Q&A - Andrea Zeng
Zeng tempering on the chocolate bench.
Alumna Andrea Zeng (Food Science, ’14), a senior chocolate technologist at Ghirardelli Chocolate Co., specializes in research and product development. She jokes that most people envision her in a wondrous Willy Wonka like lab, playing in chocolate all day. While the job isn’t quite that glamorous, she has developed several new products that can be found in stores today, including the Ghirardelli White Chocolate Caramel Square, Milk Chocolate Sea Salt Caramel Square and Bar, Ghirardelli Intense Dark Blood Orange Bar, and Ghirardelli 72% and 100% cacao baking chips. “It is truly the most rewarding experience to see something that you made by hand on the benchtop become a packaged product on the shelf that someone can purchase,” Zeng said.
What does your role as a senior chocolate technologist entail?
I focus on new product development for three segments of the company: everyday squares and bars, intense dark and baking. I work closely with a cross functional team to launch innovation from ideation through commercialization. Ghirardelli analyzes trends in the market and connects with consumers to understand what new products will be most meaningful to consumers and our business. I then work with procurement and quality to source any new ingredients if needed. From there, I prototype and develop benchtop concepts for the team to evaluate and taste. Once we align on a product, we test with consumers. If products are well received, we’ll move forward with manufacturing trials. If all business hurdles can be met, then the team will work to commercialize and launch the new products. In all, producing a new product can take upwards of two years.
Do you have any favorites?
One of my favorite flavors is the Milk Chocolate Fudge Caramel Filled Square, it’s one of the first products I launched at Ghirardelli. Unfortunately, it’ll be discontinued in 2021, but we do have an exciting new product coming soon: our Milk Chocolate Caramel Brownie Filled Square, which will be hitting store shelves in 2022. After products launch, our team tracks the performance of products in stores. If customers aren’t purchasing them or stores aren’t reordering, it's likely a sign that it’s time for a new product or a packaging refresh. That's why we have a constant pipeline of innovation and new products underway.
Describe your career trajectory since you graduated from Cal Poly.
I had the unique opportunity to start my career, in a sense, at Cal Poly. During my junior year, I took FSN 201: Enterprise Project in which I got to learn about chocolate-making and assist in the production of Cal Poly Chocolates. I joined the production team, and from there, I progressed into managing the sales and product development for the student-made chocolates. These first opportunities really paved the way for me to continue pursuing a career in food product development.
My first role outside of Cal Poly was at Lundberg Family Farms, a grain company focused on organic products located in Chico, California. As a product developer, I worked on creating grain blends, seasonings for side dishes and snacks, rice cakes, rice chips, and other snack products. I then worked at Albertsons in Dublin, California, with their Own Brands business, focused on the meat and seafood division prior to joining the Ghirardelli team as a chocolate technologist four years ago.
How did Cal Poly help to prepare you for your current role?
My food science classes definitely helped prepare me with the fundamentals. Understanding food processing, food safety and quality, and product development were really helpful when starting my career. The additional classes I took for my minor in packaging were also incredibly useful in understanding not just how food products are produced, but also packaged and shipped. Having worked for Cal Poly Chocolates also gave me an advantage since I now work in the chocolate and confectionery space. But I think the biggest takeaway (and I didn’t realize this until after I entered the workforce) is how critically important it is to learn how to work well in a team.
Reflecting on your path, what advice would you give to students currently enrolled in the program?
Take those team projects and group labs seriously! As a student, I didn’t really take this to heart but wish I had. Few projects can be accomplished by a single person. Learning how to collaborate, delegate, divide responsibilities and work well with a diverse team from different job functions is part of my daily work life. It's also important to know when you need support from your team and when to step up and take on a new challenge. I’m still building on these skills today and will continue to build on them throughout the rest of my career.
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