How do you launch delectable confections while balancing consumer needs and unique flavor combinations? For Shawn Houser, Hershey’s product development director and the 2015 gala honoree for Women in Flavor and Fragrance Commerce (WFFC), it’s all about combining chemistry with flavor trends to continue Hershey’s legacy as the leader in the confectionery and snack industry. The 33rd annual WFFC gala will be on Wednesday, October 7, 2015 at Westmount Country Club in Woodland Park, New Jersey.
Houser’s curiosity for taste and aroma began in the fourth grade, planting the sweet seed that has grown into an innovative, exciting and successful career in flavor compounding, creation and development for the Campbell Soup Company and The Hershey Company. Combining her chemistry background with her passion for flavor, Houser is responsible for launching delectable confectioneries and snacks, including Caramel filled Hershey’s Kisses and Brookside Dark Chocolate Fruit & Nut bars.
As an organization dedicated to the empowerment, education and engagement of women in the flavor and fragrance industry, WFFC lauds Houser’s professional accomplishments and contributions for both the industry and professional women worldwide. Perfumer & Flavorist Magazine spoke with Houser in an exclusive three-part interview on her leadership, innovation, creativity, and passion as a flavor scientist and enthusiast.
Perfumer & Flavorist: For background, how did you get into this industry?
Shawn Houser: I’d like to say I really began in the “taste and aroma” business when I was in fourth grade, since I always liked to make or create things. I loved baking and making sweet-tasting products and then eating them, of course. In addition, a friend and I were creating lots of “interesting smelling” products we made in our bathroom from a combination of lotions, powders, etc., to create new “perfumes.”
My formal start to being in the food industry was when I researched cooking oils as an undergraduate at Lebanon Valley College, which allowed me to get a job as an intern at Hershey while I was in college working on my Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry. I loved organic chemistry and was so fascinated by the different aromas and flavors that many chemicals had. My internship involved working with a few flavorists: Kent Zeller, Joan Harvey and Paula Thomas. I compounded flavors and learned a lot about the flavor attributes of many of the GRAS chemicals and also aspects of developing new products.
I then worked at Campbell Soup Company and worked on the analytical side of flavors, taking products apart and identifying key flavors by GC/MS. I then partnered with sensory to identify the key flavor compounds that correlated to consumer liking. From there I went into product development, where I could go back to my passion of designing and making products.
PF: Can you talk a bit about your current role?
SH: My current role is developing products and people as Hershey moves into new snack categories outside of confection. My team is developing new snack products that will be nutritious and will be a balance of wholesome ingredients like nuts, seeds and fruits, protein and some chocolate. It requires people to think differently as we go into a space where we are not the market leader. My team recently launched a new line of Hershey’s and Reese’s Spreads that can be combined with your favorite snack to add some indulgence and chocolate flavor. In addition, we developed and launched new Brookside Fruit & Nut Snack bars. We also have new products in the innovation pipeline that will be in the market over the next six months.
PF: You’ve led a team of scientists into developing new Hershey products, including Hershey’s Simple Pleasures and Hershey’s Drops, and new filling flavors for Hershey Kisses. How does chemistry/science inspire your creativity?
SH: Science and chemistry are the foundation of developing new packaged foods, while consumers are at the heart of why we develop. Different ingredients and flavors interact with each other when combined together. Consumers look for great taste, texture and variety. Our job is to understand how ingredients interact, why they interact and what impact they will have on the taste, texture and shelf-life of a product, in addition to how consumers will respond to different combinations of ingredients together. What we did with Kisses innovation was use new technology at the time to fill our great tasting chocolate Kiss with other confection favorites like caramel and mint.
PF: Between your positions in product development and marketing, what have you learned about what makes a successful product?
SH: Consumers are key to the success of a product, in addition to the technical and operational feasibility of making the product on a large scale. A successful product is one that people love, keep eating and keep buying, but we have to be able to deliver consistent and quality product at large scale. There’s nothing better to hear from people, "Oh, I love that product!" for a product you made and to see it on store shelves, year after year. A successful product has to meet the needs of the target consumer no matter where they live in the world; knowing how to formulate and adapt product so people will be delighted by them. It’s important to develop products that are different than other foods in the marketplace to create a sustainable competitive advantage and variety for consumers.