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Complicating things further is the speed with which American food fashions change. No sooner do manufacturers devise the perfect product for the perfect niche than new categories open up. What's a U.S. food company to do when Latino consumers--13% of the U.S. population and growing--begin clamoring for the aguas frescas and spicy tamarinds they grew up with? Where do foodmakers turn when kids--who never met a food they wouldn't prefer sweeter, saltier, chewier or bluer--create a whole new demand for so-called extreme flavors? And what do they do when all those new choices begin contributing to an exploding American obesity epidemic and the same people who have done all the consuming suddenly demand the foods they love in lower-fat formulations?
"I always look at what's missing in our portfolio," says Vida Leong, a food developer at Nestle's 3,400-sq.-ft. test kitchen in Glendale, Calif. "You have to ask, What are the hot buttons? And do we have a product that will fill that need?"
THE RIDDLE OF THE McGRIDDLE
Over the years, there is perhaps no company that has done a better job of pushing hot buttons than McDonald's--nor any company that has been better at transforming vaguely defined culinary arts into sharply defined food science. Witness the tale of the McGriddle.
For all the power and ubiquity of the McDonald's brand, the company always had a weak spot when it came to breakfast. The Egg McMuffin has been successfully wooing the breakfast crowd since 1973, but salty, savory foods touch only part of the morning palate. "We found that there was a real demand for sweeter breakfast foods," says Gerald Tomlinson, the company's executive chef.
Tomlinson's answer? An egg, sausage or bacon sandwich with pancakes instead of a bun. For a company that lives and dies by the one-handed-eat-behind-the-wheel-and-don't-drip-on-your-clothes meal, however, that presented problems. Tomlinson tackled the pancake puzzle in 1999 and first considered a muffin-shaped product with sausage bits stirred into the batter. But would consumers recognize a pancake with so unfamiliar a figure? And how do you add the syrup, the source of that all-important sweetness?
Tomlinson next considered two flatter pancakes sandwiching sausage, with syrup poured on top. That at least looked like a stack of pancakes, but it was an impossible mess to eat. That's when the McDonald's brain trust called in an even larger brain trust and invited the outfits that supply the condiments, bread and other basic foods to a sort of flapjack summit.
As it happened, one of the company's suppliers had just patented a technology that allowed it to crystallize sugar-based concoctions like syrup. Stir crystals into the batter, and when the mix is heated, the syrup should seep through the entire pancake matrix. "You want that maple flavor in every bite," says Wendy Cook, head of R. and D.