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Supermarket Superstar Interview with Food Branding Expert Chris Cornyn

Chris Cornyn on Supermarket Superstars

Food branding expert Chris Cornyn knows how to turn your favorite recipe into a household name brand product that flies off supermarket shelves.  And he’s offering up his knowledge as a mentor to contestants on the new show Supermarket Superstar (currently airing on Lifetime on Thursdays at 10:30PM.)

The show follows home chefs as they pitch their product concepts to titans of the food world for the opportunity to have their creation launched nationally in a major grocery chain. Food product visionary Chris Cornyn, celebrity chef Michael Chiarello, and cookie mogul Debbi Fields serve as the series’ mentors.

I had the chance to talk one-on-one with Chris Cornyn and got all the behind-the-scenes details from the filming of Supermarket Superstar, plus plenty of expert advice for anyone interested in transforming his or her food idea into a perfectly packaged and branded product:

Q: Is the Supermarket Superstar final judge (supermarket buyer Tom Dahlen) really as intimidating as he looks on TV?

Chris Cornyn: We called him the Johnny Cash of supermarkets because he was always dressed in black and very serious! It’s hard to get him to crack a smile. [At the end of each show,] a lot of the contestants wanted to give him a big hug and he kept saying, “I’m not a hugger.” He broke down a couple of times, though, when there were really heartwarming stories. But he’s all business. And he knows his stuff, which is what makes him so great on the show.

What were some of those heartwarming stories that coaxed a hug from Tom Dahlen?

Contestants that overcame adversity, whether it was a loss of a spouse or a loss of a job. We even had a contestant who had been homeless at one point. They were people who had a wonderful, inspired food idea and they had a passion for their idea and just really believed in their product. And that adds depth to the product. The problem is that in the supermarket, you can’t fully know the complete person, the whole story, behind the product. But as we got to know the contestants, it really drove home how much they really believed in their products.

Any funny stories to share from your time working alongside your fellow judges (celebrity chef Michael Chiarello and Mrs. Fields cookie mogul Debbi Fields)? 

They are two wonderful people.

One of the funniest stories was trying to get Mrs. Fields to eat a contestant’s food product, which actually involved crickets! We were all trying the contestant’s plain, roasted crickets, and she just wasn’t going to go there. She did end up choking down the final product, which was a cricket protein bar, but it was fun trying to get her to try it.

One other thing: when you first meet Chef [Chiarello], he’s tough! It’s like working as a sous-chef in his kitchen; you’ve got to prove yourself! We all ended up being great friends, but at first I was sitting next to him wondering, “when is this guy going to crack a smile?” And then after about a week, we ended up getting along very well.

But we all have very different points of view and areas of expertise, and I think that’s what makes the show work so well, that there’s a balance of culinary, entrepreneurial, business, artistry, and branding. And we all bring different perspective to it.

Supermarket Superstars Mentors

Was the cricket bar one of the most innovative products you saw on the show?

The cricket bar was certainly unique and surprising.

What’s great about that product, – even though it didn’t win that particular episode – I think it raised awareness both to foodies and just to people who need to feed their families. We need to look at sustainability when it comes to our protein sources. The way we consume chicken, pork and beef is not sustainable, nor is it eco-friendly. That contestant was saying, “listen, we need to find new sources of protein in this country.” It’s about raising awareness to everyone in the food community about finding solutions to these issues.

So do you anticipate us finding cricket bars on the shelves of gourmet food stores in the near feature?

It’s going to take someone willing to take a risk on it! The contestant presented a protein bar full of crickets. I don’t know what the product is that is going to have alternative protein in it. It might be a protein bar, but it might be something else. Because, [as anyone knows who has walked down the health food isle at the supermarket,] we don’t need another protein bar. There must be hundreds of them already. So I think that contestant’s challenge is figuring out what [product] he could put crickets in and gain acceptance with American shoppers.

How did it really taste, being completely honest?

Totally honest: it was absolutely delicious! Not only was the bar good, just the roasted crickets were great and really nutty. Just like you can pop a couple of almonds in your mouth, there’s no reason why you can’t pop a couple of crickets in your mouth!

