Some of the products Blue Diamond Growers’ Research & Development Director Mike Stoddard created in the three-plus decades he worked with Blue Diamond Growers line grocery store shelves in the United States and abroad.
When Mike Stoddard went to work for California-based Blue Diamond Growers almond production in the Golden State was a mere 327 million pounds and the “can-a-week” slogan wasn’t on the radar.
While Blue Diamond does not publish numbers such as total grower production, the 103-year-old cooperative itself is likely producing more almonds today than the entire California industry was when Stoddard started in the company’s quality control department nearly 34 years ago.
Stoddard retired at the end of January after 33-plus years with Blue Diamond. His legacy with the company continues with products lining grocery store shelves from the snack aisle to the dairy case. Likely the most significant creation of his tenure with the company isn’t stored in a can, but in a carton.
“I developed the formulas for Almond Breeze in 1998,” Stoddard said.
More than a dozen years later Almond Breeze is on store shelves and in dairy cases in aseptic and refrigerated packaging across the United States and in various countries around the globe. It was launched last fall in Japan with the goal of becoming a $200 million-per-year business there by 2020.
Almond Breeze is in a milk substitute product category all its own. While others over the years have tried on a small scale to develop almond milk, none of those minor ventures succeeded. Today the category that Blue Diamond started and successfully marketed is now ahead of soy beverages in terms of market share and value.
“The concept of almond milk has been around since the beginning of time,” said Stoddard.
Developing the formula consumers have today took about a year of testing and hard work, according to Stoddard. Part of that work went into developing different flavors with regional appeal as the product went global.
“It was an idea kicking around Blue Diamond for years” he continued. “The marketing department was keen on it, as was one particular board member. So we attempted at coming up with a product and we were successful in doing it.”
The issue went beyond filling a food processor with almonds and grinding them into a pulp with a liquid byproduct. Issues of flavor and the pulp had to be dealt with. The outcome was a creamy product where pulp and texture are not evident.
“The old home recipe for almond milk is to grind blanched almonds in a blender then filter them through cheese cloth to take out the insoluble fibers,” he said.
The process Blue Diamond uses does not result with insoluble fibers that must be filtered.
“The almond form that we chose works very well for us,” he continued. “We grind up the almond very small. We don’t have to filter out any of the fiber as you do in making soy milk.”
Stoddard achieved this without the benefit of Blue Diamond’s newly-dedicated Almond Innovation Center, which opened in March, 2013. The center allows the company to develop new products for testing without the need to shut down an expensive commercial production line to develop test samples. The Almond Innovation Center includes modern kitchen equipment and small-scale packaging equipment that mimics the commercial packaging lines.
Stoddard’s original plan with Almond Breeze was the niche health foods markets.
“The original target for me was rice milk,” he said.