Culinary Creativity

  • Culinary Creativity

    Feature Article, Spring 2010

Disciplined Innovation at Sterling-Rice Elevates the Food Industry

the Leeds School of Business at CU-BoulderPublished in Portfolio (magazine of Leeds School of Business at CU-Boulder)

CALL IT A HIP EMPLOYEE PERK or a showy piece of office decor, but the professional kitchen at Sterling-Rice Group’s Boulder headquarters is really a proving ground for marketable insights in the food industry. Sterling-Rice’s employee roster includes three full-time executives with culinary degrees … link to article at

Web Extra #1: Q&A – The Food Industry

Buddy Ketchner (MBA ’89, marketing; BS ’84, political science) spoke with Portfolio about the ways of the agency and the value of simplicity.

STERLING-RICE GROUP has worked with top food and beverage industry clients for 26 years, creating products that are now household names and often establishing entirely new revenue streams. General manager and managing partner Buddy Ketchner spoke with Portfolio about his firm’s connections with higher education, the tools of the trade, and the future of food. His thoughts are transcribed below:

Powerful ConnectionsKetchner speaks on the power of his firm’s ties with Leeds.
“There’s something very powerful that happens when you become close and have a collaboration with an academic institution. It’s a two-way street that really benefits both. For us, it keeps us pretty close to the theoretical nature of what’s happening in the business world and the marketing world. For the school, it keeps them very grounded in the realities of what’s happening for Fortune 50 and Fortune 100 companies. So when it’s done right, there’s really a powerful connection that happens.”

Art and ScienceKetchner explains that successful marketing requires discipline as well as creativity.
“Marketing is an art and a science. In the science part of it, there is a very deep operating discipline in how you market products—you have to be expert at that. That involves using all of the different tools that are available to you: understanding finance, accounting, sales, distribution, and research—you have to know all that. And then there’s the art side of it, which is how you make it come to life and make it resonant and relevant. And that’s where all the creativity comes in. When it’s done right, you’ve got to have both.”

Simple is HardKetchner responds to the question ‘When you come up with solutions for clients that seem almost too simple and obvious, do you have trouble justifying your fee?!’
“I think one of the fundamental truths of business is that simple is hard. And part of what we do is take very complex problems or opportunities and make them simple. And clarity is really valuable. So when you come up with an answer that’s so simple and so intuitive and so clear, it means you’ve done your job.”

Need for ConvenienceKetchner sees ‘science experiments’ replaced with simpler, more elemental foods.
“One of the things that has changed the world of food dramatically in the U.S. has been lifestyle pressures. And so all of a sudden, people are busier—more families where the husband and wife are both working. We’re more time constrained; we’re more stressed. Because of that there’s been a real need for convenience. As you move toward convenience that changes your food choices. I think that there was a time a number of years back where food in America was becoming a science experiment; where the labels were so long you couldn’t understand what you were eating. And you were losing your connection with food. One of the powerful things that I think is happening now—and you see it manifest in a lot of different places—is this move back toward something that is more elemental and more simple.”

Revaluing the Food Chain – Ketchner’s work with the almond and potato boards reconnects people to the source of their food.
“One of the reasons that I really like working with these agricultural boards is because, fundamentally, you are working for the growers. And I think food is phenomenally misunderstood in America: People have gotten so far away from where it comes from that in many ways they don’t value it. Example: In the U.S., we have the safest food supply in the world. We have the best food distribution system in the world. We have the most efficient food production system in the world. And so because we have plentiful, safe, inexpensive food, people have kind of forgot where it comes from. They think it comes from grocery stores. And actually it doesn’t. It comes from people who grow it and work hard. What I love about working for these agricultural boards is: what you’re really doing is re-valuing the food chain.”

Web Extra #2: Q&A – Recipe for Creativity

Portfolio: Why would a company use Sterling-Rice rather than developing new concepts in-house where they can keep it all under wraps?
Buddy Ketchner: You can come to one place where you can get the insights and strategy all the way through concept and into some form of usable concept—that’s a key step. Honestly, sometimes you’ve got to get out of your own place in order to get fresh ideas. You can come here and if you’re flying in from Chicago or New York, spend three days working on it and it gets you a break; it gives you a space where you can really be very creative.

P: How do you filter through all the noise and data out there to find real insights for your clients?
B: Anybody can make it more complicated. The problem you have in today’s world where there’s so much information and data is that people can analyze, be problem identifiers and problem confusers—they can sift through a sea of information but not make a decision. The business we’re in is taking very complicated problems (or really exciting opportunities) and providing clarity, focus, and direction to make something happen. Just like with Frontier Airlines—”A Whole Different Animal”—which was really simple and it was powerful because it was simple.

P: Do you know the Charles Mingus quote? “Making the simple complicated is commonplace. Making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”
B: What I like about what you’re doing is: You’re going to music and art to find a business truth. And it is a business truth. One of the problems of business is that it gets so convoluted that people can’t think their way through it.

P: What skills serve today’s business school graduates most once they get out into the real world of the food and beverage industry?
B: I think the rate of change that’s happening today—how the world has shifted in so many different ways—has made it imperative that students come out really prepared to deal with change. In order to do that, the techniques that are most effective are ones that get them to solve problems: to think, be flexible, and be curious.

P: What has changed the most about food today? Are cooking classes and farmer’s markets really on the rise?
B: People really want to cook again. There’s something very powerful about cooking, about understanding where your food comes from, about the functional experience of food which can be a lot slower. There’s a lot of cynicism out there about food, and maybe I’m just an optimist, but I see a lot of positive things happening: certainly the issues of health, nutrition, and dealing with obesity and diabetes. I think people want a different way of eating. Another interesting thing about food in America is that food is a lifestyle here—and it’s not so much in other places. We have Food Network, we have food magazines, there are people who watch the food channels who don’t cook! Food is entertainment.

P: You work with the potato and almond boards—how receptive are they to your ideas?
B: A lot of these folks—you think of them as being very conservative, but they’re actually not. They’re the ultimate risk takers. And they’re the ultimate risk takers because these farmers, they gamble on the weather, they gamble on input costs, they gamble on crop yields every single year. And so if you come to them and say: ‘Here’s a great idea and it’s supported by real data and it’s going to help move your business forward,’ they’re remarkably open to it. They’re not caught in bureaucracies.

P: You’ve been at Sterling-Rice 21 years. How has it changed?
B: As we’ve grown and continually innovated on what we’re doing, every three years we look like a different company. Our foundation’s always the same, grounded in our beliefs and values and culture—and things like our expertise in food—but how we do it continues to change. The fun part about it is we keep getting better. Having been here for a very long time, the company now is way better than the company when we started. And the company next year will be better than it is today. That is the continual innovation, growth, and invention that we have to do. At our core, we’re an innovation company.

P: The Sterling-Rice test kitchen is nicer than most of us have at home: do you ever think about hosting your Thanksgiving at the office?
B: Actually, we’ve had Thanksgiving dinner here for all of our employees almost since day one—back when there were only about ten of us. Last year we had over a hundred employees and 23 turkeys! It’s really about community values—a time to give thanks. We use the opportunity to bring our culture and our company together.

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