Let’s say someone has an amazing recipe/food idea that they’d love to turn into a retail product. What are your top tips to make that a reality? 

First, you must learn the business. A lot of the time, beginners focus too much on the product.

But it isn’t as easy as just having a great recipe. Beyond just getting the opinions of family and friends, you’ve got to test your product on actual consumers and get their opinions. You’ve also got to ask yourself, “Can I sell this at a price point that would be acceptable to consumers?”

So learn the business.

The next thing to remember: do not expect overnight success. The average food company or business doesn’t start making a profit for three years. So don’t quit your day job and don’t empty out your 401K to fund your venture!

There are two better alternatives:

[1.] Start out by selling at farmer’s markets and local groceries in your area and hopefully grow from there.

[2.] Or, you could go out and get investors. There are a lot of investors out there who may be willing to invest in your company.

The key, though, is to have a passion for the food business. [Because working in the food industry] isn’t just a hobby, it’s truly a way of life.

Lastly, make sure that there is a consumer need for your product. That really goes beyond just, for example, thinking that since all of your family and friends love your potato salad, therefore there should be a consumer need for [your potato salad].  It really means you’re doing something new in the food world.

How about some key elements to remember when designing packaging and labeling? You always come up with brilliant suggestions for contestants on the show.

You need to take a holistic view to food packaging. And by holistic I mean that you have to satisfy three main things, a consumer’s: emotional needs, functional needs, and nutritional needs.

[To demonstrate how the product satisfies those three things, there is] a toolbox that you can use. You can show the product and make it look delicious, and you can use words to describe why it’s good for them or how it fits into their life. The shape of the package can communicate a lot, as can the colors and the branding.

So it’s like painting a canvas with all these tools, whether it’s words, or pictures, or ideas. And you balance those things so that you can appeal to the consumer.

We have what we call “the stop and the sell” in the food business. You must first get the consumer to stop in the aisle, pick up the package. And then the package needs to sell them so that they actually put it into their cart.

You mentioned that the shape of the packaging is important. That’s interesting. Would you care to elaborate on that?

Sure, here’s one example. Think about rice. When you look at rice, you can get it in a plastic bag, in a box, in a stand-up pouch, or a plastic container. Each one of those options says something different to the consumer: how gourmet it is, how cheap or expensive it is, whether [it’s intended as an] entree or side dish. [When designing packaging, we consider] all the shapes and sizes and ask what that says to the consumer. For example, with the rice, if it’s just in a plastic bag that lies flat on the shelf, that will instantly say “value” and “lower-end rice.” Versus putting it in a stand-up, glossy pouch with nice graphics, which would say something very different.

Supermarket Superstars Mentors Image

Your started your company DINE, The Food and Drink Agency, in the mid-90’s. How has the consumer changed since then?

I think consumers are actually asking for a lot more. They’re looking for every product to fulfill every one of the three needs I mentioned earlier (emotional, functional, and nutritional needs).

I think 15 or 20 years ago, you might have been able to get away with a product that only fulfilled one of those needs. But today, more and more consumers want all three things fulfilled by every food product that they buy.

Part of that is because today, we have more information. We have websites where consumers can have a dialogue about food and exchange information. And that’s great for the food industry – being able to hear from consumers and making sure that we can fulfill all of those needs. It’s not about just filling our gut – it’s about a lot more. It’s about our physical and mental health and making sure that we’re eating better.

What do you anticipate as the most exciting new trend in the retail food world?

Getting good food in very unusual places. For example, we’re now seeing great food from food trucks. Whoever would have thought you’d be able to get gourmet food from a food truck?

I think in the future, you’ll be able to get great food from a vending machine or convenience store. We’re an on-the-go culture now, a convenience-based culture. Since we’re all on the move with very busy lives, I think we’re just going to see better food products in more convenient places.

To keep up on all the latest on Supermarket Superstar, follow Chris Cornyn on Twitter: @cornyn

And if you’d like to learn more about the business of food branding and positioning, check out his DINE Agency website: