R&D services

When customer requests come in, Rhino Foods takes them from ideation to commercialization. Conoscenti plays a key role in Rhino Foods’ research and development. He has his hand in calculating nutritional information, testing the recipes and putting them into production. That is the way dairy products research and development is heading, he said. “It is becoming more highly defined.”

Conoscenti, who joined Rhino Foods in 2008 as a product developer, brings a unique perspective to the company. He graduated from the New England Culinary Institute where he was trained in the classic French brigade system. He was chef at Steak and Shake, ran a school foodservice program in Vermont, worked on a line of cookies for Bruegger’s and spent 10 years at Ben & Jerry’s. He earned the certified research chef designation by demonstrating knowledge in microbiology, food engineering, safety and shelf-life issues. There are fewer than 100 such chefs in the United States, he said.

Conoscenti described his thought process in product development. He knows that bacon is a popular food these days, but it presents problems because it is neither kosher nor natural. Conoscenti found a natural and kosher bacon flavoring, which led him to think of a smoked bacon maple flavor. (Maple syrup is a signature food in Vermont.) He added that to a cake and found egg-shaped chocolate bits from a supplier. His result was “bacon and eggs” ice cream. That’s a clever concept, “but you can’t just name it something. It has to taste like the name,” Conoscenti said.

On the day that Dairy Foods visited, Rhino Foods displayed an array of baked and extruded ingredients, cheesecake products and ice cream concepts, including maple bacon cake, banana cake, ginger cake, coconut cream pie, s’mores, raspberry coconut ice cream, ginger snap ice cream and banana bread ice cream.

Conoscenti also develops products based on customers’ requests. One customer asked for applications that can be used in Greek yogurt, with the additional attributes of healthy and gluten-free ingredients. Conoscenti and the marketing and sales team develop a list of “hot” and popular ingredients. With his knowledge of how ingredients work in a dairy base, Conoscenti develops six to eight flavor concepts and presents them to the customer. Typically, a customer adds its own spin on a concept.

The development cycle has sped up. What used to be a year has been shortened to 90 days in some cases. Rhino Foods met with a private-label account in January and the customer had ice cream on store shelves in the spring, Conoscenti said. Larger customers still follow a year-long development cycle that begins with ideas in the spring and delivery the following winter.

At its height, Rhino Foods was making 25 million cookie sandwiches a year for itself and co-packing accounts. When some of that volume went away, Castle had to decide what to do. Right now the focus is on baked and extruded inclusions, although the company keeps its hand in dairy products by making ice cream sandwiches.

“Branded foods are a difficult arena for us to compete,” Castle admitted. It is hard to get ice cream novelty products into convenience stores because Unilever and Nestle have locked up most of the freezer space, he said.

Still, no one has to hold a bake sale for Rhino Foods.

“We have been really good at rapidly growing our baked products. We are a global leader in cookie dough,” Castle said.

Being small helps Rhino Foods react quickly to customer requests. Castle said his company has a “99% customer service level,” in part because it can fulfill short lead times. “Good, safe products also help,” he said.

Rhino Foods’ vision statement states in part that the company strives “to be an innovative and agile niche food manufacturer recognized for its workplace practices.” The four components of the statement focus on finances, employees, customers/suppliers and community. It speaks of long-term financial health, a climate of mutual trust and respect, delighting customers and improving social and environment conditions in the community. Rhino Foods wrote the statement in 1992 after a year of development. Although the words have been tweaked and the word “suppliers” was appended to customers, “the promise has not changed,” Castle said. “We talk about the mission. It’s alive.”

Visitors to the corporate headquarters see a “wall of fame” in the lobby. Plaques honor outstanding employees, chosen by their peers, who embody the corporate mission and values.

Just as great products need great ingredients, top organizations need high-performing employees. Rhino Foods’ staff is at the core of everything the company makes. Ted Castle builds employee loyalty with programs like job sharing and loans. The team, making great products and following the best manufacturing practices, is the main ingredient in Rhino Foods’ winning formula.