Monterey Gourmet Foods VP discusses Innovation

An Interview with Erika Cottrell, Vice President of Innovation, Monterey Gourmet Foods
By Sandy Staggs
Erika Cottrell was named Vice President of Innovation in June 2008 at Monterey Gourmet Foods, a manufacturer and marketer of fresh gourmet refrigerated food products with corporate headquarters, distribution, and manufacturing facilities in Salinas (Monterey County), CA; Seattle, WA; and Eugene, OR.

Sandy Staggs (SS): What role and level does innovation play in your business/business model/culture?
Erika Cottrell: My role directly encompasses Product Development and Marketing, but indirectly it reaches into all parts of the company. Innovation is a driver of growth within a business and that means not only sales, but also growth of improved products, processes and people.

SS: Can you name some tools and techniques you have utilized—and with what result? What constitutes a good result?
Erika CottrellErika Cottrell: One of the new items we have implemented recently is the addition of "@ Task" Software. @ Task is a Project Management solution that allows us to have one depository of our projects in process. We have also become much more efficient in on-boarding each new project by using templates. Communications within our organization becomes easier as well as it is always real time and easily exportable in whatever format is needed by the employee or executive in the company. This allows us to spend much more time creating the new innovative product and less time creating and revising spreadsheets. The end goal is to have a higher “hit rate” for each product launch and see our bottom line growth continue to accelerate.

SS: What else do you do to encourage innovation?
Erika Cottrell: We do a lot of group brainstorming on products, flavor combinations, and uses within our team. Our outside culinary resources also work at keeping us up to date on what’s new and hot in Restaurants, Wine, Fashion, Travel…all of these things help us determine what is coming our way in the next weeks, months and years.

Another success we have had is from our employees who are not even in the innovation team. Our production teams work with the products on the line every day and love food as much as we do. They are a great resource for new concepts!

SS: Are you collaborative? Do you outsource or use outside consultants and companies?
Erika Cottrell: We employ a modified open innovation model at MGF. It is important to own the most critical intellectual property in house, but we augment that with culinary chefs and supply partners who can specialize in their respective fields. It allows us to have a wealth of resources when we need it, but not pay to have them on staff 24/7.

SS: Have you used online ideation/innovation/collaborative resources—i.e. software, online sites, etc.? If so which ones?
Erika Cottrell: is the only site I currently use.

SS: What is the most exciting innovation you've been involved in developing?
Erika Cottrell: I can’t say at this time, but as a teaser it is an exciting way to combine some products we currently make into a delicious, fresh meal for your family in a new way. Stay tuned!

SS: What is the most difficult problem you or your team has solved?
Erika Cottrell: Each product has its own special hurdle to get over… how we react to it is the important part. Sometimes we need to rethink how a product can translate from kitchen to production line—ingredients, packaging, etc… Sometimes it is a seemingly difficult consumer demand that we know we want to meet, but needs a different way of thinking to solve.

SS: What type of training have you done? Six Sigma? Edward DeBono?
Erika Cottrell: I have just returned from a newly started conference called “The Innovation Summit”. It was a chance to hear what is being done at a lot of Fortune 500 companies as well as new developments in the Innovation world. Great networking and resources!

SS: When you are stuck, what do you do?

Erika Cottrell: When we are stuck on a project we often gather people who aren't usually working in the innovation department and ask them to think about the issues we have. They come at it from a different point of view, and without the limits in mind that we have already encountered.

SS: Can you recommend any particular books on innovation that you or your staff have read?
Erika Cottrell: I find inspiration for innovation not from direct “how-to” books, but on exposing ourselves to different ways of thinking about life and business; especially the food business.

Two truly inspirational books recently read are "The Last Lecture" by Randy Pauch and "The Omnivores Dilemma" by Michael Pollan. The Last Lecture reminds us to stretch the boundaries of what we think possible and go about attaining it. That is a very crucial thought process for Innovators as we need to constantly push the envelope looking and building the next "WOW" product.

The Omnivores Dilemma challenges us to think about business and food production/consumption. The way the world produces and consumes food is changing and if we are going to stay on top of Innovation at MGF we need to know where it could evolve to.

SS: What, if any ideation/thinking/problem solving/innovation software do you use?
Erika Cottrell: No ideation software at this time, but I would be interested in seeing.

SS: Have you ever heard of IdeaConnection? Have you or will you try sites like IdeaConnection that give you access to thousands of great minds?
Erika Cottrell: I have never heard of IdeaConnection, but I would be interested in learning more.

SS: What factors make online innovation activities appealing?
Erika Cottrell: You could reach out to many more resources, quicker at a better cost.

SS: Any final comments?
Erika Cottrell: Staying ahead of the curve is the dream and passion of the Innovation Team at Monterey Gourmet Foods. We are lucky to have a healthy company to allow us to stretch the boundaries and explore the future needs of our consumers.

Monterey Gourmet Foods has national distribution of its products, which are sold under the brands Monterey Pasta, CIBO Naturals, Emerald Valley Kitchen, Sonoma Cheese and Casual Gourmet in more than 10,000 retail and club stores throughout the United States and selected regions of Canada, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia Pacific. For more information about Monterey Gourmet Foods, visit [THEIR WEBSITE].

Previously, Cottrell was Head of Operations & Finance and President of Front Porch Classics / Sababa Group, Inc., where she also held several other roles. Prior to joining FPC in 2002, she was Vice President of Marketing & Human Resources at Tully’s Coffee Corporation. From 1992-2001, she held sales and finance roles at Specialty Frozen Products, LP. Cottrell received a bachelor of arts in business administration / marketing from the University of Washington in Seattle.

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