Annie’s Naturals (Re)Formula for Success
By Sarah Fister Gale
When Annie Christopher is intrigued by an idea, she has no qualms about dropping what she is doing to pursue it. That tenacity gave her the guts to quit being an artist in Soho to go to culinary school—and the audacity to throw her newly acquired skills in classic French cooking out the window to open a barbecue shack using her own homemade sauce.
It also gave her the vision and confidence to launch Annie’s Naturals, one of the premiere natural and organic sauce and salad dressing companies in the industry, which is famous for the original barbecue sauce that she cooked up in the kitchen of her 1813 Vermont farmhouse more than 20 years ago.
She crafted the all-natural sauce in 1983, and by 1984, Annie’s barbecue sauce had attracted a small following — including the Vermont Department of Agriculture, which invited her to be one of 40 companies at a food show in New York. It was at this show that a team from Bloomingdale’s discovered her and Bloomingdale’s would become her first large retailer. Demand for the sauce began to grow, and to increase supply she rented space at a local cooperative cannery and spent weekends cooking up sauce and packing it into Mason jars.
Today, production of the original sauce and 36 other products, which include all natural and organic salad dressings, vinaigrettes, marinades, mustards, ketchup and barbecue sauces, takes place on both coasts, in five food processing plants in Vermont, Maine, New Jersey, Oregon and California. Christopher still crafts all the recipes, chooses all the ingredients, and makes sure every batch is tasted for quality.
Annie’s Naturals, still headquartered in its original location in North Calais, Vermont, is the now the leading brand of salad dressings and condiments in the natural foods market. Annie’s dressing market share exceeds the combined market share of the top six competitive dressing brands and it has 13 of the top 20 best-selling salad dressings in natural foods, with its Goddess Dressing outselling almost every brand’s entire line of dressings.
Never one to be satisfied with the status quo however, Christopher set out on another mission two years ago: to take her popular “all natural” barbecue sauces, which included the original flavor and Maple BBQ, and convert them to organic.
In the mid-nineties she began producing organic products, beginning with the Organic No Fat Yogurt Dressing with Dill, and later the Organic Green Garlic (vinegar free) Dressing, Organic Sesame Ginger Dressing with Chamomile, and her Hot Chipotle BBQ sauce. Those were all original recipes, however, not reformulations. The barbecue sauces would be her first attempt to take a recognized popular brand and convert it, with the goal of creating the exact same flavor in a certified organic version.
“We saw a sales opportunity for organic barbecue sauce, and since ours had already been formulated and tested, and was well liked, we decided instead of creating a new recipe we’d reformulate the existing one.”
It may sound like an easy task— just replace all the original ingredients with organic ones—but the reformulation process of the barbecue recipes took more than a year and presented more than its fair share of hurdles. “It’s a lot harder to duplicate a recipe than to do something totally original,” she discovered. “It’s a lot of labor and not as much fun.”
She knew the biggest risk in reformulating popular non-organic recipes was one of the same reasons to do it in the first place—the sauces already had a loyal following with tremendous product recognition.
That consumer loyalty meant people would know the brand and be excited to see an organic label on an old favorite, but it also meant consumers had a preconceived notion of what the products should taste like. “If you are going to reformulate a recipe, you’ve got to get as close to the original taste profile as possible,” she says.
Unlike a new recipe that people are willing to try and consider on its own merits, a reformulation has big shoes to fill. Consumers expect the product to look, feel and taste exactly like the original. If it doesn’t meet those expectations, even if it is a great product, the product will fail.
What Do You Mean You Can’t Get It?
Over the course of the year it took to reformulate the two barbecue sauces, Christopher and her team tasted hundreds of individual ingredients and produced at least 25 different trial batches for each recipe before they found the one that best duplicated the original flavors.
“It’s not a science. You have to rely on your own senses and taste palate to tell you what’s right and what’s wrong,” she says of the process. “It’s a lot of trial and error.”
But believing you can achieve an identical taste profile in an organic recipe is only the beginning. Before you can make the decision to convert a natural recipe to organic, you have to be sure it can be done, and that means being sure every ingredient can be duplicated, both in quality and quantity.
“The hardest part,” she says, “was getting the raw materials. Even as recently as last year, sourcing organic ingredients was still a major issue.”
When Christopher first decided to make the transition to organic, she met with several vendors for each ingredient, going to great lengths to determine, not only whether they met her taste, sanitation and consistency standards, but also whether they could meet her supply needs. “Even if they say they have what you need, they might not,” she says. She learned that lesson the hard way when a supplier of organic papaya, for the organic Papaya Poppy Seed dressing, swore he had access to tons of the ingredient. “When it came down to meeting demand, it wasn’t available.”
She admits that there is no way to guarantee supply of any ingredient. Weather, demand from the industry, and in the case of the papaya, security bottlenecks for ingredients coming from other countries, can all stymie delivery of materials. “It doesn’t happen often but it does happen,” she says. To offset that risk, Christopher contracts for any high risk ingredients, such as tomato paste, that she relies on for her organic recipes.
Does This Taste Funny to You?
Once she determined that a vendor was reasonably able to meet her quantity demands, she made sure the quality was there as well. “You can’t assume an ingredient will work just because it’s organic,” she says. “You have to get samples.” Not only can quality and freshness alter an ingredient’s taste, it is largely influenced by the region where it is grown, as well as the way in which it is manufactured.
She tested each ingredient for taste, color, texture, consistency, and how they interacted with other ingredients. The spices were the trickiest to match, she says. “Spice blends can really fluctuate, especially when you work with peppers. The heat of a cayenne varies a lot.” She was constantly seeking the balance between flavors that were too hot and too flat.
When sourcing spices and any other ingredients, sanitation and food safety was also a big concern. Because they are organic and can’t be fumigated or irradiated, making sure spices are clean and free of contaminants was high on her priority list. From every vendor she requires a certificate of analysis (COA), which validates and documents that a product lot has been tested and delivers plate counts for the presence of coliforms, yeasts and molds, and pathogens such as Salmonella and E. coli. Christopher worked with a certified food lab in New England to define appropriate standards for plate counts on spices that can be deemed acceptable. “Herbs and spices and sun dried tomatoes are the biggest carriers of contaminants,” she says. “When you are making a product that may not be cooked by the consumer, you have to be sure your ingredients are clean.”
She worked with countless test batches, using a great number of spice samples, sweeteners and thickeners to find the perfect mix of ingredients, tastes and textures. And Christopher didn’t limit her taste tests to raw ingredients. She prepared them in full batches to see what would happen when they were cooked and mixed with other ingredients. “When you heat an ingredient it changes its dynamic,” she points out. She also allowed the product to age to see if taste and texture changed over time and that it didn’t leave any unintended aftertastes.
Color was also a consideration, although not always deal-breaker. Christopher found a tomato paste that tasted great but had a bold orangey color. “It was different and unexpected, but we liked it,” she says. For her, the consistency and taste of the paste was more important.
She also considered swapping out ingredients for others that served the same purpose, with mixed results. For example, she had wanted to use organic sugar in the recipe, but found that it completely changed the flavor profile, so instead she used organic brown rice syrup, which is the ingredient used in the original recipe.
Other challenging ingredients included wood smoke and Worcestershire sauce. The all natural sauces use a natural non-carcinogenic wood smoke that they initially thought would be tricky to find in an organic version. Fortunately, they found a niche provider of a natural smoke that, while not organic, is approved for use in organic products.
The Worcestershire sauce was not as easy a problem to solve. The original recipes all call for natural Worcestershire but Christopher needed an organic source to meet organic certification standards. Locating a source wasn’t difficult, but finding a Worstershire sauce that resembled the flavor profile and make-up of the original proved a greater challenge.
Instead of going on a quest for the perfect organic Worcestershire, she used her own formula, matching the flavor profile she wanted to achieve, using her own organic Worstershire recipe, which includes soy sauce.
She doesn’t premake the organic Worcestershire, rather she adds all of the ingredients directly into the barbecue sauce batches, saving her team the trouble of making and storing a separate product.
Because the use of her own Worstershire meant the addition of soy sauce, which contains gluten, it made the product off-limits for those with celiac disease and gluten intolerance. Because Annie’s has always catered to customers with such needs and has long developed products suitable for special diets, Christopher continued working to find a suitable gluten-free alternative that closely resembles the original versions in flavor. Happily, she recently succeeded, using a wheat-free tamari to replace the soy sauce.
Finally, duplicating the original texture and thickness was a challenge. When you are using organic ingredients that don’t have unnatural thickeners and other byproducts in them, they can be thinner or lighter than conventional ones. Annie’s natural barbeque sauces have a very specific mouthfeel, and maintaining that texture in the organic sauces was a very important part of reformulating. That meant tweaking the quantity of ingredients in each batch and balancing them with other organic ingredients to achieve the perfect texture.
It Costs How Much?
Finally the product had to be reasonably priced. “If the ingredients cost three times more, then you can’t do it.”
These days, when she considers another reformulation to organic, she goes through the same evaluation process, making sure ingredients are readily available and reasonably priced. She identifies the most expensive or difficult-to-get ingredient, including oils, soy sauce and tamari, and finds out first whether those can be supplied consistently and cost-effectively because in her experience, the answer isn’t always yes. In fact, the extremely high cost and low availability of organic raspberry concentrate made the organic reformulation of Annie’s popular Raspberry Vinaigrette unrealistic. “Raspberries are so fragile and susceptible to mold the window to use them is just too short.”
Other recipes have been easier to source and formulate. Annie’s now offers 23 organic products, including the Worcestershire and barbecue sauces, ketchup, several mustards, four marinades, and nine salad dressings. The organic recipes will keep coming, Christopher says, but only when they are ready. “Part of the process is to make a batch, taste it, then let it rest for a week or two. You do a disservice to any product formulation if it’s rushed.”
Sarah Fister Gale is the editor of Organic Processing Magazine. She can be reached at email@example.com.