Product Development

Having a real-world application that will have an impact on someone else’s business instead of a really big thought exercise was a big motivator as a student.

Ellie Conlin-Day, fourth-year food science major

A collaboration between a food science product development and an agricultural business strategy class forged a promising partnership in the fall – creating a new pistachio product that shoppers may one day soon may find on the shelves of local grocery stores.

Jim Zion (Agricultural Business, ’86), owner of Meridian Growers, a company based in Firebaugh, California, which farms, processes and ships almonds, pistachios, pecans and walnuts, knows first-hand of the power behind collaboration. He presented a hands-on challenge to Cal Poly students: create a new pistachio-based product that can be taken to market.

“The goal of this project was to provide Cal Poly students with a learning experience by bringing an actual problem to them to be resolved that would necessitate a cross-disciplinary approach,” said Zion, who serves on the Dean’s Advisory Council and is a past chairman of the Food Science and Nutrition Department’s advisory council. “We are a smaller company and can’t afford to have talent silos. Unlike some larger companies, we don’t have a dedicated research and development department. Our success hinges on working together and that is real life. It was really important to me to emphasize to students how you can do that.”

Pistachios, known for their green color and sweet, nutty flavor, are one of the top 10 agricultural commodities in California, valued at $1.86 billion by the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The industry continues to grow, with nearly 99 percent of the nation’s pistachios grown in the Golden State.

“Pistachio crops are getting bigger and it is time to find new uses for the nut,” Zion said. “I am looking at how to get pistachios incorporated into new, marketable items. It is one thing to create a new recipe, it is another to develop something that there is a market for.” Zion’s only request was that it be pistachio focused. The rest, he left up to the students.


Ellie Conlin-Day, a fourth-year food science major, worked with a team of students to develop two new products: a samosa with a sweet pistachio filling and a cheese crisp sprinkled with pistachio pieces.

“It was really nice to work with an industry partner who is known for product development,” Conlin-Day said. “As a capstone course for food science majors, we were expected to use everything we have learned up to this point – having a real-world application that will have an impact on someone else’s business instead of a really big thought exercise was a big motivator as a student.”

As the food science students developed their pistachio recipes, agricultural business students researched the client and began to investigate the market for such products. During the third week of the 10-week course, students from each class met to brief each other on the progress that had been made and the two classes began to work in unison toward preparing 10 products that would be pitched to Zion and his wife, Gloria, as well as team members from Meridian Growers at the quarter’s halfway mark.

At the pitch presentation, five teams of food science and agricultural business students showcased their products and business strategies. Baklava, pesto dip, energy poppers, date clusters, chocolate bark, a vinaigrette and even a mole sauce were some of the foods presented to Meridian Growers for their consideration.

Sophia Harvey, a fourth-year agricultural business major, had some experience from past undergraduate classes creating business plans and jumped at the opportunity to join the course. “It was testing out something new that had not been done before which was exciting,” Harvey said. “The learning curve throughout the quarter was that we had to adapt while trying to make sure we were providing a successful plan for a real company. In that sense, the course definitely mimicked real life and the reality that you have to adapt to certain situations and be ready to pivot.”

At the pitch presentations, both Jim and Gloria Zion celebrated the students’ achievements but also prompted them to think about different challenges in the industry when producing new products and offered various insights. “Ultimately, the concepts the students brought forward were more than we had even hoped for,” Zion said. “They really did a great job.”

Using this initial feedback the concepts were narrowed down to five, with teams given another few weeks to continue developing their work before presenting the final presentations to the Meridian team once again.

Fourth-year food science major Karissa Chu worked with teammate Conlin-Day to revise the formula for the cheese crisp, incorporating the feedback they had received. They used data from a conjoint analysis that uncovered consumer preferences, multiple sensory tests and statistical design of experiments in making the crisp in the college’s new Culinary Teaching Lab kitchen and Sensory Analysis Teaching and Research Lab within the Boswell Ag Tech Center to gain the best moisture content and physical and sensory attributes.

“Product development is something a lot of food science students are attracted to right away because of the creative aspect,” Chu said. “Being able to work with the agricultural business class was exciting because they are thinking about it from a different perspective than scientists often do. It helped us to see and follow through with the entire product development process.”

While the food science students refined their recipes, the agricultural business students were identifying target markets by analyzing market trends and interviewing retailers and food service providers to trace the path from development to final user to determine the best path forward for each product. “You can’t solve problems of tomorrow by thinking of things the way they are done today,” said Food Science Professor Amy Lammert, who instructed the food science course.

Students presented their final products to the Meridian Growers team demonstrating their learning growth and sharing all that they had learned about the pistachio market along the way. In the end, Zion plans to pursue two products: a pistachio paste and butter, both of which can be used by cooks in both commercial and domestic settings for a multitude of recipes. In addition, Meridian is using the refined cheese crisp with pistachios and cherries baked within it to promote the Cal Poly partnership at industry events. Agribusiness Assistant Professor Lucy McGowan, who taught the business strategy course, said that the collaboration between the two groups of students led to the success. A group of students are now working throughout the winter quarter to develop a marketing plan for both of the products.

“I fully intend to move forward with this,” Zion said. “This wasn’t just an exercise – it is something I wanted to do and hoped to get something marketable to move forward with. The students didn’t disappoint. In industry, we are seeking to hire well-rounded graduates and this class demonstrated that Cal Poly students are exactly that."


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