers, Birch Benders felt it had an opportunity to connect even more deeply with its core audience who was searching for quick comfort cooking.
The beloved Sunday morning breakfast ritual of making and eating pancakes as family became a lot more frequent as consumers started spending more time in their kitchens, noted Babu.
Indeed, queries for pancake recipes skyrocketed within the first month of the pandemic and searches for replacement to ‘buttermilk’ (a common ingredient pancakes) followed suit as consumers looked to make-do with pantry ingredients they already had on hand, according to Chicory, a New York City-based online content analytics firm specializing in food and recipes.
“We’re seeing an explosion of growth of people who are new to the category. Food is the first level of comfort. People turn to food especially during times like this, and we’re seeing our role in the household change a lot,” said Babu.
The company has also ramped up its e-commerce channel in recent months, a part of the business which will it will continue to develop as consumers grow more accustomed to ordering groceries online, according to Babu.
"It has taken off as people shy away from brick-and-mortar. It used to be partially a marketing tool and partially a sales tool, and now it’s everything. Our e-commerce has absolutely taken off, and we’ve learned to prioritize it," he said.
Babu added that in addition to its two major product launches this year -- 'just add water' microwaveable snack cups and keto frozen toaster waffles -- the brand has a number of new launches on deck -- which Babu couldn't disclose yet -- as a result of its de-centralized, make-shift test kitchen created during the pandemic.
"It’s changed our creative process, and actually makes us sharper. We have some products coming out that we’ve been working on in the past three months that fit squarely within what we feel consumers need today," he said.