The Starbucks Experience, Food Innovation, and Creating Food People Love

by | Nov 16, 2021


In this episode, we speak with Kate Ruffing, the head of Innovation at Flashpoint Consulting located in Bainbridge Island, Washington. Kate started her career in food over 20 years ago, working at Kraft Foods (now Kraft-Heinz), and then Starbucks. Kate has spearheaded food innovation for large companies and developed successful B2B brand extensions into other areas of food (lodging, food service) for over a decade.

Upleveling the Starbucks Food Experience

At Starbucks, Kate was tasked with up-leveling the food experience, so that it would be considered on par with the coffee experience. To create amazing baked goods and food selections people wanted to eat, she had to start by understanding the consumer. That meant she had to watch people in their stores and see firsthand how they interacted with the food products Starbucks already had. What she saw in their customers’ in-store behaviors spoke volumes. 

What she found was that there weren’t a lot of people attaching food items to their beverage orders. When she delved deeper into why that was, what she observed was that Starbucks wasn’t disrupting their coffee ritual in a way that was meaningful enough for their customers to attach food items to their purchases. 

In order to change this, and to disrupt the subconscious behavior that was present, she had to design a way to catch customers’ attention. “People don’t know what they’re missing until you show them,” shared Kate. She worked with her team to make food more approachable; the R&D process went beyond ingredients, taste preferences, and trends. She looked at all aspects of the purchase journey, she looked at everything from the in-store flow of foot traffic. She changed the displays, changed the merchandising of the food, changed the menu, and made the food more “portable.”   

“There are no bad ideas, there are just ideas that will distract you from more profitable choices.”  – Kate Ruffing

Create Food Products People Didn’t Know They Wanted

Kate believes that when it comes to designing and developing food products people want to eat, you don’t want to follow the will of the consumer (you’re probably going to already be late to market), if you want to be a leader in food innovation, it is really about interpreting what people want and becoming a matchmaker for their desires and needs. Kate says to ask yourself:

What is it they desire that they don’t know they need, or even wanted? 

How Grocers and Food Companies Use This To Their Advantage

So how do grocers, food service companies, or even restaurants capitalize on creating “to go” food options that people come in and take home? According to Kate, food companies need to start by doing what she did at Starbucks, looking at customer behavior.  See how: 

  1. Much time they’re spending in the store.
  2. Your company is meeting their needs in the purchases they make.

By focusing on what you know, can view first hand, and can find in your purchase data, food companies can then figure out what to focus on without having to chase every trend that’s happening. By understanding your competitive advantage and what your secret sauce is, you can create food products people will want to buy and eat. 

To learn more on how to successfully understand consumer needs and desires,  listen to the full episode. 

  • 0:44: Meet Kate Ruffing
  • 2:00: Starbucks and Food Innovation
  • 3:45: Understanding Consumer Behavior
  • 8:38: Creating Products People Love
  • 11:40: Brand Authenticity and Transparency
  • 14:20: What’s Coming Next
  • 17:08: Don’t Be Afraid to Fail Fast

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