Monday, May 14, 2007

R&D: Repetitive and Disasterous?

This is a FolkFoods business update.
It has a happy ending, so stick with me, ok?
(Because it certainly was difficult for us to get through to the silver lining.)

We went to the Venture Center a few weeks ago, excited and prepared to produce 80 pounds of Veggie Breakfast Patties. This was a major step for us, as we would now have "stock". [We would also know the size of the patties and could move forward with ordering the packaging, printing the labels and getting ready for market.] Now, I was a little anxious for this, as we were still not exactly sure about the process that we were going to use for our patties.

Let me back up a little and explain (which means, "Please allow me to divulge all sort of little details that only a few people would care about, but I feel compelled to share.") The original patty recipe called for shaping the batter/dough into a log, wrapping the log in parchment paper and aluminum foil, and then steaming for about 90 minutes. We want to sell the patties in the freezer section, so logs aren't good for freezing whole and we don't have a way to efficiently and consistently slice 80+ pounds of patty logs. So, we make them directly into patties. That works, right? Well, right, but not easily. Big question: how do we get them into consistent, professional looking patties on a mass produced (small batch) scale? And will doing that change the texture or integrity of the patty? After lots of questions and numerous batches of home cooked patties, we found a process that worked. New question: how to replicate the process in a mass produced way at the Venture Center?

We went to the Venture Center prepared to use a machine called the filler. Long story short, well, it didn't work and we got a VERY intricate, delicate machine VERY clogged up and messy. The batter/dough was too thick for the filler (it is generally used to fill jars of sauce and stuff.) Our second attempt was with a machine called the Pucker. (Yup, we made a lot of rhyming jokes.) Anyway, our dough/batter was too thin for the pucker, as you can see here:
(For those of you getting this in email, you can check it out here.)

So, the Pucker didn't work. I REALLY wanted that pucker to work. In theory, it was supposed to make perfect little pucks in perfect round little shapes, all ready for baking. The problem? The patty mixture was too thick for the Filler and too thin for the Pucker. Puck Me! Anyway, the only solution that came to mind was to either thin it down or thicken it up. Remember that I REALLY wanted to use the Pucker, right? So we decided to thicken it up. With what? Lots and lots of Vital Wheat Gluten. So, now we have 95 pounds of dough that is quickly becoming more and more dense as the wheat gluten does its stuff (it gets denser.) And guess what? It still didn't work in the Pucker! So it's getting late in the afternoon, tension is high and we come up with the final, genius idea of the day:
(Again, you email recipients, check these out here and here.)

We look pretty excited here, right? Those patties look great right? We returned the very next morning to bake those patties. (It took a long time to hand cut 625 patties!)

That's Shana and our dear friend Becky (remember Becky, we'll get back to her) right before they went on a LONG run (they are marathon training!) They put the 31 sheet pans into the ovens, quite excited to go on their run and return to fresh baked, perfectly cute, perfectly round FolkFoods Veggie Patties. I stayed at the center to clean up, and take care of some other stuff. Well, when the patties were done, Shana and Becky had still not returned. I took a little taste. Well, they didn't suck. But their consistency had completely changed! The taste was still good, but so not right. I was more than a little bummed. Two days and lots of ingredients, and we had 625 patties that we wouldn't sell. Andy, is this what you referred to when you said to make sure that we had done all of our R&D?

So I was devastated. Really. Then, I receive a call from Shana and Becky who are on their way back from their LONG run. They are excited to eat some patties, and I almost cry. Becky, a true Renaissance woman, goes directly into 'fix-it' mode. After a lot of brainstorming, she looks at us and says, "Is there any reason that the patties have to be Round?" No! Square patties make more sense from a production standpoint, there's no wasted space on the sheet pan, no worries about perfect little round patties, and hey, it's kind of unique, which sometimes sells. Brilliant!

I went home and we experimented, and tested and ate a lot of patties. And, to end this long story, we succeeded! Our patties are square. Last weekend when we went in for Veggie Crumble production (which was a complete success), we tested a batch of patties on a sheet pan in the convection oven. They were fantastic; the texture and taste were just right! Check it out (here):

So, that's the Patty story. Becky saves the day.

Soon I will post a picture of the coolest tool that we are going to use to cut the patties into perfectly uniform shapes! Anyway, after all of that R&D, we have an even better process and a better product. I just wish we had figured it out earlier in the process!

For those of you who have read this far, thanks! There will be a really good recipe coming up later in the week, and we have two weeks to get everything ready for our first Farmers' Market!

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