How did you decide on food science as your passion?
When I was in high school, my Dad suggested I do a science fair project based on something he learned in wilderness survival school - if you boil an egg for 10 seconds, you can put it on your shelf and it will keep for 3 months.
This simple statement turned into a three-year project that got me connected with professors in the Poultry Science and Food Science departments at Penn State. I was also fortunate to attend the Pennsylvania Governor's School for Agricultural Sciences for six weeks of the summer after my junior year, which pretty much cemented my trajectory into Food Science, and I never looked back.
Part of your job is leading a team to develop new food products. Does it get increasingly more difficult to do that as more and more new products are continuously introduced? To put it another way, are all the really good ideas already taken?
Yes and no. In some sense it does get very complicated to continue to come up with compelling ideas when you are limited to a certain type of product. At Ghirardelli, our Milk & Caramel squares are some of our best sellers, so trying to come up with variations of chocolate and new flavors of caramel in a square can be a big challenge. However, consumer trends and palates are always changing in a lot of other areas so that provides new options for innovation that would have fallen flat 10 years ago. Imagine trying to launch anything made with "Oat Milk" in 2001 vs 2021 - there would be a BIG difference in consumer acceptance and purchase interest in those products 20 years ago.
Was there a particular product you developed in the lab that you were convinced would market test successfully, but didn’t?
Sadly, this is a reality we face as product developers - we have absolutely delicious products that for whatever reason don't perform on shelf. In a previous job, I helped develop and launch some absolutely delicious seasoned tortilla chips, snack mixes and popcorn. The products were delicious, the packaging was bold and eye catching. But they weren't able to get a foothold in such a competitive segment and were ultimately discontinued. R.I.P Buck Wild Snacks.
Why is it that when formulating chocolate-based confections with almond inclusions, the two primary methods of product failure are surface fat bloom and rancid flavor? How do you avoid those outcomes?
It all comes down to the fat in the almonds and the fat in the chocolate, and how well they do (or don't) get along. Almonds are rich in unsaturated fats, which are heart healthy but also very susceptible to light and oxygen. So, the key is to start with very fresh almonds and get them into your chocolate as quickly as possible. Once they are locked in the chocolate, that will help protect them from oxygen and light, and then a good, opaque wrapper usually takes care of the rest.
In regard to bloom, you are once again focused on the fats, but this time you are concerned about the fat in the chocolate not playing well with the fat in the almonds. Cocoa butter is the fat in chocolate, and the crystalline structure of that fat is what gives you a glossy, snappy chocolate bar. This is achieved by tempering (heating and cooling the liquid chocolate to promote the right crystals to form).
One way to help prevent surface fat bloom in a chocolate bar that contains almonds is to use a highly tempered chocolate and then to store the bar at a cold temperature over the life of the bar. These two things, in combination, will help prevent the fat from the almonds from moving through the bar to the surface, which is what causes surface fat bloom.
What is the one personality trait that has been most instrumental in your career success? What trait do you wish you had in greater supply?
I have always been very good at connecting with people, finding a common ground and building a relationship off of that. If you follow the Strength Finders model, I index high in "WOO", which stands for "Winning Others Over".
As a product developer, you have to work with lots of different functions and their varying personality types. The ability to work well with all types of people, from Marketing all the way through to Operations, has definitely helped make me successful throughout my career. As far as what I wish I had in greater supply, I would say patience. While I have more than I had when I was younger, it is still something I struggle with, in both my personal and professional lives.
How has your family influenced your leadership style?
I have to credit my family and my upbringing for my ability to read people fairly well - it's not just what people say, it's how they say it. Tone, body language, and facial expressions all tell you just as much, if not more, than the words that are coming out of their mouth. Being able to read people and adjust messaging as necessary has really helped me manage not only my direct reports, but also manage difficult conversations upwards within my organization.
A key responsibility of yours is to lead teams at Ghirardelli. What makes for a successful leader of teams?
Wow, great question, because this is something that is super important to me, and an area I spend a lot of time thinking about. For me, what makes a successful leader is someone who truly understands that their success is only achieved through the success of their team members. I have seen some very talented and successful scientists struggle to make the leap into leading a team because they just could not let go of the control over their own success, and would even go so far as to be competitive with their team members!
I want nothing more than to see my team be successful in whatever they are doing, and if they are running into roadblocks or challenges, I know my job is to step in, if asked to help remove them. Otherwise, I stand back and let them shine in whatever it is they are working on. A former manager once told me "Whether your team is successful or not, it will come back on you 10-fold." I took those words to heart, and so far it has served me pretty well.
Regarding your early career team members (i.e., 0-5 years’ experience), what is most important for them to accomplish in their first five years if they wish to be considered for advancement/promotion opportunities at Ghirardelli?
For the newer members of the R&D team here at Ghirardelli, there are a lot of boxes to check to be considered for advancement and promotion. I encourage my team to be sponges, to watch, listen and learn from more seasoned team members and the company leaders. The focus should also not just be on the technical, but on the "how." Communication and presentation skills are something that can take you far in your career as a product developer, so we definitely spend a lot of time working on how to write effective emails and deliver impactful presentations.
What’s the one thing you wish you had learned earlier in your career?
Seek first to understand, then to be understood. It's something that really became a game changer for me. When you are young and just starting out in your career, you are so eager to prove yourself and defend your position. I have come to learn that much more can be accomplished by listening to truly understand other people's perspectives and ideas before talking about yours. It is not always easy to do this, and I still struggle with it depending on the situation.
I have never known anyone who handed out Ghirardelli chocolates at Halloween. If I’m ever going to break that streak, I think you’re the person for the job. Do you hand out Ghirardelli?
I absolutely adore our Ghirardelli products but I will be the first to admit I stock up on classic candy favorites for Halloween. I personally love to give out Reese's, Snickers and Peanut M&Ms because they are some of my personal favorites (and that means I get to eat the leftovers!). That being said, I do think Ghirardelli Squares Minis would make great Halloween candy offerings, especially if they did a package that was aimed at kids. Halloween is typically the biggest season for candy makers, but for Ghirardelli, ours is Christmas.
I have this image of vending machines all over your workplace in San Leandro stuffed with a variety of free Ghirardelli chocolates. Is that the reality? If so, to whom shall I send my employment application?
Free candy all day every day is standard when working for chocolate companies - the rumors you hear are true! All the conference rooms at Ghirardelli definitely had bowls that were kept stocked full of our squares pre-COVID. However, even now, being in R&D means access to pretty much unlimited amounts of product, but I can tell you the reality check sets in after about 2-3 months of snacking on the job when you try to put on your pants one morning and they don't fit anymore!
So you learn to limit how much candy you eat throughout your day, especially because in my job I HAVE to taste products a lot. We like to say in our product tastings that we have the best job in the world when the point of the meeting is to taste 6 different brownies, cookies or milkshakes. If this sounds like a job you or anyone would like to have - be sure to check out our Careers section of www.ghirardelli.com!
Sarah Woodling Houle has spent the past 16 years in the food industry working in various Product Development roles. Currently she is the Research & Development Manager of Everyday confections, Baking, Professional Products and Restaurant & Retail at the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company in San Leandro CA. She has previously worked as a Product Developer at Continental Mills, The Hershey Company, and General Mills. She holds degrees in Food Science from Penn State (BS) and Cornell (MS).
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This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.