Starting from Scratch

October 20, 2005

When FONA International Inc. (Geneva, IL) decided in 1999 to upgrade its corporate headquarters and research and development facility in Carol Stream, IL, the company had big plans. FONA’s plans were so big, in fact, that the site of its original facility was too small. Hoping to find a new location that could accommodate all of the upgrade’s planned improvements, FONA vice president of operations Terry Emmel reviewed 180 different buildings. About a third of the way into the process, he concluded that FONA would need to create the new building from scratch.

 

When FONA International Inc. (Geneva, IL) decided in 1999 to upgrade its corporate headquarters and research and development facility in Carol Stream, IL, the company had big plans. FONA’s plans were so big, in fact, that the site of its original facility was too small. Hoping to find a new location that could accommodate all of the upgrade’s planned improvements, FONA vice president of operations Terry Emmel reviewed 180 different buildings. About a third of the way into the process, he concluded that FONA would need to create the new building from scratch.

The new facility, designed by Heitman Architects Inc. (Itasca, IL), encompasses 82,000 sq ft of space and resides on 23 acres of land. In addition to corporate office space, the new site also houses eight fully equipped flavor development laboratories, a full-scale pilot plant, two labs for sweet applications, an area set aside for savory applications, and separate manufacturing areas for liquid compounds, powder blending, reaction technology, and spray drying. A 325-seat auditorium, also located on-site, provides space for visitors to attend Flavor University seminars on product development.

Although the company had several unique requirements for the facility, it settled on one main theme. “We did not want to have contaminating odors,” Emmel says. Odor control is actually a paramount feature of the new facility, which employs a combination of high ceilings, abundant glass, and 29 rooftop air-handling systems to control aromas.

FONA even has a mantra that reflects its approach to purity. “We’re pretty convinced that the solution to pollution is dilution,” Emmel says.

BALANCING ACT

The new site’s design attempts to balance aesthetics and function. In keeping with the surrounding landscape, the building incorporates Midwest prairie colors and architecture. Copious amounts of glass and wide ceilings are intended to create a feeling of open space for employees, whose cubicles are also lined with glass. The glass enables workers to see the grounds outside, which are landscaped with native prairie grass and decorated with two filtered retention ponds that capture rain runoff. But the design also helps eliminate unwanted contaminants and scents that can interfere with product development.

“Glass and sunlight have a purifying effect that oxidizes odor and aromas,” Emmel says, adding that the carpets are fitted with roughly textured carpeting that helps ensure that workers and visitors don’t track in contaminants from outside. Air locks fitted between product and product-free zones are another anticontamination feature. All of these measures enable FONA’s research labs to be located in a central location right in the middle of the building’s two front entrances.

Vanilla is Back in the Mix

 

 

Vanilla is the world’s favorite flavor. Unfortunately, once it was also one of the most expensive. Five years ago, production problems coupled with widespread speculation drove prices as high as $500 per kilo. Recently, new sources and reduced demand have pushed prices down, making vanilla a viable option for product developers.

Whether vanilla will appear in more products is the million-dollar question. When vanilla prices rose, cost-conscious companies switched to other flavors or lower-priced synthetic vanillin. Rick Brownell, vice president of vanilla products for Virginia Dare (Brooklyn, NY) says formulators are understandably reluctant to switch back.

“The crisis is officially over, but whether vanilla will move back into products is another question,” he says. “What we do know is that another price increase will not happen in the foreseeable future.”

Large crops from Madagascar, Uganda, and Papua New Guinea will ensure long-term stability, and new crops from Costa Rica, China, and India will soon add to supplies. In fact, India reported an 80-metric-ton harvest in 2004–2005, a 50% increase over the previous season.

Brownell sees a particularly bright future for Papua New Guinea. “Vanilla there may eclipse Indonesia,” he explains. “The beans are high quality, and at $23.50 per gallon, the vanilla is less expensive.”

 

Other design features of the building include energy-efficient lighting systems that are expected to pay for themselves in three years, modular furniture that is easily removable, and about five miles of conduits and plumbing under the floors to reduce clutter.

The product development laboratories also have open, high ceilings that allow for plenty of sunlight. Near the entry point to the labs is the Hall of Flavors, which is illuminated with effect lighting and illustrated with graphics of natural food products and a timeline of FONA history. “The Hall of Flavors is the showpiece of our building,” Emmel says.

BIG PLAN ON CAMPUS

FONA personnel describe the new site as a campus rather than a headquarters and product development facility. As the home of the company’s Flavor University, the site promises to be a source of information for visitors as well as employees. “The design doesn’t look like a corporate office or complex,” Emmel explains. “It looks like an institute of higher learning. This is a place where people come to learn about flavors.”

Flavor University classes, which meet three times in the fall and three times in the spring in the on-site auditorium, cover a range of product development subjects. Topics discussed in the Flavor 101 seminar, for instance, include flavor creation, application interaction, descriptors, flavor analysis, trends, labeling, and quality assurance. FONA’s Savory Flavor 201 seminar explains how to use savory flavors to develop products under short time frames.

Although FONA uses the auditorium to host Flavor University classes, the company also plans to offer it as a resource for outside community groups and organizations. Controls for the auditorium are automated and include motorized screens on the windows and touch screen controls for the lights, screens, videos, and speakers.

MORE IMPROVEMENTS PLANNED

The new building, which is only the first of three planned buildings on the campus, is a significant improvement over the old Carol Stream facility, according to Emmel, who notes that the Carol Stream plant suffered from background aromas and a lack of space. “The ability to spread out in the lab was an important feature,” Emmel says. “We also wanted to make sure we had a dedicated area for customer and community involvement.”

Another benefit of the new campus is its location in Geneva. Although Geneva is only a few miles away from Carol Stream, it is situated in a food-friendly industrial park adjacent to the DuPage Airport. “Geneva has been very helpful and positive,” Emmel says. “We can see that we are in an emerging area here. We can expand right here and we don’t need to relocate.”

Joe Slawek, president and founder of FONA, notes that enthusiasm about the new campus among employees is high. “All of us are extremely excited about our move to Geneva,” Slawek says. “The building has been designed and planned to provide a world-class working environment for our customers and our employees.”

Exotic Tastes Add Spice to Flavor Market

 

 

Two of the hottest new flavor trends are spicy and tropical. According to flavor specialists at FONA International Inc. (Geneva, IL) and Nutrinova Inc. (Somerset, NJ), demand for flavors from faraway places are on the rise.

“Many of the newer flavors that we have worked on are exotic or tropical fruit flavors and flavors geared toward Hispanic consumers,” says Bill Riha, PhD, head of technical and regulatory affairs at Nutrinova. “In general, beverages made with these flavors are very sweet and would contain many calories if sweetened with nutritive sweeteners. Therefore, our customers are asking us to provide sweetening systems for no-sugar-added or sugar-reduced products.”

Similarly, FONA reports seeing more requests for Hispanic fruit and chili combinations. FONA also notes increasing demand for organic-suitable flavors, true-to-fruit profiles, and premium flavors such as kaffir lime and Meyer lemon. Riha adds that another trend that Nutrinova is aware of aside from exotic flavors is the refinement of traditional flavors. For example, the company has worked on a sugar-free ginger ale that contained real ginger juice and was sweetened with a blend of Sunett, sucralose, and neotame. “This three-way blend offered an excellent sweetness profile for this unique beverage that incorporates a functional ingredient into a traditional product,” Riha says.