When Mike Stoddard went to work for California-based Blue Diamond Growers almond production in the Golden State was a mere 327 million pounds and the “can-a-week” slogan wasn’t on the radar.
While Blue Diamond does not publish numbers such as total grower production, the 103-year-old cooperative itself is likely producing more almonds today than the entire California industry was when Stoddard started in the company’s quality control department nearly 34 years ago.
Stoddard retired at the end of January after 33-plus years with Blue Diamond. His legacy with the company continues with products lining grocery store shelves from the snack aisle to the dairy case. Likely the most significant creation of his tenure with the company isn’t stored in a can, but in a carton.
“I developed the formulas for Almond Breeze in 1998,” Stoddard said.
More than a dozen years later Almond Breeze is on store shelves and in dairy cases in aseptic and refrigerated packaging across the United States and in various countries around the globe. It was launched last fall in Japan with the goal of becoming a $200 million-per-year business there by 2020.
Almond Breeze is in a milk substitute product category all its own. While others over the years have tried on a small scale to develop almond milk, none of those minor ventures succeeded. Today the category that Blue Diamond started and successfully marketed is now ahead of soy beverages in terms of market share and value.
“The concept of almond milk has been around since the beginning of time,” said Stoddard.
Developing the formula consumers have today took about a year of testing and hard work, according to Stoddard. Part of that work went into developing different flavors with regional appeal as the product went global.
“It was an idea kicking around Blue Diamond for years” he continued. “The marketing department was keen on it, as was one particular board member. So we attempted at coming up with a product and we were successful in doing it.”
The issue went beyond filling a food processor with almonds and grinding them into a pulp with a liquid byproduct. Issues of flavor and the pulp had to be dealt with. The outcome was a creamy product where pulp and texture are not evident.
“The old home recipe for almond milk is to grind blanched almonds in a blender then filter them through cheese cloth to take out the insoluble fibers,” he said.
The process Blue Diamond uses does not result with insoluble fibers that must be filtered.
“The almond form that we chose works very well for us,” he continued. “We grind up the almond very small. We don’t have to filter out any of the fiber as you do in making soy milk.”
Stoddard achieved this without the benefit of Blue Diamond’s newly-dedicated Almond Innovation Center, which opened in March, 2013. The center allows the company to develop new products for testing without the need to shut down an expensive commercial production line to develop test samples. The Almond Innovation Center includes modern kitchen equipment and small-scale packaging equipment that mimics the commercial packaging lines.
Stoddard’s original plan with Almond Breeze was the niche health foods markets.
“The original target for me was rice milk,” he said.
Over the years as the almond industry, primarily through the Almond Board of California, discovered the health benefits of almonds and was able to put that message in front of consumers on a more widespread level, products like Almond Breeze surpassed niche status and quickly became a mainstream healthy product. Stoddard admits this was not his original intent, but certainly a welcome benefit to the company.
“There is a very positive health halo around almonds and nuts in general,” Stoddard said. “What really sold Almond Breeze is that while it’s a healthy footprint it simply tastes good.”
Stoddard likes to cook. His experiments in his home kitchen, plus his interest in food in general, led him to some other ideas that are also on grocery store shelves behind the Blue Diamond label.
For instance, the bold almond flavor of wasabi and soy came from Stoddard’s personal liking for the two items on Japanese dishes.
“Wasabi by itself is too harsh, but if you put some soy in with it, it tones it down and mellows it out to where you have a very pleasant taste,” he said.
Stoddard developed the bold line of almond flavoring in about 2003, hoping to capitalize on the success of the smokehouse flavor, which began some 40 years earlier and first gained popularity as an airline snack.
Wasabi and soy is one of six bold flavors Stoddard developed during his tenure with Blue Diamond. Other bold flavors include: Honey Dijon, Jalapeno Smokehouse, Habanero BBQ, Lime ‘n Chili, and Salt ‘n Vinegar. Over the years Stoddard also oversaw the development of oven-roasted flavors, a trio of fruit flavors, a snack cracker called Nut Thins, and the addition of some more traditional flavors.
“In my mind bold flavors and a bottle of beer go well together,” he added.
While development of new almond flavors and a completely unheard-of category of almond milk stand at the top of Stoddard’s accomplishments while at Blue Diamond, he admits that he sometimes marvels at customers in the grocery store check-out line with Blue Diamond products in their carts.
“You realize that they’re buying your product and they have no idea that the guy who created it is right behind them,” he said.
Blue Diamond CEO Mark Jansen announced Stoddard’s pending retirement at the organization’s annual membership meeting in Modesto, Calif. last December. Steven Morgan replaces Stoddard as the new research and development director.
Morgan comes with a background in the food industry, most recently in similar positions with Campbell’s Food Service, which includes the popular Campbell’s soup brands.
Morgan started his career with Campbell Soup in 1983 after earning his degree in chemistry from California State University, Sacramento. He worked in the production of soups then expanded into Campbell’s Ag department where he worked many years with tomatoes.
Blue Diamond Growers presents a unique and exciting challenge to Morgan because of its vertical integration.
“What excites me is the different varieties of almonds growers plant and why,” Morgan said. “You get to see a value in the food chain from beginning to end – from the grower to the consumer.”
Morgan believes there are a number of effective ways to create new value in almonds, which is a driving force behind Blue Diamond’s double-digit growth.
Whereas some food manufacturers solely produce food ingredients that are not marketed directly to consumers, the challenge of developing new markets for a tree nut that can be consumed raw or converted into a host of other consumer products excites Morgan. “Blue Diamond’s really interesting because we actually make finished products that we sell to the consumer,” Morgan continued.
Morgan cited some examples of projects he’s worked on where a single commodity was simply processed and canned with no effort put into developing new and exciting products for consumers to enjoy.
“Blue Diamond is all about giving consumers reasons to consume almonds,” he said. “I don’t know of anybody else doing that with the products they grow.”
As for new consumer products, customers will have to simply wait and see what’s next for Blue Diamond, Morgan says.
“We have a list a mile long – some of them are really far off and some of them are close in,” he said.
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